Africa University 25th Graduation Ceremony

Sharon Hofisi Legal Letters
What could you do with just some reading or little knowledge on feminism in Zimbabwe or Zimbabwean feminism; gender equality and equity; gender discrimination; patriarchal and patrilineal stereotypes, constitutional rights and/or variegated forms of gender-based violence?

Do you understand both the claimed and lived experiences of victims, survivors and victims of violence, including those in marginalised or vulnerable communities? In what unique ways can someone turn from being a victim or abused to a victimiser or abuser?

What are grounded approaches to understanding the behaviour of victims? Which defences can be raised by a victim who becomes a victimiser? What are grounded or grassroots approaches or subjective approaches to understanding the plight of victims, the vulnerable or marginalised?

Hypothetically, the Heinz dilemma is one of victory over stereotype stories that are used to explain victim-perpetrator scenarios. Mrs Heinz is both a spiritual person and professional accountant. She is pregnant and is frequently battered by her husband on diverse occasions. Her husband is sadly ill and in the intensive care unit. Mrs Heinz desperately wants to save his life.

She asks both her spiritual leader and company director for financial assistance to pay for Mr Heinz’s hospital bills and medication, to no avail. When she was looking for employment, Mrs Heinz had turned down carpet interviews; had shunned the negative effects of quiet diplomacy and also avoided improper relations which could bear significantly on sexual harassment.

She worked with both men and women who wanted to shun gender-based violence. She called them “Team Heinz” but received labels such as “feminists at the workplace” or “workplace feminists”. Back to her husband’s condition, Mrs Heinz commits a crime to assist her husband.

Let’s see how she commits the offence called theft of trust property. Because she has for long been a trusted treasurer at her religious institution and an astute accountant at her workplace, she takes some money entrusted to her so that she will secretly pay it back as she is some five days away from receiving her salary.

Unfortunately, she is arrested as a result of financial audits. To make matters worse, her fully recovered husband divorces her because she’s a thief of necessity. Now the question is: Should Mrs Heinz be charged with theft? I sometimes ask both men and women to register their opinion by way of raising their hands. Few men and many women sometimes indicate that she must be arrested because our law doesn’t condone theft by necessity. Few women and a lot of men usually indicate that she mustn’t be charged or must be charged, but acquitted on the basis of subjective considerations that explain the lived realities of women.

Those who are against Mrs Heinz’s arrest, prosecution and conviction focus on grassroots rather than objective approaches. For example, they do not want society to be the only measure of her culpability. They blame the society for its failure to provide for her emotional needs.

Firstly, they argue that Mrs Heinz is a victim of battered women syndrome (BWS). She behaves in a manner that uses her husband to benchmark her own happiness. She is afraid of getting assaulted when the husband recovers from her sickness.

Secondly, they argue that Mrs Heinz is suffering from pre-natal depression as she is pregnant. She wants to avoid post-natal depression by making sure that her husband is saved from death and the child grows up enjoying the support of both parents.

Thirdly, they interpret the conduct of her religious leader and managing director to be the source of Mrs Heinz’s dilemma to either choose to respect the law on theft of trust property, or to break it through breaching a trust to save a human life. They believe that the absence of emphasis on a social learning theory; women-centred subjective approaches; feminisation of crimes; advocacy on gender equality; and general constitutional literacy in religious institutions and workplaces are some of the factors that made Mrs Heinz to feel like she was a social misfit.

In all the above, Mrs Heinz’s plight helps us to understand why we must untie gendered shackles that oppress men and women, and why we must unite to use gendered dimensions when explaining referent, legitimate and other variant forms of power in our society.

For Zimbabweans, the Constitution embeds values on human rights and treats gender equality as part of our national objectives. It also lists gender as one of the grounds that must not be used to discriminate against a person under Section 56 the non-discrimination section under the Bill/Declaration of Rights.

With the whole world currently benefiting from the wave of the “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” the spirit of 1991 has seen civics, State institutions, academic institutions, community-based organisations and all those who use rights-based approaches to advocacy focusing on ways to end impunity and entrench gender equality (and equity).

Thanks to broadcast, print and social media, we have seen how organisations like WILSA have moved to establish help desks at courts of law to assist both men and women to fight the ills of domestic violence. Other organisations like Musasa Project provide victims with shelter or safe havens.

At national level, we have a ministry that deals with women, gender and community development. This also enables organisations such as Padare, which work with men of quality who are not afraid of equality to sensitise men on women issues. Media pundits are also encouraging women on issues such as provocation which may result in gender-based violence.

The Domestic Violence Act must be understood as a law to be used to create a Zimbabwe where dating, marriage, religious, workplace or any other gender-based relations serve as havens of love and mutual trust and not havens of endurance and provocative engagements. In the end, family counselling and psychosocial support and knowledge on criminal and civil routes that a victim of gender-based violence can take must be prioritised at all material times.

Sharon Hofisi is a lawyer and UZ lecturer. Feedback: [email protected]

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