Natasha Ncube (not her real name) has no kind words for the police. Earlier this year, the 31-year-old mother of two was brutally assaulted by her husband after she bumped into a romantic text message on his mobile phone.
"When I asked him about it he went mad and beat me up. I reported him to the police." But the police response shocked her.
"They said I should go back home and ask relatives to mediate as they were getting many reports from women who withdrew charges after the husband apologised. I was so angry I did not know what to say . . ."
Ncube's case is a typical example of what gender activists say is a glaring gap between the enforcement and interpretation of legal provisions that seek to protect women from gender-based violence.
Domestic violence means any unlawful act, omission or behaviour which results in death or the direct infliction of physical, sexual or mental injury to any complainant by a respondent and includes the following: physical abuse; sexual abuse; (c) emotional, verbal and psychological abuse; (d) economic abuse; (e) intimidation; harassment; malicious damage to property and stalking. The list is quite long.
In 2007, Zimbabwe passed into law the Domestic Violence Act to allow maximum protection for survivors of domestic violence, provide relief to survivors and long-term measures for the prevention of domestic violence.
Although the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence might have come and gone, it is imperative to find out why the Act has turned out to be a toothless bulldog.
In fact, this was the rationale behind a research study conducted earlier this year by Musasa, a non-governmental organisation established in 1988 in response to increasing levels of domestic violence.
The study, which was conducted in Harare and Bulawayo, sought to identify critical gaps in GBV legislation and implementation and the possible interventions for GBV response actors from the perspective of survivors and implementers.
Women experiencing GBV, the law enforcement agencies, judiciary, local government, gender ministry, health care and other implementing partners working in GBV response were the key sources of information.
The women's responses indicated that they were knowledgeable about domestic violence. In focused group discussions, DV was defined as violence and abuse within the home. Examples cited included:
- Physical - fighting, beating
- Sexual - rape, indecent assault
- Psychological - emotional abuse, swearing
- Economic - deprivation of financial resources
- Culture - wife inheritance
The women articulated that the Act is helpful, especially if one is aware of the procedures to be followed in its application. They also indicated that it was difficult to implement the Act because the police are not helpful. The issues that arose were:
- The police officers propose love to the women when they report cases of domestic abuse.
- Police officers solicit for bribes and don't pursue matters as they should.
- They accuse you of becoming a problem if you come repeatedly to report DV (they often tell you to go and bring the perpetrator).
- You have to relate your case to the front desk officers before you are directed to the Victim Friendly Unit.
- The officers tell you to go back home and work out your problems with your husband and discourage you from making a report.
- They take the cases of domestic violence very lightly and even laugh when you narrate your story.
- It is evident that the women believe that the Act is helpful, however, the attitude of police officers becomes a hindrance to its effective implementation.
The DVA stipulates that DV is punishable by up to 10 years. This is one reason some police officers give for not taking up all the reports seriously, claiming that some wives do not want to see their husbands locked up for that long.
"Sometimes we get wives reporting their husbands for beating them up, but after locking him up, the wife comes only a few minutes later to say she has forgiven him and wants to withdraw the charges," said an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity,
In short, victims of domestic violence believe police have become somewhat of a stumbling block in the effective implementation of the DVA.
But the ZRP maintains that it has done its best to sensitise members of the force on dealing with DV cases and how to handle reports, especially from battered women.
"It's not that we do not take these reports seriously, but sometimes it helps that these disputes do not reach the police station if marriages are to be saved," said one police officer as quoted in the Musasa report.
But the victims are not convinced. According to the Musasa study, the respondents called for increased DVA awareness (22 percent), while 19,5 percent want police officers to be impartial. 12,2 percent urged Government to stop corruption in the system, another 12,2 percent wanted to see more commitment from the police while 9,8 percent stated that there must be less paperwork to shorten the process. 7,3 percent highlighted that acquiring a protection order should be done for free, while 4,9 percent stated that there is a need for legal representation for women.
Additionally, another 4,9 percent indicated that there should be compensation for victims and the remaining 4,9 percent indicated that women should also be allowed to speak in court and withdrawals should not be allowed (2,4 percent).
According to the study findings, GBV remains a significant problem, which has been ignored for too long. The women are happy though that people are becoming more concerned with its effects and the way it impacts on society.
The Act is viewed as a potential solution to the problem, if implemented to the letter. In spite of its shortcomings, there was general consensus that the Act had alleviated the prevalence of violence in some areas since there have been cases where men have been jailed for ignoring protection orders.
This practical use of the Act has made them more conscious of abuse as they are now aware of the consequences that come with it.
The Act has also encouraged more women to report cases of domestic violence which undoubtedly goes a long way towards curbing the problem.
On the debit side, the study found that the information channels tend to be limited and many women have no access to them. The respondents indicated that it would be more helpful to have greater access to information especially at clinics and convenience stores where everyone has access.
There was also a noticeable change in behaviour after implementation since the men who have been arrested have changed but the rest remain the same.
As a result, these "diehards" continue to abuse women who still persevere because of poverty. They are unable to fend for themselves and count on their spouses who are breadwinners. The idea of having them jailed becomes too daunting for those women who therefore prefer to suffer in silence.
In order to plug the gaps in the DVA, the following recommendations were made:
- Increased awareness on DVA provisions within the communities is needed.
- Police officers should be trained to be professional and impartial. Their job is to enforce the law and not to influence the outcome of the reported cases.
- Paperwork should be reduced and provided without charge, as the women sometimes do not have the money to photocopy the required documents.
- There should be financial assistance given to survivors of DV especially in cases where the perpetrator is the breadwinner.
- There is need for commitment from the community, not to tolerate any form of violence.
No doubt, the study recommendations might be sweet news to Natasha Ncube. But for others who have been maimed or died as a result of domestic violence it might be a case of too little, too late.
Tawanda Ngena is a freelance journalist with an interest in the arts, environment and gender issues.