LISA*, a lesbian, was severely injured in 2019 after her lover attacked her with a bottle.
She needed a police report to receive medical help and opened a docket but decided to dismiss the assault allegations after receiving medical attention.
However, police officers would not let her because the perpetrator’s family had notified them that Lisa was initiating their daughter into lesbianism.
Fearing that her partner’s family would twist the case in their favour, on the day of the court hearing, Lisa requested assistance from the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), one of the oldest LGBTI rights organisations in southern Africa.
At the police station, Lisa was urged to declare her sexual orientation in exchange for the charges being dropped.
She refused and on the morning of the court hearing, her partner admitted to inflicting physical violence on Lisa and paid a fine.
GALZ advised Lisa to seek psychosocial support from Contact Counselling Services.
This incident was recorded by GALZ in their examination of human rights and violations against LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.
Lisa’s case exemplifies the difficulties same-sex couples face in obtaining legal and judicial protection in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that they are more likely than heterosexual couples to experience Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), which is abuse that occurs between a pair during an intimate or passionate relationship.
When people experience sexual abuse or domestic violence, they are typically encouraged to seek counselling and report to authorities.
However, investigations by CITE suggest that ‘some’ lesbians and bisexual women do not disclose these offenses because societal moral expectations take precedence over the law in Zimbabwean public systems.
Sparkly, a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex (LGBTQI) community, who spoke on behalf of lesbians and bisexual women, confirmed they are afraid to report for fear of embarrassment, and those who do, usually do not have their cases investigated by law enforcement.
She claims that when lesbians and bisexual women report a violation committed by their partners to police, their coming out as lesbians or bisexuals generates more questions about their sexuality than merits of the case.
“Before their case is actually addressed, so many questions about how they have sex arise, diverting attention away from the reported case as so many questions arise with one identifying as lesbian or bisexual. The questions are discriminatory and place the person reporting in an awkward position,” Sparkly said.
According to Samuel Matsikure, Programmes Manager at GALZ, it is also difficult to estimate the number of lesbians and bisexual women in Zimbabwe but the organisation
has documented several incidents of violence, hatred, motivated violence, abuse, detention, criminalisation, discrimination in jobs, healthcare, and other places targeted at this group due to their real sexual orientation.
Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, a lawyer and leader of the African Diaspora Global Network, a migrant-rights organisation based in South Africa, said it was inappropriate for the law to enable one’s moral expectations to take precedence over it because lesbians and bisexuals have rights.
“People need to distinguish between their personal beliefs and the law. The law is clear, LGBTQI people have to be treated as human beings,” he said, noting that when a complainant went to the police station to report ill-treatment, the law had to be served.
“Lesbians have rights and should be treated like any other person but if police laugh, it is an offense, amounts to segregation and failure of one’s duty.”
Dr Sibanda, who represented a Zimbabwean transgender woman and successfully prevented South Africa’s immigration authorities from deporting her in 2020, stated that everyone has a belief, but the law is not based on moral expectations.
“Morality is subjective,” he said, “so when lesbians report a case, it must be handled without prejudice.”
Dr Sibanda highlighted unlawful practices by authorities should be reported because they “violate the rights of others.”
In 2013, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) discovered lesbians in Botswana will not normally report incidences of sexual abuse or domestic violence for fear of being identified as homosexual by authorities.
“On the rare occasions when lesbian women do report sexual assault, they often conceal their sexual orientation. This means any crime dimension to the crime where the women’s sexual orientation is a factor leading to the violence is missing from any investigation or prosecution,” ICJ said.
Sexual Rights Centre (SRC) Programmes Manager Shantel Ndebele concurred that where sexual identity is criminalised by the State, lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to report the circumstances of their abuse for fear of not only of family reprisals but of State enforcement of the criminal law or police re-victimisations.
“Legislative gaps are drivers of challenges lesbian and bisexual women face. The Constitution does not recognise homosexuality, as Section 78 prohibits marriages between same sex partners,” she said.
“Section 66 of the Criminal Law and Codification and Reform Act (Chapter 9:23) also prohibits same sex, it is classified as indecent assault when a woman has sex with a woman.”
As a result, IPV thrives in same-sex relationships since lesbian and bisexual women are constantly mocked, Ndebele stated.
“IPV is actually worse among same-sex couples because it is always difficult for them to actually get legal and court protection due to the nature of their relationships, which are deemed illegal,” she said.
Ndebele added that violence is common in same-sex couples because they struggle with their own identity while community support lacks.
“Coming out to say, ‘I am a lesbian’ is a step most are constantly debating.”
Such challenges even result in suicide, which Ndebele claims is also common among same-sex couples.
According to the constitution, every person has the right to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, tribe, or race, however sexual orientation is not one of those grounds, Ndebele said.
“If you are discriminated against on such grounds, you have no remedy at law,” she explained, pointing out the current Marriage Act, recognises civil partnerships but does not extend to same-sex relationships.
The Human Dignity Trust, in a 2016 publication titled Breaking the Silence: Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts, stated as with many violations of women’s human rights, these violations often occur in the private sphere, away from public view and are therefore seemingly invisible.
“Even where statistics on violence against women are gathered, they tend to presume heterosexuality and therefore disaggregated data on violence against lesbians and bisexual women are typically not available at all,” said the trust.
Comparative research on violence against lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen throughout Asia published in 2014 found four factors for the underreporting of criminal violence.
One was non application of protection laws where they prohibit discrimination against marginalised and vulnerable populations but usually do not extend protections to lesbians and bisexuals.
Second, victims are afraid to disclose assault because of their experiences with police and law enforcement, even in circumstances where protection legislation may apply to lesbians and bisexual women.
The third factor was stigma, where some organisations which focus on human rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights and other more mainstream problems, distance themselves from lesbian, bisexual, and trans rights.
Finally, social attitudes where “pressure of compulsory heterosexuality, with gender-based discrimination and violence creates a vicious cycle of victim isolation, self-blame for the violence, absence of redress, internalised homophobia or transphobia and perpetrator impunity.”
The Story is published with support from the Voluntary Media Council (VMCZ) and the Embassy of Canada in Zimbabwe under the Investigative Journalism Fund Programme.