Rape: perspectives and realities

HARARE - Where would you go for assistance if you were the victim of rape?

This was the question posed to a diverse group of Harare-based Zimbabweans recently. What should have yielded simple answers instead drew blank stares, confused mumbles and finally, the admission from all but one that they werent aware of any existing services in the city.

I have never really thought about it before, but I suppose rape survivors could go to the police station, suggested Batisari Chigama, an arts coordinator. Zimbabwean police stations are equipped with victim friendly units (VFUs) where trained personnel are able to provide assistance dealing with sensitive issues such as rape, sexual violence and HIV and AIDS.

Just this week the medical journal PLoS Medicine reported that Zimbabwes HIV epidemic had almost been halved in the past several years, a huge success in a region of mostly bad news when it comes to HIV and AIDS.

So perhaps quite startling was the fact that of those consulted seven in total – only one could confirm that there was a way of avoiding contracting HIV if a person has been raped by someone who is HIV-positive. Once you have been raped, there is no hope left for you, stated Nobert Zhuwao, a cell phone credit vendor. It (the HI virus) will have caught you.

But there is hope.

Centres such as the Adult Rape Clinic (ARC) in Harare are providing rape survivors with services that include medical examinations, HIV counselling and testing, emergency contraceptives (ECP), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). ARC also collects forensic evidence and fills out medical affidavits for use in criminal investigations.

ARC saw more than 450 rape survivors between March 2009, when it opened its doors, and mid-2010. It is the only such centre for adult rape survivors (16 years and above) in Harare. Thus far, its clients have largely been female, with only three males having visited the centre for post-rape assistance by 2010.

A feminised epidemic

In what is already a feminised epidemic (In 2009 UNAIDS estimated that 60% of HIV-positive Zimbabweans are female), rape puts more Zimbabwean women at risk of contracting the virus.

Statistics from ARC showed that 70% of survivors who visited the clinic were females in the 17-25 age bracket, one of the most vulnerable age groups to HIV infection. Overall, one in ten clients seen by ARC tests positive for HIV.

The majority (two-thirds) of ARCs rape cases are committed by a partner or relative; commonly known as acquaintance rape. The challenge with reporting this type of rape is that women face physical and social stigma they are often disowned or abused by family, for instance when they do speak up.

It would be much easier to mobilise help for rape victims if the majority of Zimbabweans believed that the victim is not to blame, observed marketing consultant Tafadzwa Dihwa. Our conservative attitude to taboo subjects is very wrong.

Anesu Katere, a former teacher, noted the contribution of culture to rape and sexual violence in Zimbabwe. At times, our culture extenuates rape. Just think of chiramu and how a husband nowadays can fondle the breasts of his wifes sister. Thats criminal!

Traditionally, chiramu refers to the goodwill expressed between a man and the relatives of his wife. The man may take to playfully calling his wifes younger sister his second wife. But this goodwill can be abused and a man may sexually harass the woman in the belief that he is entitled to her body since she is the other wife.

Views, though, were mixed when it came to sexual assault. Primrose Mukumba, a vendor at a Harare flea market believes there is no such thing as rape within marriage. A woman is meant to fulfil all of her husbands desires, even when she doesnt feel like it, she said.

The blame debate

This belief was cited by the Musasa Project, an NGO providing support to survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), as a deterrent to women accessing their services.

Unfortunately, most married women do not perceive it as rape, said Musasa Project Executive Director Netty Musanhu. They will just talk about the consequences of the incident, for example contracting HIV. Its only when you explore further how they got the virus that they then say that their husbands forced themselves onto them. Thats when you realise that they have been raped.

The blame debate spills over into the role that provocative attire plays in precipitating rape. Shes showing the men a sign about what shes come for, exclaimed Zhuwao when asked about what he thought of women who visit bars in miniskirts. Men are visual and are easily excited. And in a bar where there is alcohol and drugs, a woman must know that!

Zhuwaos friend, Harmony Savanhu, added that in a state of sexual stimulation a man could not be held responsible for his actions. If weve decided to have sex and the girl changes her mind at the last minute, then shes wrong, said Savanhu.

His comments were met with roaring laughter and cheers by the group of men congregated to listen in on our interview.

While Southern Africa continues to make progress in bringing down regional HIV prevalence, it is popular notions around gender and culture that continue to drive the pandemic.

Clearly, more work still needs to be done.

Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean journalist based in the United Kingdom. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

Post published in: Politics

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