By Shamiso Chigonde
The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic and introduction of lockdown measures has increased women’s vulnerabilities, with a rise in problems ranging from the domestic, economic to the political. The pandemic has also led to an upsurge in sexual abuse and domestic violence cases, with perpetrators being close relations of victims in most cases.
When such cases arise one expects the culprits to be reported and get a penalty for their sins but many a times these perpetrators walk scot free, after victims have either withdrawn the case or refused to have the perpetrator arrested. This type of behavior is often likened to Stockholm syndrome.
According to Social Worker Tatenda Khupe, there are a number of reasons why survivors of abuse end up defending the same people they should be running away from, chief among them being fear.
"In some cases they will be lovers for instance in a case of sexual abuse they will be in a relationship so the victim sometimes think it is common to be raped by a boyfriend.
“In other instances, the perpetrator can be a relative or known person so the victim protects him in order to maintain relations. They fear victimization or intimidation, they are threatened with death or beating so they opt to protect the abuser.
“Fear of losing the breadwinner if abuser is a guardian. A child or woman can be abused by their father, reporting would mean loss of their breadwinner so they will rather not report to avoid that loss.
“Lack of knowledge in some instances but in this era, it only accounts for one or two cases only.
“Fear of being blamed or isolated. Victims sometimes fear standing alone when the whole family is against them and get blamed for getting their father, husband or uncle arrested.
“Another reason is unwillingness to undergo the court process. The court process and paper work is complex, confusing and time consuming and people might need to travel a lot so some may feel it is an unnecessary hustle. Besides the hustle, some are afraid of being in court and saying out their issues on records that often go public,” she highlighted.
UN Women Africa reports that 1 in 4 Zimbabwean women have experienced sexual violence and 1 in 3 have experienced physical abuse; and there are many more cases which go unreported. According to an estimation by Oasis Zim, for every girl who is abused sexually, ten more cases go unreported often because victims know their perpetrators and find it difficult to speak out.
Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a non-governmental organization which promotes the rights and empowerment of girls , acknowledge that violence and abuse by a known perpetrator is a common occurrence. In an interview with Amakhosikazi Media, Florence Mutake the Programs Coordinator admitted that they have received such cases and went on to mention the kind of support they offer to survivors of violence.
“We have come across cases where perpetrators were close relatives or blood relatives. When we discover that the nature of such cases, we provide services where we remove the survivor from the environment so that they do not get influence from people surrounding like family members who are trying to protect the perpetrator.
“We take her to a shelter where she receives counseling and all the processes around reporting and court processes are done while the survivor is held in a safe place which is unknown to the people that are closest to the matter. Currently we do not have a shelter that is up and running, we are still in the process of construction but we refer survivors. Our counseling officers collaborate with the stakeholders and keep a record and track their progress.
While the organization’s statistics on women and girls violated by a close relative are worrying, Mutake went on to encourage the community to take an active role in bringing perpetrators to book.
“I can say usually for every 2 in 5 cases that we receive, survivors would have been violated by close relatives and usually families are interfering in terms of protecting the perpetrator from being persecuted.
“We advise community members, women and girls to make it a point to speak and seek protection within the first 72 hours which are critical in terms of being protected from HIV/AIDS and STIs or falling pregnant. We usually encourage them to report, maybe not to the closest police station for fear of being victimized but even to the nearest organization or hospital so that they are assisted in making a formal report to the police. Pazvaitikira ipapo taura(speak out when it happens), so that survivors get help immediately and move on in with their lives,” she said.
Shamwari Yemwanasikana and other women’s rights organizations like Musasa Project also offer free counseling for survivors of sexual harassment and assault.
Keeping silent or hiding abuse does not put the survivor only at risk, but puts other women and girls in the community at risk of being violated. Speaking out and overlooking fear remains key in combating all forms of violence against women and girls and ensuring abusers have their day in court.