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Peace in the home remains evasive

While there is growing awareness in gender- based violence in Africa, women in Zimbabwe continue bearing the enormous burden of domestic violence, as measures to combat it remain inadequate and ineffective.
Rodrick Mukumbira

In 2001 alone, 22 women were reported to have committed offences against men compared to the 181, or eight times as many men reported to have done the same against women in northern Zimbabwe.

Figures gathered by the police forces in the same year show that in Southern Zimbabwe, 41 women were reported to have committed crimes against men while 214 men had done the same against women.

The same trend is evident in central Zimbabwe where 98 women committed crimes against men as opposed to an alarming 855 men who did the same against women. The statistics from around the country are so frightening and they clearly show that while Zimbabwe has made great strides in safeguarding the institution of marriage, there is however no peace in the homes. No statistics have been released for the current year but according to the police, they are likely to be higher. Even the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) admits that it will be a long way before gender violence is completely eliminated. The awareness is there but what is lacking are the disciples.

"We are faced with a mammoth task," ZRP Press and Public Relations officer, Andrew Phiri told AFRICANEWS. "As law enforcement agents we want to ensure that whoever commits an offence is brought to book."

Part of the challenge the police forces face is how they respond to cases of domestic violence. Women have reported in the past, when they sought assistance from the police they were told to go back home and handle the "domestic dispute" within the family. This discourages women from seeking help at police stations.

Another area needing attention is how the term "crime" is interpreted. In many cases police will only react where there has been physical or sexual assault, and will be at a loss as to how to manage emotional and psychological trauma.

"There is no doubt that we need to put in place laws to protect women from violence within the homes," says Sylvia Chirawu, National Co-ordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), a research and educational trust that has a specialist interest in gender based crimes.

"Of equal importance is making sure that the laws, once enacted are implemented. At the moment women can get peace orders, but do they really work? Women still get beaten, have to hide in the closet or jump out of the window. Homes are not safe," explains Chirawu.

WLSA has been part of a group of women's rights groups that have put a draft Bill on Domestic Violence before the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. If approved, the Act could be one way of ensuring that women and girls are safer within their homes.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the 1979 Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires all states that have signed it to "commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms". But because the international agreement, like so many other women's human rights instruments, has not been incorporated into domestic legislation, it remains worth less than the paper it has been signed on.

"Socialisation plays an important part in educating our communities that domestic violence is just not acceptable," says Sheila Mahere, Director of Musasa Project.

Musasa provides a temporary shelter service to women survivors of violence and their children. Their support also includes a counselling facility for couples in violent relationships.

"Our patriarchal societies teach girls and women that there is nothing wrong with being beaten up by your husband or partner. In some cases wife beating is seen as a sign of love. Women are taught to endure and to suffer through abusive relationships. We can start changing that attitude by sending very clear signals that wife or husband battering is unacceptable," says Mahere.

With 80 to 85 per cent of the country's 12.5 million people reported to belong to some sort of faith-based institution, Zimbabwe's opportunity for re-socialisation may exist within the churches or through traditional leaders.

"The church can be a catalyst for changes in attitude and behaviour", says Thenjiwe Sibanda, a female reverend with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. "The marriage vows at the altar say till death do us part and this has been interpreted to mean if your husband beats you up, you must pray and stay in the relationship, yet the bible is very clear about building peaceful, loving relationships."

"No one really knows exactly how much an act of violence against a woman costs but there is a price tag, not just to the victim, but also to the government and to all of society, " explains Susie Baird, the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network's (ZWRCN) Programme Director for Advocacy and Community Action.

"For instance, police have to be called in to deal with the crime, that costs money. Hospitals and health care workers have to handle any matter needing medical attention, give drugs. Parliament has to spend time drawing up the relevant legislation and the courts and jails enforcing it. So while on the surface of things it looks as if gender based violence costs nothing, it does add up and swallows money that could be going elsewhere," she says.

"There is a strong economic argument for making sure we reduce and ultimately end gender based violence because where men and women fight, they don't go to work and that results in a loss of productivity, which has an impact on any nation's GDP," explains Baird. "If they go to jail, the state has to pay for that".

Closely linked to this is the need for countries to ensure that women have equal access to education and opportunities that allow economic empowerment, be it through formal or informal sector paid work. Some studies have shown that where women have independent pay cheques and security of employment, they are less likely to stay in abusive relationships because they are able to fend for their own and their children's needs.

Independent research in Canada has shown that an estimated C$ 4 billion a year goes towards managing gender based violence. American companies have reported that they lost anything between US $ 3-5 billion in profit from women and men who missed work because of gender based violence. What price is Africa paying? Especially given the very high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates on the continent.

"Eliminating women's economic subordination, taking urgent measures to prevent and deal with the increasing levels of violence against women and children and repealing and reforming all laws, amending constitutions and changing social practices which will still subject women to discrimination, and enacting empowering gender-sensitive laws," are all things the heads of states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) committed themselves to doing by signing the Gender and Development Declaration in 1997 and its amendment in 1998, but progress has been slow and in some cases very little has changed.

"The challenge is to come up with ways of implementing," says Zimbabwe's Director of Gender in the Ministry of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation Rachel Simbabure. "Only then will we feel the difference."

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