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A group of women wearing blue and red uniforms sitting in a classroom

Uniting against Gender Based Violence in Zimbabwe

Gender Based Violence (GBV) is a major issue in Zimbabwe, with one in every three girls experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18. Over the last three years, the ITL Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls project in Zimbabwe has been focused on achieving lasting cultural change, by working with religious and community leaders, as well as directly with men and boys, to reduce gender-based violence. As we enter the final six months of the project, we reflect on both the challenges and successes in the journey so far.

Addressing the root causes of GBV

In the last year alone, a fifth of women in Zimbabwe have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Although domestic violence was finally outlawed in 2007, implementation of the law remains weak, and many people still view it as a private, family matter. Over 80% of Zimbabweans attend church, so faith leaders have the legitimacy and influence to effectively challenge harmful but deep-rooted social norms – especially those that arise from a misinterpretation of religious texts.

The ITL Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Project in Zimbabwe has sought to equip and empower them to do so, while also engaging directly with traditional community leaders and local men’s groups. Critically, the project also seeks to break the cycle of violence by working directly with individual perpetrators.

Encouraging positive masculinity

If beating women makes me a man, then I would rather not be called a man

This message has featured prominently on Christian Aid’s partner organization, Padare’s social media messaging during the Covid-19 lockdown.  Padare is Zimbabwe’s only gender organization with a national reach that works specifically with men and boys. They focus on issues of masculinity, gender and faith, and they are a key partner in this project.

As part of the International Women’s Day celebrations this year, Padare encouraged men to honour their wives by taking on a domestic task that they had never done before, such as cooking, cleaning, childcare or fetching water.

In Nyanga district, among those who took up the challenge was 76-year-old Lameck Mapako, a village head who had never cooked in his life but has pledged to start doing so now.

I am no longer the same man that I used to be. I learnt how to have positive fatherhood. Though I am learning it at this age, it is my hope that I will spend my last days being an example to my grandchildren and to my community. Men should lead the way in ensuring women and girls are free from abuse.

Shifting attitudes and behaviours

The project, which launched in 2017, has worked in the capital Harare, and in six districts in Manicaland province in eastern Zimbabwe, which borders Mozambique.  A recent monitoring survey in Manicaland showed substantial progress in raising awareness, and in transforming attitudes and behaviours. The survey shows that awareness and reporting of GBV have both increased significantly, while incidents themselves appear to have decreased. Fewer people believe that wife-beating is ever justified – just 12% compared to well over a third when the project started – and fewer people know someone who has recently experienced physical abuse. With gender inequality being so deeply rooted, there is still a way to go, but these results indicate that this approach works and is bearing fruit.

Addressing gender and power dynamics

The project works to address violence through direct work with perpetrators, who are usually referred to the project by the police, courts or other gender organisations – or by themselves or their wives.

It also works to change the attitudes, behaviours and power imbalances that perpetuate violence.  This involves community dialogue on topics such as women’s right to own land or property, sexual and reproductive health, the division of domestic tasks, women’s ability to earn an independent income and their participation in household decision-making. Building on previous years’ work exclusively with groups of men, the third year of this project has initiated ‘couples dialogues’, where women joined their husbands for these discussions.

60-year-old Clement Gudza, head of a village in Buhera district, is just one of the many traditional chiefs now leading by example.

Village Head, Clement Gudza fetching water for family use.

Village Head, Clement Gudza fetching water for family use.

Tackling child marriage

One particularly important issue is child marriage. A third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before they turn 18. Alongside many other disadvantages, child marriage is known to be a major risk factor for domestic violence – young, poorly educated wives are at particular risk of harm.

By discussing such topics openly, and raising awareness of the problems they cause, this project aims to sow the seeds of long-term change, both within families and at a wider community level.  For example, three villages in Mutasa district have taken a simple step to curb child marriage: all newly married couples are now officially presented to the village head who, as part of proceedings, checks the bride’s age.

Engaging faith leaders

As 80% of people in Zimbabwe regularly attend church, faith leaders are strategically placed to be the voice of the voiceless and their position within communities provides an effective platform to address GBV in churches and communities. To build the capacity of churches to support this role, earlier this year, our church-based partner MeDRA (the Methodist Development and Relief Agency) delivered training in Chipinge district to 30 faith leaders. The focus of the training was to equip participants with knowledge and skills on reducing the impact of GBV in the churches. Faith leaders who received this training have already started to relay their learnings to their congregations and communities raising awareness of GBV and referral systems.

Disaster and disruption

Last year’s work in Manicaland was severely disrupted by Cyclone Idai, which struck with devastating force. Christian Aid partners Padare and MeDRA were actively involved in Christian Aid’s emergency response in Manicaland, ranging from the immediate distribution of emergency supplies such as food and blankets to the subsequent rebuilding of homes and latrines, and the provision of psychosocial support to affected communities. The trust and relationships built during the emergency response have increased these partners’ influence in affected communities, standing them in good stead to progress their gender work.

Cyclone Idai response

Monika Dhikani, her husband Fitwell Nhengo and their children Irene, Purpose and Advocate, pictured outside their new home provided by MeDRA

This year, Covid-19 has caused further disruption. In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, lockdown has significantly increased the risk of domestic violence, while support services have struggled to remain open. Padare reports that usual services and referral pathways have been ‘paralysed’ by lockdown. They have moved their counselling services online and have recorded a surge in the number of men requesting counselling support, with more than 150 clients seeking help during April alone. While it is impossible to say how many incidents of violence these services may have prevented, the spike in demand shows that that they are much needed. As a result we have granted an extension to the project, which will now conclude by the end of 2020.

Despite these challenges, the project has been able to make meaningful headway, showing that even long-held and deep-rooted beliefs can be challenged and changed. Clement Gudza, the village head from Buhera District pictured previously, asked us to share the following message with ITL supporters.

If Padare had not been funded to reach out to our remote society we could still be abusing women with impunity. Christian Aid and their supporters played a critical and lifechanging role to our people and culture. Women are now experiencing reduced levels of GBV. Through their generous support we stand a better chance of fostering a new culture of dialogue and resolving disputes amicably. Though the message of gender justice reached me in my later years, I thank you for allowing the project to come to Buhera by funding it. Safe spaces that you created are not going to end.