Support structures essential to domestic violence legislation

Date: January 1, 1970
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Harare, January 16 2008. Zimbabwe is one of the few southern African nations who have specific legislation to address domestic violence. Last year ended with the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, the theme for the year focusing on demanding implementation of policies. There is scarcely a more appropriate nation to which this imperative applies. In 2008, it is high time to make implementation a reality.

A handful of countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have specific Domestic Violence Acts in place. These include Mauritius, South Africa, Namibia, and Seychelles. Legislation is vital, but the support structures that make implementation possible, and mean real change for women, are vital.
While the Domestic Violence Act was assented into law in Zimbabwe almost a year ago,  ago, it only became operational on  October 25, 2007. For many women, this delay echoes the pattern of apathy about the Act, which began its journey into law through the advocacy calls of women’s groups as far back as a decade ago.
“Many people could have benefited from the Act by now,” notes Varaidzo Munyika, a counselling programme officer with Musasa Project. Musasa Project is a Zimbabwean non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to counter gender violence through, among other activities, advocacy, crisis counselling, provision of legal advice, as well as shelter for survivors.
In 2006, almost 60% of all murder cases heard in Zimbabwe’s courts were directly attributable to domestic violence – a sure indicator of the severity of the issue in the nation. Munyika feels that the time lag between the legalisation and implementation of the Act has been too long.
Emilia Muchawa of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) points out that the delay has been due to the legal procedures that often have to occur before the operalisation of a new piece of legislation. “With some acts of law, a date has to be set for their implementation in order that the relevant structures may be put in place in terms of the Act,” she says. “It would have been a pity to say we have a Domestic Violence Act without putting in place the required structures.”
Indeed, the Domestic Violence Act has many structures that are required to be fully functional if it is to have any impact on the trend of domestic violence in Zimbabwe.
One such crucial structure is the Anti-Domestic Violence Council, made of representatives from relevant government ministries and departments, private voluntary organiszations, Zimbabwe’s Council of Chiefs and a group representing Zimbabwe’s churches. This council is to begin convening for meetings shortly.
“Work with traditional and religious leaders is very important because most abuse is stifled through influence from these quarters,” observes Munyika. “Communities have so much respect for their leaders, that often what they say is the law to them.” Thus far, various stakeholders have been working to sensitise rural communities about the Act and gender based violence (GBV).
To raise awareness about the Act, the Ministry of Youth, Gender and Women’s Affairs has been appointing counselors throughout the country, including those at ward level (sub-units that constitute rural districts), tasked with advising, counselling and mediating in domestic violence-based issues. In addition, ZWLA has been involved in awareness trainings and campaigns on the Act in eight of Zimbabwe’s ten provinces.
To ensure that men are also sensitised on the issue, Padare/Enkundleni, a men’s organisation advocating for gender equality, has been taking information on all forms of abuse to its rural chapters in Mutoko, Seke and Mhondoro. The organisation is soon to launch its research report on knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and practices of men looking at how issues around GBV interface with HIV.
Recognising the links between gender violence and HIV and AIDS, the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service, in collaboration with Seke Rural Home Based Care (SRHBC) Project, has been exploring how culture and gender relations (and violations) help perpetuate the spread of HIV and AIDS in Seke, a rural Shona community 45 kilometers outside of Harare.
The first point of contact for women experiencing domestic violence is often the police. The Musasa Project has been tasked with awareness raising of police officials, who in terms of the Act, are the domestic violence survivor’s intermediaries in terms of obtaining shelter for the complainant, or advising how to obtain such shelter or medical treatment.
This has included developing a training manual for the officials, but as Munyika notes, the training has its own challenges. “Service providers such as police officers are constantly transferred within the structure,” she said, pointing to the fact that the officers trained in terms of the Act may be transferred to different departments within the police forces, thus exposing complainants to untrained and insensitive officials.
Munyika suggests that police units engage in peer education to ensure that those who have been trained may filter their knowledge to those who have not. As the necessary structures around this Act begin to develop more meaningfully, it is important to remember how much bearing they will have on the likelihood of complainants reporting acts of violence.
Councils, counsellors and other service providers will ultimately create either a hostile or a friendly environment under which this Act will operate. Therefore, demanding implementation for the Domestic Violence Act means demanding an end to the silent suffering of the untold numbers of people, especially women, suffering under violent repression within their homes. As we head into a new year, rather than new promises, let’s make it a year of action.
Fungai Machirori writes from Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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