Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
A few weeks ago, the media went agog with a story of alleged sexual molestation of two girls who were housed at Matthew Rusike Children’s Home by the chaplain and a teacher who had been mandated to care for the two victims. The revelations were made at the Harare Magistrates’ Court recently, where the home’s chaplain and a former teacher were expected to appear to answer to charges of rape.
Whether the two would be found guilty or will be acquitted on the charges levelled against them is a story for another day. What the nation cannot ignore is the rampant abuse of women, children and the disabled in the last few years in Zimbabwe.
There has been wanton sexual abuse of minors, both girls and boys in different communities across Zimbabwe, painting a bizarre picture of a nation that has dismally failed to rein in sexual perverts in its midst.
Heart-rending stories of young girls and boys being violated in children’s homes, in their own sanctuaries and in own communities by the same people who should superintend their welfare have become a regular feature in the media.
Sexual assault of minors is a confounding issue that society continues to treat in a lackadaisical manner, yet the consequences are long term and detrimental to a healthy society. A number of reasons, among them economic challenges, have undermined family structures with poverty making children more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Certain cultural and religious practices have also contributed to the high rate of child sexual abuse, threatening the moral fabric of the nation. In its latest report, the Zimbabwe Republic Police noted with concern the increasing cases of rape involving minors and the vulnerable in the community.
Without giving statistics, the Zimbabwe Republic Police said it was clear that there had been a marked increase in cases of rape within communities, with the majority of them being committed by people who were known to the victims. In its statement, the ZRP said unlike before when women were targets of sexual assault, sexual offenders were now targeting young children, a worrisome trend.
“We advise you to regularly monitor and supervise them (children) as they play and to avoid sending them to bushy or far away areas without company. Also ensure that you give custody of your children to responsible people who are trustworthy,” read a statement on the ZRP website.
Previous statistics from the police point to a shocking surge of rape of minors with more than 23 000 minors having been raped in 2014 and 2015. Whether the increase could be attributed to increased awareness campaigns that police are carrying out or it is actually a rise in the sexual assaults of minors, the development gives credence on the need to impose hefty sentences to perpetrators of such heinous acts.
It also explains Government’s decision to craft mandatory legislative frameworks for perpetrators of sexual violence against children and people with disabilities.
Following widespread concerns over the rise of the heinous crime of sexual violence or rape, Cabinet considered a proposal on dealing with sexual offenders on minors and resolved to come up with more deterrent measures to stamp out the crime. The Government resolved that a sentence of 60 years of imprisonment be imposed for cases of rape of minors between 12 years of age and the disabled. It also resolved that a sentence of 40 years of imprisonment be imposed for the rest of the cases of rape or sodomy.
Once approved, the legislation would be the final nail in the coffin and sexual offenders would have to compose dirges as the majority will likely meet their Maker while still serving the sentences.
The Government’s decision was premised on the need to curb the problem following a series of gruesome and unwarranted abuse of minors by sexual offenders. Naturally, there have been several dissenting voices on mandatory sentencing with some sections of society arguing that long mandatory sentences are too harsh and defy the whole purpose of rehabilitating offenders.
Pretty much so. Such sentences are befitting of sexual offenders who wantonly target vulnerable and hapless members of society, who cannot be said to have been “too attractive or wearing provocative clothing” to invite sexual assault on themselves.
On several occasions, defence counsel for sexual offenders have often pleaded for lesser sentences, arguing that there were “extenuating circumstances” such as sexual provocation that led to rape.
However, such tired narratives, or arguments from defence counsel are downright evil when one violates a young girl or boy. This is where mandatory sentencing should be imposed to protect the vulnerable, who have become subjects of abuse.
It is only expected that the current generation of leadership should protect the future leaders of tomorrow, by enacting legislation that safeguard them against all forms of abuse.
Child sexual abuse is internationally recognised as a crime against children and laws against child sexual abuse vary by country based on the local definition of who is a child and what constitutes child sexual abuse.
It is the negation of every child’s right that an adult decides to have sexual intercourse with a minor, and in some instances who is still in her diapers and society turns a blind eye to such monstrous acts, allowing perpetrators to walk away with mickey-mouse custodial sentences.
Far from being punitive, mandatory sentencing is one of the preventative and response strategies that are crucial to reduce incidences of rape and sexual violence of women and vulnerable groups.
However, the desire for retribution should not cloud both the Judiciary and society’s judgment in curbing cases of sexual assault, but should be among a raft of preventative measures to reduce the incidences.
Society needs to stop the chicanery of sexualisation, denigration and commodification of women and treating them as objects of sexual gratification, but instead nurture a society that outrightly condemns sexual violence.
Curbing gender-based sexual assault should start in the homes where boys are socialised to respect women, and create an environment, which condemns violence, rather than agitate for it.