Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
Gillian Mukombe (not her name) staggered from heavy blows from her husband and landed on the passage door, after failing to maintain her balance. Even screams from their 16-year-old daughter, did not to deter her enraged husband from further pummelling her, while she lay hopelessly in the passage.
Gillian must have passed out, because when she woke up, she was being nursed by her elderly maid, under the watchful eye of her husband, who looked remorseful and melancholic, while hunched in a corner.
In a hushed tone, the elderly maid pleaded with her to go to the doctor and seek medical attention for her swollen face, a request Gillian flatly turned down. Understandably so, was Gillian’s decision not to seek medical attention or report to the police. She is a well-known gender activist working for a local non-Governmental organisation, instrumental in advocating for legislation to protect women from all forms of gender based violence.
“I have had to endure this tumultuous relationship for close to 20 years. It will be just embarrassing if the media gets hold of the story,” she revealed to this reporter at the sidelines of a workshop held in Harare on child marriages early this year.
Gillian is among several gender-based violence activists, who find themselves on the receiving end of the very same social ill they are fighting against. They have to take the punches honourably when gender-based violence knocks on their doors, for fear of being labelled attention seekers or failures in an area where they are deemed experts. In fact, experts say when domestic violence happens to people like Gillian, the stakes are higher and the shame much greater, hence their decision not to report.
“I have been married to my husband for nearly 20 years, and have endured all forms of abuse from my husband, but I cannot report the case and expose myself.
“Besides, my work as gender activist makes my situation difficult. What will our clients and my colleagues say if they discover that I am also a victim of gender-based violence, yet I strongly advocate against the vice in public forums, and have actually helped women to overcome the same problem?” she asked.
Having advocated for the eradication of gender-based violence, Gillian says going public about her situation will only further embarrass her. “It sounds like you are weak, you have got a problem and people you are trying to assist will naturally lose their confidence in you” she revealed.
Although she endures different forms of abuse, on a daily basis, Gillian’s only consolation is that she is not the only activist trying to wade off gender-based violence right from her doorstep. Women Action Group director, Ms Ednah Masiyiwa said the problem of gender-based violence cuts across social, political and economic dynamics, and is not a preserve of the ordinary person in the street. Even male activists are also in the eye of the storm, and have had similar incidences, if not worse in the hands of their intimate partners
Gender activist Mr Kelvin Hazangwi said most activists are not keen on reporting for fear of social backlash.
“As gender activists, we have probably created this notion that we are above any form of abuse. And when it happens it becomes very difficult to seek help because society will judge you. People will say, kana ivo vachirohwa isusu tinozoitwa sei manje (if they can be pummelled at that stage and in equal measure, what will become of us)?,”
Mr Hazangwi said such barriers should be broken down to ensure that prominent people can come out in the open and seek to demystify gender-based violence. “As activists when we seek help, the message becomes relevant. Yes the effects might be both negative and positive, but the latter will outweigh the former,” he said.
Domestic violence is a social vice that Zimbabwe is currently grappling with as cases of this social ill — with both male and female victims — continuing to register despite the level of conscientisation that has been made. Prevalence studies conducted by Gender Links in six Southern African countries show that 86 percent of women in Lesotho, 72 percent of women in Zambia, 68 percent of women in Zimbabwe, 67 percent of women in Botswana, 50 percent of women in South Africa’s Gauteng, Western Cape, Kwa Zulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces and 24 percent of women in Mauritius have experienced gender-based violence over their lifetime.
A higher proportion of women reported experiencing violence than men admitted to perpetrating violence in all six countries. However, the extent to which men admit to such behaviour is high in all the countries, and is almost equal in Mauritius.
In all the study settings the majority of women who experienced violence did not seek help or support, a finding corroborated in other studies world-wide.
For example the 2015 Barometer reports that a study of 42 000 women undertaken across 28 member States of the European Union found that only one third of victims of intimate partner violence and one quarter of victims of non-partner violence contacted either the police or support services following the most serious incident of violence.
Domestic violence has traditional been understood as a crime perpetrated by domineering men against defenceless women. However, researches conducted over the years found that men and women perpetrate domestic violence in the same rates.
Even local media reports and police statistics are pointing to an increase in the number of women who are now abusing their male counterparts, although men by ratio have the highest populace of aggressors in cases of domestic violence.
The erosion of the passive female stereotype is likely to result in more women being charged, convicted of domestic violence, which might also result in the conviction rates for women, who stand accused of perpetrated what they campaign against-going up.