Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Breaking the Silence about Gender-based Abuses in Zimbabwe

Mercedes Sayagues

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 3 2003 (IPS) - During the day, she hid in farms. At night, she slept in the bush or with goats in kraals.

Plaxedes, a polling agent for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was hiding from the Green Bombers, Zimbabwe’s feared militia. When they found her, they beat her up. They made her crawl until her knee bones showed through torn flesh.

Then, three men frog-marched her to a well-known torture base on the foothills. There, they raped her several times. Her voice breaks as she tells what happened next: "They built a big fire and burnt me with red hot metal wires in my private parts."

Plaxedes and other Zimbabwean women raped by militia tell their stories in a powerful movie documentary premiered this week at Wits University in Johannesburg with a panel discussion afterwards.

The event kick-started a drive by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) to break the silence in South Africa about massive gender-based human rights abuses – gang rape and sexual torture, in simple words – taking place in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"We must push our human rights institutions and academics to make a stand about what is happening in Zimbabwe," said Sheila Meintes, a member of South Africa’s Commission on Gender Equality and a lecturer in political studies at Wits University.

Zimbabwe has been in violent political turmoil since parliamentary elections in 2000 threatened the 20-year-old monopoly on power of ruling party ZANU-PF. The government retaliated with increasing repression and militarisation.

Rights groups have documented gross human rights abuses, systematic torture and the emergence of a state-sponsored youth militia who terrorise the population with impunity.

In the violent run-up to last week’s by-elections in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, tales of brutal sexual abuse emerged after the army, police and militia swooped into townships. Two women were raped with rifle barrels. Middle-aged women were raped along their elderly mothers. Patrons in nightclubs were forced to have unprotected sex with each other at gunpoint. Their stories recall Plaxedes’ but in an urban setting.

Such reports point to a new pattern of sexual violence.

During 2000 and early 2001, rights watchdogs like Amnesty International, Danish Physicians for Human Rights and others reported widespread torture of opposition supporters. About 40 percent of these were women. They were beaten up, stripped naked, taunted and humiliated, but few cases of rape and sexual abuse were reported.

After May-June 2001, the rape and sexual torture of women become more prevalent and brutal. Usually it happens in front of family and neighbours. As a result, the whole community experiences psychological torture.

"Militia tear the social fabric," said Tony Reeler, regional human rights defender with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa

Elders are humiliated, adults beaten up and tortured, and women raped in front of husbands, parents, children and neighbours.

One woman in the movie was raped in front of her gagged, blind husband. A few days later, the militia set their hut on fire, tying a wire around it to prevent escape. She cut it with pliers and the family fled amidst flames and smoke but the husband fell into the well and drowned.

"The humiliation, pain and terror inflicted by the rapist is meant to degrade not just the individual woman but also strip the humanity from the larger group of which she is part," said a Human Rights Watch Report on sexual violence during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The reports from Zimbabwe point to the use of sexual violence against women as part of a planned programme as in Bosnia or Rwanda, said Reeler.

Broadly, civil war breeds four kinds of rape. One is genocidal, as in the Balkans, where the intention is to destroy an ethnic or political group.

Political rape punishes individuals, families or communities who hold different political views and creates fear among them. Opportunistic rape happens when militia runs out of control, assured of impunity.

Forced concubinage involves young girls conscripted to wash, cook, and act as porter and have sex. This was frequent among Renamo rebels during Mozambique’s 17-year-old civil war and is on the rise in Zimbabwe since June 2000, when the Green Bombers became embedded in communities.

The last three forms of rape are found in Zimbabwe

"This abuse of women is reproduced in every conflict," said Meintes.

Human Rights Watch confirms this. "Throughout the world, sexual violence is routinely directed at females during situations of armed conflict."

What is new in the last decade is the move to criminalise the use of rape as a war weapon. Zimbabwe could become the next historic case. Already the International Bar Association has called for the prosecution of President Robert Mugabe for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.

In a landmark decision not to ignore rape as a war crime, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will prosecute rapists. The Rwanda Tribunal is explicitly empowered to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

International law condemns rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 do so and were later strengthened by Protocol II, which extends protection to victims of rape, enforced prostitution or indecent assault during conflict.

One problem is that many women tend to keep rape and sexual violence secret out of economic and social vulnerability, stigma, shame and fear.

In Zimbabwe, raped women are like Plaxedes, the most vulnerable, the poorest, uneducated and unemployed. "Their chance of demanding their rights is zero," said Reeler.

Plaxedes had to flee the area. Her mother looks after her small children. "When this changes, you will recover your children," said the mother.

Tina Sideris, a South African researcher and activist on gender-based violence, and founder of Masiskumeni, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Mpulanga province, worries about the consequences of widespread women abuse in post-conflict reconstruction.

"Post-conflict programmes don’t deal with gender issues," she says,

These range from providing support to thousands of rape survivors to helping demobilised soldiers and guerrillas who take home their wartime violent attitudes as baggage.

In war, many men lose, through attacks, destitution and displacement, their sense of being family providers. Others, as soldiers, guerrillas or militia, lose their sense of responsibility to family and community.

Sideris wonders if these factors result in an increase in domestic violence once the conflict is over and points to the inability of institutions to deal with gender changes during and after conflict.

Sideris is equally concerned by South Africa’s silence about its neighbour. "I hear more discussions about Iraq than Zimbabwe, about the rape of women in Bosnia than the rape of women in Mozambique and Zimbabwe," she says.

Rounding up the discussion, said Sheila Meintes: "The pen is mighty than the sword. Academics can write papers, letters to newspapers and to politicians. Let’s start right now."

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