Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women in Elections in Zimbabwe

by Cait Davin*

Earlier this year, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) research in Zimbabwe found that women engaging in elections as candidates, voters and journalists were experiencing devastating sexual extortion, physical violence, harassment and intimidation from their bosses, colleagues, religious leaders and domestic partners, both in physical and online forms. This violence deeply impedes their free and fair participation in the electoral process, silencing their voices and inflicting severe harm.

Spurred by these findings and motivated by a renewed commitment from key actors to end impunity for this kind of abuse, IFES and our local Zimbabwean partners, the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and the Zimbabwe Peace Project, launched an initiative to end impunity for violence against women in elections (VAWE).

Ahead of the 2018 elections, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared zero tolerance for electoral violence, and the Zimbabwean Republic Police (ZRP) stated their intention to fully prosecute violators, including VAWE violators, signaling a meaningful step toward definitively ending VAWE in Zimbabwe. With support from the Canadian Embassy, IFES and partners are working to assist survivors of violence in elections in seeking justice by helping them document their cases and bring them to the police and to court.

Overcoming deeply embedded mistrust of law enforcement as well as fear of re-victimization at the hands of perpetrators, as of writing, 72 cases have been documented and in 24 cases the victims pressed charges with the police. The police made arrests in seven cases, of which prosecutors took four to trial, and as of November 10, there were two judgments.

Each of these cases offers a glimpse into the day-to-day reality of VAWE in Zimbabwe. In one case, the violence experienced is an instance of intraparty violence. A female political party member is accusing a male party candidate of physical assault. The alleged crime took place on August 4, when the accused went to the complainant’s home and beat her severely requiring hospitalization, accusing her of causing his defeat through her political activities. Police charges were filed on August 5, and ZRP forces searched for, but could not find, the accused. As of writing, he is still at large.

August - October 2018 | Total VAWE cases recorded: 72 | Victims who pressed charges: 24 | Arrests: 7 | Prosecutions: 4 | Judgments: 2VAWE Legal Zimbabwe

In another case, the lines between domestic violence and political violence overlap, as a female candidate for ward councilor pressed charges against her husband. The alleged crime took place over the course of four days before the election, when the accused confronted the complainant with accusations of having an affair and engaging in prostitution. On July 27, the accused burned the complainant’s clothes and fled the neighborhood. The complainant also reports that three opposition supporters were threatening her with violence. The accused is still at large, and the ZRP informed the complainant to collect more than hearsay evidence to investigate the other threats. Accusations and defamation of character are especially important in politics for women, as prevailing gender systems essentially permit violence against women who transgress gender norms. When a woman’s character has been challenged, violence is likely to continue and escalate.

IFES’ local legal partners and Zimbabwean officials are currently following up on both cases and several others. IFES believes that bringing VAWE cases to court is essential for providing justice and changing norms that allow this kind of violence to continue to occur. Despite ongoing efforts to encourage survivors to report political violence, deep-rooted challenges related to gender roles and distrust of institutions provide barriers to reporting. Ultimately, survivors pursuing justice is the first step in ending impunity for VAWE, which helps survivors obtain an effective remedy, while at the same time, punishing perpetrators and deterring future crimes.

These cases being investigated demonstrate that transitions are being made in social norms and adjusting institutional values. As top commanders of the ZRP have become involved in the project, reports from local partners demonstrate a marked change in the attitude of the ZRP in responding to VAWE cases. An upcoming event between local partners, other civil society organizations (CSO) and all 63 ZRP district commanders will discuss lingering barriers to case investigations and arrests. In September, the United States Agency for International Development approved the addition of two more CSO partners – Community Tolerance, Reconciliation, and Development and the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust.

To further this work, IFES developed a smartphone-based method for easy case tracking using the apps TextIt and Telegram and trained its CSO partners in how to use the innovative platform, which enabled their employees to type information into smartphones and transmit the data into a central file.

*Davin is a gender intern at IFES.