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Making the law less of an ass
Johwa, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS)
April 27, 2004
Bulawayo - As thousands
of Zimbabwean women have discovered, the law is a blunt instrument when
it comes to domestic disputes that threaten health and well-being.
A distress call from
a squabbling family has no guarantee of eliciting a reaction from the
police, who can do nothing unless there are indications of physical violence.
Bookings normally result when assault has been committed.
Now, a new law has
been proposed to broaden the scope of activities that abusive family members
can be called to account for. The draft
'Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill' is expected to come under discussion
during the current session of parliament, and may become law before the
end of the year.
The bill does not
only define domestic violence in terms of physical or sexual injury; it
also takes intimidation, harassment and stalking into account, as well
as the abuse that can result from traditional practices that degrade women.
These include virginity testing, female genital mutilation and forced
bill outlaws 'economic abuse', such as denying someone the right to find
employment, and the unreasonable disposal of household effects or other
property in which the complainant has an interest. It also forbids actions
to deprive a family member of economic resources which that person needs,
like funds to cover medical expenses and school fees.
Teresa Mugadza, a
consultant with the Musasa Project which shelters and counsels abused
women (and which has been one of the driving forces in efforts to reduce
domestic violence), says a study conducted by the project in 2000 showed
this abuse was one of the leading causes of death for Zimbabwean women
in the 15-40 age bracket. This is the most recent study of its kind conducted
by the shelter.
The 2000 findings
backed up research done by Musasa in 1996, which showed that one in four
women had at some point been physically abused. A similar number had been
forced to have sex with their partners, while one in six was prevented
from getting a job or going to work.
of domestic violence can be quite devastating, particularly in these days
of HIV/AIDS," Mugadza told IPS in an interview from Zimbabwe's capital,
Harare, adding: "An increasing number of women incarcerated for murder
or culpable homicide of their partners have a history of having suffered
The fact that legislation
addressing these matters is being debated has been welcomed. Nonetheless,
some activists are still frustrated by the fact that it has taken so long
to address domestic violence constructively.
Lawyer Nomsa Ncube,
who was involved in the campaign against abuse at its inception in the
1990s, thinks the process has dragged on because "maybe it was not
Although it is pervasive,
domestic violence remains something that many would rather not discuss.
"Most people want to pretend it doesn't exist," Ncube said,
during an interview in the southern town of Bulawayo.
Mugadza believes the
problem stems from the fact that police and social workers often lack
the skills to deal with the peculiar mix of personal, emotional and economic
factors that come into play with domestic abuse.
is complex in that it occurs within intimate relationships, and police
officers, the courts, communities, churches and hospitals have often failed
to deal with it appropriately for lack of a framework on how to deal with
The fact that Zimbabwe
is male-dominated society has also led to a situation where violence against
women is not really perceived as a crime, adds Mugadza.
The proposed bill
allows police to arrest someone who is about to commit an act of domestic
violence. It also compels the authorities to obtain shelter for the complainant
- or advise them on where this can be found - and it provides for protection
orders and domestic violence counselors.
Penalties for committing
an act of domestic violence have been set at a fine or five years imprisonment,
"We would have
wanted more deterrent sentences, but these should do," says Mugadza.
But, whether tighter
legislation will provide for a more harmonious family life in Zimbabwe
remains to be seen. Social worker Sheba Dube says due to growing poverty
in the country, "women are more disempowered than before".
who heads Childline Zimbabwe, a child protection agency, feels that the
proposed legislation will not serve much purpose unless it closes the
loophole created when a perpetrator is given bail.
"We have brought
many cases to court only to be frustrated when the alleged perpetrator
gets bail and heads straight home to continue abusing a child," Christophides
told IPS from Harare. "The cases get dropped because the child has
The new bill marks
an attempt by the Zimbabwean government to meet its international commitments
for ending violence against women, as set out by the United Nations Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
- which was ratified by Harare more than a decade ago.
Almost 180 states
have signed up to CEDAW, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly
in 1979 - and which highlights the need for legal reforms to ensure that
men and women receive equal treatment under the law.
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