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ZIMBABWE: Making the law less of an ass
Wilson 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 marriages.

Additionally, the 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.

"The effects 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 domestic violence."

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 a priority".

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.

"Domestic violence 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 it."

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, or both.

"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".

Gia Christophides 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 been intimidated."

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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