Gender Links (Johannesburg)

Zimbabwe: Woman, 'You'll Never Walk Alone!'

To soccer lovers the saying "you will never walk alone" is familiar as it relates to one leading soccer team in the United Kingdom, Liverpool. In Zimbabwe and in other parts of the world, this saying is infamous and carries a completely different meaning in relation to the freedoms or lack thereof, of women to walk, travel and do things on their own in the absence of male company or guardianship.

On a day-by-day basis, Zimbabwe's police on bicycles traverse the streets of Harare, targeting the Avenues area. This section of the city is famous for its nightclubs, restaurants and is known as the hub of commercial sex work.

The police target women who walk alone, or those who do not have a "convincing" explanation for their presence on the streets. This act is clear harassment of women, many of whom are discriminated because of their dressing.

A pair of tight pants or a mini skirt is a one-way ticket to the nearest police station. Otherwise, one can escape the police station by offering the police officer free sex or a USD$5 or 10 bribe.

In July 2012, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) officially launched an Operation known as Chipo Chiroorwa loosely translated "Chipo, get married." The Operation aimed at ridding the streets of Harare of sex workers.

The Operation exposed how language is carelessly used without much thought. The name of the operation in Shona is an order to a young woman to get married. The Operation calls on women to get married and not engage in sex work.

The assumption that all women should get married is a warped expectation on women by society. Marriage is a choice.

On the other hand, one cannot fully blame the police for being custodians of the "law." The police are simply drawing from existing social repertoire that says that young women, who roam the streets for commercial sex work, are a "problem" to the broader society and women must be married.

The Zimbabwe police are masking a "problem" that society has established yet perpetuating one of the oldest violations on women's rights. Women have the right to occupy spaces of their choice and to do certain things or engage in activities on their own.

While acknowledging the attendant problems that result from sex work, including violence perpetrated against such women by their clients and the spread of HIV and AIDS, there seem to be a wrong diagnosis of the challenges the Zimbabwe society faces that results in the launch of Operation Chipo Chiroorwa.

Speaking to the media about Operation Chipo Chiroorwa, former Police Spokesperson James Sabau said that women bring the arrests upon themselves by "loitering" the streets for purposes of sex work. Sabau added that the police can easily identify their targets by their dressing.

The situation is worse if the woman is caught with condoms, whether male or female condoms. Condoms are enough evidence for the police that the woman is a sex worker.

This modus operandi by the police is of concern as it is against the efforts that are in place for combating the spread of HIV. Women must be encouraged to carry condoms so that they can negotiate safe sex and protect themselves from infections and unwanted pregnancies.

Gender activists in Zimbabwe marched to Parliament to express their displeasure about police behaviour. However, police are still arresting women on allegations of sex work.

There is need to reorient the police force on women's rights beyond written statements in police charters and the constitution. Government must raise awareness among the police force about gender equality beyond what the law says, but how cultures and traditions, prejudices and stereotypes create gender inequalities.

It is not enough to train the police on the law. The police must also be agents responsible for changing attitudes among citizens. For instance, when the media asked Inspector Sabau why they are arresting women, he said, "Loitering for purposes of prostitution brings the reputation and dignity of women into disrepute. As a police force it is our duty to enforce the laws of the country."

Herein lies two issues that society should think about, male attitudes and accepted views of what women should do to maintain so-called "dignity." Secondly, laws set by predominantly male political elite to reinforce male perceptions on women need review.

Gender activists should seize the reviewing of the constitution so that archaic laws that impinge on women's rights are repealed. One day, Zimbabwean women must be able to walk alone and society must find it OK!

Rashweat Mukundu is a media activist and freelance journalist. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

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