social commentary:with Moses Mugugunyeki
At the age of 14, Miriam Zhou (name protected) was married off to her late sister’s husband through a traditional custom known as chimutsamapfuwa.
Now aged 21, Zhou is already a divorced mother of two having endured a seven-year abusive marriage.
Her then 35-year-old husband had turned her into a punching bag, which compelled her to run away from her rural home in Muzarabani to look for a job in Harare, more than 250km away.
Seeking intermediation from her relatives, especially her aunt who lived a stone’s throw away, did not help matters.
“I was forced to marry this man as a ‘replacement’ of my sister who had died. I was just 13,” Zhou, now a vendor in Chitungwiza, said.
“I told my mother that I was being beaten on a daily basis, but she could not do anything because she feared my father, who used to assault her as well.
“My aunt, who facilitated the marriage, was adamant and did not listen to me. Instead she would encourage these assaults.”
Zhou said in her community, assaulting a spouse is so common that it appears to be an acceptable form of chastising women.
According to UN Women, in Zimbabwe about one in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
While Zhou did not specifically give reasons why her husband assaulted her, she feels it was something to do with economic insecurity and poverty-related pressure.
“My husband was not employed and neither did he fend for the family. I was the one who was doing part-time jobs in order to get us some food,” Zhou said.
Apart from physical abuse, Zhou also suffered emotional mistreatment as well as sexual coercion by her partner.
Her predicament is faced by a number of girls and women in Zimbabwe, who have not been protected by the law and whose fundamental civil liberties have been violated because of traditional practices and norms.
Zimbabwe, just like any African country, is riddled with traditional practices, rituals and attitudes which perpetuate the discrimination and infringement of women’s fundamental civil liberties.
Although gender sensitisation workshops with traditional authority structures have been done in the country with the aim of transforming rural communities to be more sensitive to women’s economic and social rights, and gender equality and equity issues, women continue to suffer at the hands of harmful traditional and cultural practices.
According to the UNFPA’s flagship 2020 State of World Population report, released in June, globally, the number of girls and women affected by harmful practices is staggering — and even, in some cases, growing. One in five marriages today involves a child bride.
The report examines the origin and extent of harmful practices around the world, and what must be done to stop them.
Zimbabwe has ratified various international conventions and declarations on gender equality in its effort to create an enabling environment for the attainment of equity and equality between women and men.
These include the 1979 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Sadc Gender and Development Declaration (1997), among many others.
Locally, a plethora of legislative instruments and policies aimed at guaranteeing women’s legal and constitutional rights have been put in place, which are offshoots of the 2013 constitution, regarded as “gender-sensitive”.
Section 52 of the constitution says every citizen has a right to personal security and bodily integrity, while Section 78 is on marriage rights.
It provides that every person who has attained the age of 18 years has a right to found a family and that no person can be compelled to enter into a marriage against their will.
Despite these efforts to bring about gender awareness at various levels in communities, customary law has been allowed to prevail over legislative instruments, leaving women vulnerable to harmful traditional and cultural practices.
Zhou said she could not proceed to secondary school despite having passed Grade 7 with flying colours.
“My father opted to send my brother to school. I had to stay home for almost a year before I was married off,” she said.
“I wanted to be a nurse had I completed secondary school, but my father thought otherwise. When I came to Harare I wanted to work and pay for my studies, but I could not get a decent job.
“I haven’t returned home because I fear my uncle and aunt. “My husband is now late, but my disappearance from the village did not go down well with my family,” Zhou said.
She said if she had been allowed to proceed with her education, she would have had a better life and better choices.
Women’s rights activist and founder of Tag a Life International Nyaradzo Mashayamombe said a number of women were not aware of the legal system.
“Most women lack information, education and access to the legal system. As a women’s rights organisation, we are going to the grassroots with the hope of transforming communities to be more sensitive to women’s economic and social rights,” said Mashayamombe.
As a way of creating an “enabling” terrain for community patriarchal structures to be more receptive to gender equality and equity issues, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) is working in collaboration with civil society and government departments.
“We are raising awareness on GBV through the media as well as doing referrals of complaints to service providers,” said ZGC CEO Virginia Muwanigwa.
“The commission also liaises with the police for speedy responses to GBV cases.”
Musasa Project executive director Precious Taru said her organisation had cast its net wider, reaching out even to marginalised communities across the country.
“We have been doing awareness campaigns in most hard-to-reach areas, especially providing mobile one-stop centre facilities. “These include counselling, clinical, protection services from the victim friendly unit as well as legal services,” Taru said.
“All Musasa Project rural shelters are open and providing services to survivors of violence.”
Taru said the organisation was also offering shuttle services to survivors, who need transport to access GBV services in light of public transport and logistical challenges.
While urban areas have their fair share of GBV, it is in rural areas that women and girls have experienced demeaning acts of abuse at the hands of their family members and partners.
According to Harare-based sociologist Yotamu Chirwa, some communities clearly idolise violence by men on women.
“The belief that men are superior to women further emboldens GBV. Societies with such beliefs think that women are lesser species that can be abused at will,” said Chirwa.