MPs call for certain cultural norms to be made illegal in efforts to tackle sexual abuse

Members of Parliament (MPs) have called for comprehensive legal reforms to make certain cultural norms illegal and penalised as part of efforts to combat sexual abuse of children and women. 

This was discussed in Parliament on Tuesday during a debate on a motion to promote positive social and cultural change through Gender Based Violence (GBV) Awareness Programmes. 

Matabeleland South MP under Proportional Representation, Velisiwe Nkomo said the cultural, social, economic dynamics in Zimbabwe creates an environment where sexual abuse often goes unreported and victims face numerous challenges in seeking justice and support.

“There are several factors that contribute to the high frequency of sexual abuse in Zimbabwe, which include gender inequality, entrenched patriarchal norms as well as power imbalances whereby the Zimbabwean culture exposes women and girls to exploitation and abuse,” Nkomo said.   

“In reality, economic hardships and poverty also worsen the situation. Young girls and women resort to exploitative means for survival. Additionally, lack of understanding of sex education and awareness programmes leave many girls uneducated on their rights and how to protect themselves from sexual abuse.” 

Nkomo said victims of sexual abuse in Zimbabwe also encounter numerous other challenges relating to fear of stigma and retaliation, limited access to support services and inadequate legal protection.  

“Legal frameworks for addressing sexual abuse exist in Zimbabwe as shown by our supreme law which is the Constitution as well as our very own Criminal Law Code,” said the MP.

“However, it is trite for us to agree that enforcement and accessibility of justice remains a significant challenge for victims due to cultural norms as well as other areas which are too remote to access, hence it is vital to work on improving so that in every corner of the country, no stone is left unturned.”

Nkomo cited that the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014, reported that one in three women and girls will experience physical, sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV) in their lifetime. 

“Unfortunately, only four percent of these women and girls will report this violation to the police due to stigma or fear.  Rape and sexual violence are especially under reported,” said the MP. 

Nkomo said an “alarmingly” high proportion (43 percent) of adolescent girls in Zimbabwe aged between 13 to 17 years reported that their first incident of sexual intercourse was unwanted and unplanned.  

Therefore understanding the context of sexual abuse in Zimbabwe is crucial for addressing this pervasive issue, said the MP, calling for the  implementation of effective interventions to protect, empower girls and women. 

“In 2019, there were several high-profile cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in Zimbabwe, including the alleged rape of a 12-year-old girl by a prominent businessman and the abuse of women and girls in a religious cult. These cases highlighted the ongoing problem of sexual violence in the country and the need for greater awareness and action to address the issue,” Nkomo said.

“Comparatively in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the problem of sexual violence in Zimbabwe as lockdown measures and economic instability led to increased vulnerability and exploitation of women and girls.”

Nkomo said a report by the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, stated there was a significant increase in reports of sexual violence during the Covid-19 pandemic with many cases involving minors and vulnerable individuals. 

Meanwhile, Manicaland province youth quota MP Amanda Chakukura said domestic violence affects women throughout the country, with some victims enduring physical abuse, mental violence, spiritual violence, and a variety of other forms of gender violence. 

“Women are raped by their intimate partners, but because he is the one who provides for the family, they are forced to keep silent. This has resulted in a rise in incidences of emotional trauma, which has resulted in a slew of mental health concerns such as despair and anxiety. Most women are suffering in silence and if they do not seek help, they may commit suicide or even suffer mental breakdown,” Chakukura said.  

Chakukura added that intimate violence has also violated the human right to religious freedom and urged the government to pass legislation to combat intimate partner abuse.  

“It can be accomplished by imposing tougher punishments such as increasing jail sentences for perpetrators of gender-based violence and reconsidering that mass pardons should not include perpetrators of gender-based violence, which will contribute to eliminating this type of gender-based violence,” she said.

In addition, Mashonaland West MP Nomsa Chaimvura, said GBV has significant and long-lasting effects on both girls and boys in Zimbabwe.  

“On the other hand, boys in Zimbabwe also experience the detrimental effects of GBV. While there is less data available specifically on GBV against boys, it is important to recognise that they too are often victims of various forms of violence based on their gender,” Chaimvura said.

“This includes physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and societal expectations that contribute to toxic masculinity. Such experiences can have lasting consequences on boys’ mental health, relationships, and overall well-being.” 

Chaimvura said addressing GBV requires comprehensive strategies that encompass legal reforms, access to support services for survivors, educational initiatives, and community mobilisation efforts. 

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