TWO police officers man the gate at Safe Shelter in Hauna, Nyanga. There are a few structures dotted around the yard, looking almost ordinary, but behind the walls, many “broken” women have found solace and hope and regard it as home.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
A sanctuary to survivors (no longer called victims because it disempowers them), the shelter is a result of collective partnership efforts by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Family Aids Caring Trust (FACT).
They also work closely with the Women and Gender Affairs ministry as well as the police in facilitating the court cases. A pregnant young woman curiously gazes at the visitors as she lounges casually against the walls of a half-finished structure. Her swollen belly is at
loggerheads with her young face. An equally young mother joins her with a baby in her arms and another toddler trotting along.
They both smile shyly at the journalists, but the traumatic experiences have aged them and dimmed their gaiety. However, they agree to share their stories to strangers, a sign that they are on the healing path.
At 23, Chenai (not real name) is a bitter woman. Married at 18, she has never really enjoyed her youth as her estranged husband would use her as a punch bag, often starving her and neglecting her needs.
“My (former) husband chased after ‘skirts’ from the very first day I married him. I was so young, just 18, and no wiser. I thought it was normal for a man to cheat,” she recalls, hanging her head as if in shame.
Somehow, part of her takes the blame as she confesses that the many women in her husband’s life made her feel inadequate and insecure.
She smoothens the creases on her worn out black skirt and adjusts her purple T-shirt, which too has seen better days. Her minor child, who is barely two, wriggles on her lap.
Her five-year-old daughter is not even going to school because the father has refused to pay fees.
“She asks me all the time why she cannot go to school like her peers who are all in ECD [Early Child Development] class. It breaks my heart, and secretly, I cry and feel like I have failed my child,” she wipes a tear with her T-shirt. Chenai was once bashed so badly she had to be hospitalised and her husband was briefly detained.
“A small issue could just irritate him and he would beat me up. The last straw was when he left me and the children, and moved in with one of his girlfriends. He was not paying rent or buying food for me and the children. Who does that to little children? What crime did they ever commit?
The landlord chucked Chenai and the children out and that is when she sought temporary relief at the shelter.
“They are helping me to get maintenance for the children,” she said.
Her husband occasionally visits, but she says they are done and she cannot take him back.
“I do not think I will go back to him after this ill-treatment. Relatives have suggested we resolve issues, but I am done with him. It is enough,” she says with finality and boldness.
Health programme manager Moses Nyamasoka says each woman has her own unique story, but what binds them all is the violence perpetrated by their trusted partners.
“The police refer the survivors here, working in collaboration with community structures. The shelter advocates for turnaround time in the court,” Nyanasoka said.
He explained that they had a committee with all relevant stakeholders who assist with the process. The survivors are also exposed to livelihood projects like gardening.
“We realised that issues to do with money are the greatest contributors to couples fighting, so that is why we offer these women an opportunity to fend for themselves,” Nyamasoka said.
The matron for the shelter, Nyasha Gachanga, said they had received cases where women were bashed for misusing basic commodities like cooking oil.
“So we take them through counselling sessions, where they figure out on their own how to resolve some of the issues, like being cost effective and planning their monthly budgets,” she said.
Relief matron Ivy Chinyanga shared a horrific incident in which one survivor was repeatedly slashed with a machete by her drunk husband.
“She passed out from loss of blood, but thankfully, she made it and the case is before the courts,” she said.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is the most heinous of crimes against humanity and the cases often draw community outrage and wide media coverage, often bordering on the frenzy.
Perpetrators, who are mostly spouses, never really go to trial. Either the extended family intervenes or the survivor withdraws the case for fear of loss of income.
At times, the judicial system fails survivors by archaic procedures and processes that can drag for years even. A pure case of justice delayed, justice denied.
Yet, GBV undercuts opportunities for women (the most affected) and denies them the ability to fully utilise their basic human rights. In Zimbabwe, about one in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
In an effort to reduce GBV, UNFPA works with the Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development ministry, sister UN agencies and civil society, towards increasing availability and utilisation of GBV services by survivors as well as reducing tolerance for GBV in communities.
The main thrust of the programme is increasing awareness of gender responsive laws and services; the provision of health care, psychosocial support and legal aid to survivors of GBV, mobilising men and young people to support gender equality; GBV prevention through community mobilisation; and supporting GBV referral and co-ordination mechanisms at district and community levels.