Gender Links (Johannesburg)

4 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Religion and Culture Central to Ending GBV

Every two or three months, Rudo and her husband Tobias part with either a goat or two chickens as a fine for their violently explosive marriage.

The couple, that lives on a small farming settlement half an hour's drive north east of Harare, have had countless trips to the village headman in the four years they have been married. Losing their only real tangible wealth to the village court does not seem to deter Tobias from beating up his wife. The wife's crimes vary from not doing the ironing properly to being a failure in her "other marital duties."

Rudo is just one of several women who rush to the headman for protection from violent and abusive husbands.

Traditionally, the family structure handled cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV).

Today many couples do not maintain strong links with family. Some violent men even scare their own family elders so much that the family would rather turn a blind eye than be involved.

At the start of the Sixteen Days of Activism 2012, Zimbabwe's Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development Minister, Olivia Muchena launched a National Gender Based Violence Strategy. "We need to start from our homes by upholding the principle of family unity and dignity as well as strengthening of traditional mediation system as we seek to end domestic violence," said Muchena.

She applauded traditional leaders and cultural institutions for supporting Government's efforts to curb domestic violence and commended traditional leaders for providing shelter to some victims of domestic violence.

Although Zimbabwe now has a law that protects women from domestic violence, not all victims are comfortable with reporting their spouses to the police. Friends and family members still ostracize women who dare to report or speak about being subjected to physical or emotional violence.

Zimbabwe and other countries in Southern Africa are experiencing a change in strategies for dealing with GBV. In the early 80's women's rights groups educated women on how to respond to violent relationships and seek redress. There is a growing realisation by government and civil society even where there are protective laws that the human element is important to change attitudes and behaviour.

Educating women and giving them shelter served as a temporary measure but did not deter men from beating up their wives. Laws had to be enacted to specifically target GBV. This resulted in more awareness campaigns and acknowledgement that in a patriarchal society there is need to have the buy-in of traditional leaders, legislators and religious leaders who are mostly men.

In a bid to find a lasting strategy to eradicating GBV, South Africa's Council of Churches conducted research on traditional leaders. The Council recognised the wide influence of traditional leaders in Southern African rural communities.

Acting as "custodians of African culture," traditional leaders play a key role in advocating for community health initiatives. They preside over customary law courts and reach communities through imbizos/lekgotlas/dares, or community dialogues.

While traditional leaders are key partners in HIV and AIDS interventions, they are an untapped resource for advocacy regarding sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) service interventions. In order to strengthen community-based initiatives and to understand the potential role of traditional leaders in the prevention of SGBV, the Council held a series of workshops in three South African provinces.

The Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) Knowledge for Health (K4Health) project early this year launched an online discussion forum on the role of traditional leaders as partners in the prevention of HIV and GBV. One of the recommendations from the discussion is that government and civil society should acknowledge the importance of traditional leaders in addressing harmful cultural practices to mitigate HIV and GBV.

Rural women often struggle to catch up with progressive legal developments that urban women have access to. The inclusion of traditional leaders in legislative discussions has resulted in chiefs passing on the information to their subjects. The Zimbabwe Chief's Council that sits in parliament should be encouraged to champion women's rights more.

Southern Africa also has a highly religious population. Some church leaders are beginning to counsel young people on the verge of getting married on the evils of GBV. The counselling focuses on economic, social and other problems that the couple might encounter and how to deal with the problems without resorting to violence. Those already married and struggling with proper non-physical communication also receive counselling.

In a church service on November 25, one priest said special prayers for couples in physical conflict. But it will take more than prayers and fining people goats or chickens to realise any significant gains in the UN's 2012 global theme; From peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let's Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women!

Grace Mutandwa is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe. 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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