Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
Government’s proposed 60-year imprisonment for those found guilty of raping minors and the disabled is a welcome move that should address the growing problem of sexual assault in Zimbabwe.
It does send a clear message that Government will not tolerate sexual perverts to roam the streets, wantonly abusing the vulnerable and getting away with lenient sentences.
In a statement, announcing Cabinet’s position on the matter, Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Christopher Mushohwe said the proposal to amend the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Act) (Chapter 9:33) was crafted after a public outcry over rising cases of sexual assault.
“Following widespread concerns over the rising of the heinous crimes of sexual violence or rape, Cabinet considered a proposal on the above matter and resolved to come up with more deterrent measures to stamp out the crime. Accordingly, Government resolved as follows (a) that a sentence of 60 years of imprisonment be imposed for cases of rape of minors below 12 years of age and the disabled: and (b) that a sentence of 40 years of imprisonment be imposed for the rest of the cases of rape or sodomy,” said Dr Mushohwe.
The decision to put forward such a proposal will bring sanity and a high degree of moral obligation in society, reining in errant individuals who are displaying animal behaviour by sexually abusing vulnerable members of society with impunity.
Perpetrators of such heinous acts are taking advantage of the ad hoc sentencing of criminals committing crimes of a sexual nature, knowing fully well that they would walk away with light sentences.
It had become a game of chess in the courts of law with some offenders getting long custodial sentences, while others walked away with minimum possible jail terms.
When serial rapist Thomas Brighton Chirembwe was in January 2014 sentenced to 290 years in jail by magistrate Simon Rojers Kachambwa for raping 13 women and unlawful entry into their homes, the nation was left flabber- gasted.
It became on record, the longest sentence ever imposed in Zimbabwe on a crime of such nature and the nation applauded that magistrate Kachambwa had set a precedent which would be hard to beat in light of increasing cases of sexual assault.
That was not to be.
Since then it has become a pot-pourri of judgments, pointing to the need for consistency in judgments passed on same cases, albeit under different circumstances.
It is heartening to note that the Government has also defined the parameters on which cases warrant the highest sentences, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable members of society – minors under the age of 12 and the disabled.
While criminals have often built their defence of rape, blaming their victims for being “inappropriately dressed”, it has often defied logic why they would still rape kids and physically challenged women who may be too incapacitated to even turn their heads!
If sexual crimes are instigated by what the victims are wearing, why are babies in diapers targets of rapists?
What is so fascinating about disabled women in wheelchairs and grannies, who have nothing to show and cannot be described as paragons of beauty that they find themselves as targets for rapists on a daily basis?
Is it not sad that when an incident of sexual assault happens, the first questions that the media or the law enforcers ask are about the victim’s sobriety, or clothes or sexuality, instead of confronting the problem as it is?
While mandatory sentencing may have taken long to come, it is gratifying that the Government has listened to the voice of reason and now wants to expedite its implementation to safeguard the vulnerable.
Far from being a correctional measure to rein in criminals among us, imposing mandatory sentences will also remove deeply ingrained gender norms in our society that have socialised men into believing that women’s bodies are for limitless sexual gratification by whoever sees it fit.
Such perceptions have created a society that we find ourselves in – which doesn’t take sexual assault or domestic abuse very seriously.
While ensuring that sexual perverts are locked away, mandatory sentencing will also ensure that rape victims get relief which tallies with the crime committed.
Such a sentencing system will put an end to trauma, anguish and the psychological stress that rape victims often go through trying to get legal recourse, while also acting as a deterrent to would-be offenders.
Rape victims often find themselves in unique positions of facing scepticism not only from society but also from within the legal system.
Society often raises eyebrows and questions about the authenticity of the rape claims while the judiciary sometimes doubts the violent nature of the crime and the evidence that is submitted especially if the victim is a prostitute, or has a “questionable social back- ground”.
In addition, rape victims are often re-victimised in the courtroom in the form of attacks on their credibility and past sexual history.
Some within the judiciary system even argue that female victims’ allegations must be carefully scrutinised because women are considered to be inherently suspects as witnesses.
The attack on their integrity is made worse by the proverbial slap on the wrist, whereby a rapist gets a lesser sentence than a cattle rustler.
Welcoming Government’s decision, MDC legislator Honourable Jessie Majome said it was encouraging to see the Executive meeting its promise to the needs and problems of people.
Hon Majome, who has pushed for mandatory sentencing through her motions since 2014, said it was inspiring to note that the Government had gone beyond the 40 years that she had been pushing for in her motion.
“In my debate I drew attention to the corresponding need to amend the Magistrates’ Court Act to raise the sentencing jurisdiction of regional magistrates from 25 years for rape and serious gender-based violence or amend the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act to compel magistrates who have convicted for rape and serious gender-based violence to refer the convict to the High Court for sentencing,” she said.
Consultative processes are critical at this juncture to ensure that mandatory sentencing would be implemented holistically and with immediate effect once all considerations are taken aboard.
On other the principles, the Government would need to include referral of the survivors for psychological support and a review of other sentences for gender-based violence, which remain less than what they should be considering both the physical and psychological damage to the victim.
However, it cannot be ruled out that there will always be individuals who abuse the system by claiming that they were raped, when in actual fact they were accomplices.
There are also other schools of thought which believe that mandatory sentencing is a simple solution to a much broader problem than what meets the eye, and will not necessarily make women safer.
The Government will need a much broader set of social reforms that include instilling healthy attitudes about gender equality, sexuality and teach youngsters that rape is a shameful practice that will not be condoned.