Women fall victim to ZANU-PF militia
More than a month after Zimbabwe's presidential election, Tendai Chigumira still sobs when she recounts how pro-government militia, campaigning for the aged Robert Mugabe, raped her after a nocturnal binge in Bulawayo's Nketa suburb.
She repeatedly bursts into tears as she narrates how eight men raped and assaulted her. The men were members of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)'s militia, trained under a programme meant to create employment. The militia set up bases at government schools and community halls in the city while the presidential campaign reached its peak.
Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second-largest city and a capital of the Ndebele people, who dominate the southern part of the country. The Ndebele have maintained a tradition of supporting opposition parties.
Mugabe, 78, won the election, but Morgan Tsvangirai, 48, the candidate for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), refuses to accept defeat and describes the outcome as "the greatest electoral fraud in history."
"If only someone can explain how raping someone would enhance a party's chances of winning an election so I could understand," says Chigumira. "I didn't do anything wrong, I don't support either of the two major parties. For these youths to do this to someone old enough to be their mother is unthinkable."
She says the eight young men accosted her when she was coming home from drinking beer and forced her to accompany them to their base, where they held all-night rallies. "A sizeable number of young girls and women were also present," Chigumira recalls.
"I decided to leave after some time of forced singing and dancing," she says. "Nobody stopped me and I thought all was well."
"But as I wandered into the darkness, I heard one of them asking me why I had decided to leave so early," Chigumira narrates. "He touched my bum and then they started molesting me and took turns to rape me."
Chigumira still hasn't reported the incident to police or her family because of the cultural stigma associated with rape. "Because I drink alcohol, they would all have said I invited it," she explains.
While the militia program is officially an employment creation venture, its results are causing untold suffering to opposition MDC supporters.
The Federation of African Media Women in Zimbabwe (FAMWZ) is facilitating discussions on the plight of women severely affected by political violence, and how perpetrators of this violence can be brought to justice. It is also setting up a platform through various women's organisations to allow women affected by political violence to speak out.
Abigail Gamanya, director of FAMWZ, reports that many women have been battered and have watched their husbands, partners, and children being beaten and tortured, their property destroyed or confiscated.
Gamanya says it is sad that women and children suffer the most in conflict situations, and urged women to be educated, and speak out, on issues such as rape. She says institutions - such as the police - that are supposed to be "victim-friendly" have not dealt fairly with such cases.
The perpetrators of these crimes have largely been youth brigade members and war veterans who brought independence to Zimbabwe from Britain in 1980.
Cultural stigmas concerning rape have silenced women, many of whom will never tell their stories, says Janah Ncube of the Women's Coalition, a group of women's non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The impact of sexual violence will haunt these women forever, especially given the high levels of HIV/AIDS, she says. More than 2,000 people in Zimbabwe die every week from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
Ncube says the coalition travelled around the country with election observers during the campaign period, and was shocked to find used condoms strewn around a ZANU-PF supporters' base in the city.
"This explains the gravity of the situation that we have on our hands and the urgent need for such issues to be addressed on a national platform," said Isabella Matambanadzo, director of the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre Network, an NGO that provides legal assistance to women.
She says her organisation has received shocking reports of how women were raped, harassed, and tortured at the political bases. "We know that the camps are a place of sexual violation of women and the girl-child the world over," she says.
The persecution of supporters of the opposition MDC continues in the wake of Mugabe's disputed election victory, with women being affected the worst.
Francis Lovemore, the medical director of Amani Trust, says: "There's a witch-hunt for people who voted MDC. Whole villages are on the run - one community of about 3,000 people is unable to remain at home.
"Sexual acts are being used as a form of torture," he adds. "This is actually something we have seen increasingly since the 2000 constitutional referendum that marked the beginning of farm invasions.
"With the invasions came a class of war veterans who found young girls and women to relieve themselves sexually in their "camps," explains Lovemore. "This has continued and gave birth to the youth camps of the recent presidential election where girls are used to cook, clean, and provide sexual relief."
Just after the elections, members of the ZANU-PF militia murdered Fortune Mahuni after he protested against his two daughters being forcibly kept as sex slaves at a base in the town of Kwekwe, located in the centre of Zimbabwe.
The opposition MDC says it has documented over 50 cases of gang rape by ZANU-PF youth.
"The number of victims is more than this as some people have not reported sexual molestation and rape they experienced at the hands of ZANU-PF militia," says Blessing Chebundo, MDC's shadow Minister of Health. In one incident, these youth gang-raped an elderly woman and her daughter-in-law in a suburb in Bulawayo.
"It is the responsibility of the ZANU-PF government to protect people who are vulnerable and to ensure that the rights of children are protected and respected," says Chebundo.
The militia is a product of a national youth service program that the government launched last April under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation.
Officially, the exercise aims to prepare school leavers between 15 and 30 years of age for professional life after school by instilling in them discipline, a sense of patriotism, and responsibility.
The government has dismissed allegations that the product of this programme is a pro-government militia. It does not dispute the fact that there are militia camps strewn across the country. It says there is nothing wrong with the program and that the opposition MDC and its supporters are making up the alleged atrocities.
The youth members undergo some military training. Analysts fear that Mugabe has created a private paramilitary force similar to that of the late Malawi Life President, Kamuzu Banda, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years. Banda had his own Young Pioneers who he employed to clamp down on dissenting voices.
"This is a national program and we have no regrets about it," says Eliot Manyika, Minister of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation.
It now remains to be seen how far the women's organisations will go to bring perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice.
Bulawayo resident Sarah Tobaiwa says: "How can you be a legitimate leader to me when you got to that position by raping me, beating me up, burning my property, scarring my son's back, taking over my home, and taking away my dignity and humanity?"