Awareness can move paper into action

Date: November 24, 2009
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Across Southern Africa, laws on paper rights do not always translate into real rights for women. Zimbabwe made an important step in enacting the Domestic Violence Act (DVA). However, in taking stock of how far this law has turned into action, legal and gender experts say more action is needed to increase women’s awareness of their legal rights for it to make meaningful differences for women.

During the launch of the Anti-Domestic Violence Council in Harare, Chief Magistrate Mwayera said that many urban women are beginning to make use of the provisions of the DVA, but those in rural areas are still largely unaware of the law and their rights.

The number of cases reported to the Judiciary since the beginning of 2009 show the stark differences in the implementation of the DVA between urban and rural areas.
According to Mwayera, by the end of September 2009, 461 of the 462 reported cases of domestic violence reached successful completion in Harare – a largely urban province. In mostly rural Masvingo province, only 71 of the 141 reported cases were successfully completed.

Similarly, in Harare, there were no cases of domestic violence withdrawn in Harare, all took off and none was pending. On the other hand, in Masvingo, six cases were withdrawn, nine did not take off and 53 were still pending.

Mwayera pointed out that many women in rural areas are not using the DVA because of the bulkiness of the paper work involved when filling a domestic violence case. “The process is cumbersome in nature and also intimidating to people who are illiterate,” she said.

A gender expert within the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, who preferred not to be named, said victims of domestic violence in rural areas were not realising the benefits of DVA because of cultural and economic reasons.

“Most women in rural areas don’t even talk about the problem and when they decide to report cases of domestic violence, they end up withdrawing the charge because the perpetrator is often a relative who could be possibly a family bread winner,” she said.

She added that domestic violence is justified in some rural areas because of social and cultural norms that reinforce gender inequality. “Some perpetrators of sexual violence simply get away with it by saying “muzukuru mukadzi (Your cousin or niece can be your wife), muporofita arotswa (It’s according to a prophet’s revelation via a dream) or mainini mukadzi (Your sister-in-law is just as good as your wife.”

When the Domestic Violence Act became law in November 2007, many gender activists thought they were going to make a concrete change in the lives of women and girls, but it seems there is still far to go.

Translating the DVA into a powerful human rights instrument depends on sustained and stronger partnerships between government, civil society, the private sector and donors. These key actors need to work together to disseminate information and increase the awareness of the public on issues of domestic violence, especially people in rural areas.

Social norms that reinforce gender inequality such as child marriage, forced virginity testing, pledging of girls for purposes of appeasing spirits, forced marriage and forced wife inheritance are still widespread in some parts of the country. The active participation of traditional leaders is required to outlaw such discriminatory practices.

The Legal Officer of Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWALA), Abigail Matsvayi, said many women in rural areas were not using the DVA because they rely on the Chief’s Courts where the need to “safeguard culture” sometimes undermines the delivery of justice.

Matsvayi said for the past one and a half years, ZWALA has been carrying out training workshops with traditional leaders to raise their awareness of the DVA and on how they can assist victims of domestic violence.

She said the challenges being faced in implementing the DVA are not particular to this law. “Legal literacy is a gap that we have in the country to the extent that very few people know about the contents of the constitution,” highlighted Matsvayi.

Full implementation of this important law is needed in order to give legal protection to victims of gender violence and abuse. Civil society groups, especially women’s organisations need to promote accountability and to monitor the implementation and enforcement of the Domestic Violence Act.

Godsway Shumba is a Zimbabwean who works for Health & Development Networks. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.

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