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Home Discussion Papers Counter Proliferation Sexual violence as a weapon of war: Political rape and the Zimbabwean crisis
Sexual violence as a weapon of war: Political rape and the Zimbabwean crisis
Written by Claudia Forster-Towne (1) and Charlotte Sutherland (2) Thursday, 15 April 2010 13:50

High levels of sexual violence during times of war and conflict is a common phenomenon all over the world. In Africa, the Great Lakes region, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Darfur all bear the scars of episodes of rampant politically motivated sexual violence, which have numerous effects on societies that ripple outwards from its female victims to their families and communities.

The use of rape as a weapon and tool used to debase communities was accepted by the United Nations (UN) as a ‘security challenge’ when UN Resolution 1820 was adopted in 2008 (3). Political rape continues to be used to intimidate political opponents and reach certain political goals. In Zimbabwe, the rape of female opposition party supporters and their families has proven to be terrifyingly effective in spreading terror and fear. This paper considers the Zimbabwean example of political rape, including the social and political dynamics that characterise it.

The current Zimbabwean context

Zimbabwe, once called the “breadbasket” of Southern Africa, is now characterised by economic collapse and political turmoil. Political persecution of President Robert Mugabe’s opponents started as early as 1994, when suspected opponents were evicted from their farms for allegedly plotting against Mugabe with the intention to assassinate him. Later, the white population was targeted and many white farmers consequently forced to vacate their farms and flee the country. Many fled to South Africa. The tensions increased in 2000 when ZANU-PF supporters were armed by their party and ordered to forcibly take farms from the country’s white citizens. Thereafter, some 500 ‘white’ farms were seized, whilst many other suspect citizens were harassed and unfairly detained by police. Human rights and political freedom were pushed further into the distance until they were as empty and meaningless as the concept of democracy in Zimbabwe itself is today.

The situation was compounded by the formation of the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The party soon became a direct threat to Robert Mugabe’s regime. The 2008 election process was marred by political intimidation and violence perpetrated by ZANU-PF supporters which led to over 30 deaths. Tsvangirai himself was unfairly arrested and beaten. Simultaneously, Zimbabwe’s economy steadily dwindled and a complete national collapse seemed imminent. The MDC won the 2008 elections, despite the intimidation that preceded it, but Mugabe refused to release the results, declared the election null and void and ordered that a second election be organised. Tsvangirai refused to participate in this second election, described by many as illegal (4).

Despite resistance from both parties, ZANU-PF and the MDC finally agreed to a power sharing agreement in an attempt to improve the country’s economic climate. It was evident that this agreement had little meaning to ZANU-PF members, who continued to persecute and physically abuse MDC members. In October 2009, Tsvangirai said that he could no longer cooperate with dishonest partner, Robert Mugabe. One of the primary catalysts behind this decision was the continuous arrest of MDC supporters and officials, specifically Tsvangairai’s Deputy Agriculture Minister-designate, Roy Bennett (5).

The next presidential election for Zimbabwe is looming, Mugabe has announced that he will be the ZANU-PF candidate and his supporters continue to victimise MDC members. Hundreds of women were raped by ZANU-PF supporters in 2008 (6) and it is probable that the success of this gruesome political strategy justifies repetition and perhaps intensification in the forthcoming elections.

Why rape?

Various motives for the utilisation of sexual violence during war have been cited, including the following:

- Circumstantial factors
According to the UNFPA (7), change characterises the way conflict is waged and objectives are achieved in tense situations. In other words, rape and sexual violence has become a means through which to reach political goals. One of the main reasons for the proliferation of rape in a country such as Zimbabwe is the perception (and experience) that social anomie. As citizens increasingly become victims of violence, society becomes characterised by a loss of order and norms (8). These feelings of anomie are compounded by an increase in poverty, malnutrition and the proliferation of small arms. The instability and lack of structure and social regulation rapidly creates an environment conducive to sexual violence.

- Maintaining a masculine social nexus
Women have historically been perceived and treated as the possession of men and this perception continues in many areas today, particularly rural areas. When a women is raped in one of these areas, especially if the act is committed in public, it is viewed as a direct attack against the man whom the woman ‘belongs’ to. The effect of the rape on the female victim is not considered important. In such settings, women are considered empty shells, mere representatives of their husbands’ interests. One view on this situation posits that men are meant to protect ‘their’ women and when unable to live up to this expectation, their inability challenges the core existing understanding of what it means to be a man (9). It follows then, that political rape is a tool for men to attack other men, a tragic illustration of the fact that in these settings, men still grip the socio-political reigns and women are just a means to a specific political end, namely the emasculation of political opponents.

On the other end of the spectrum sits the view that rape, especially during times of conflict, is a way of constructing the male identity. Many combatants believe that raping a woman will make them ‘invincible.’ Others believe they can attain invincibility by raping certain categories of women, such as virgins or pregnant women (10). Combatants also use gang rapes to forge male unity, cohesion and ‘brotherhood.’ The cruel violation of women’s bodies during times of conflict therefore arguably centre around men and the destruction and construction of their egos – their possessions and subjects (including women), their masculinity and their relationships with each other.

- Rape as a strategic weapon
Rape and other forms of sexual violence like mutilation and sex slavery are political in nature when they are used as a means to achieve political goals, as they often are (11). These strategies are effective ways to send a threatening message to the ‘Other’ and is often used as a strategy to elicit a response from the opposition in question. Considering that many, if not most, African societies value the concepts of marriage and virginity, a woman loses a large amount of ‘value’ when she is raped, which means that she is no longer suitable marriage 'material.' Such a development brings shame to the family and rape victims are often rejected by their families after they are raped. These family break-ups in turn create holes in the very threads of fabric that hold society together (12). Power dynamics are central to the rape strategy because it instils fear and quells resistance. Of course communities fear politically perpetrated sexual violence and their anticipation and experiences of it repress resistance to the perpetrators and the political power they represent.

The extent of political rape in Zimbabwe

According to AIDS-Free World (13), a Harare-based organisation had informed them of a sharp increase in the number of rapes after the June 2008 elections. Following 70 interviews, conducted by AIDS-Free World with women who had been raped in the lead-up to the election, it emerged that most of the victims were either members of the MDC or were closely affiliated to the party. Despite the knowledge that rape is a widespread war and intimidation tactic, no figures exist to support any estimates in this regard. Many women do not report political rape crimes because, ironically, the same circumstances that facilitate political rape also encourage rejection and ridicule by the police and their communities.

The age of victims of political rape in Zimbabwe range from children as young as five years old to their grandmothers. Gang rapes have frequently been perpetrated in Zimbabwe. To maximise the shocking impact of the rapes, family members were often forced to watch the acts. Many victims feared, understandably, possible HIV infection from the rapists. According to AIDS-Free World, political rapes were first utilised by Mugabe in the 1980s. Whilst conducting their research, the organisation was able to gather, among others, the following first-hand accounts:

I had been at the base for about two days when a group of three men instructed me to enter a room. The room was large, with many other women MDC members and ZANU-PF men inside. Then they said that we were going to sleep together. They forced me to lie on the ground and stripped off all of my clothes...All three of them were rough when they raped me. Around the room there were other men raping other girls. All the men in that room were either raping or waiting to rape women. They said they wanted to show MDC supporters that we had no power against them. (A woman from Harare)

The ringleaders then directed the ZANU-PF to rape whichever woman they had been assigned to while her husband laid face down underneath her serving as a “pillow.” The ringleaders instructed the women to take off all of their clothes. The six men assigned to me forced me to lie down where we stood. I did everything they said because I was very scared. I lay against my husband’s back and all six of the men who had been assigned to me took off their pants. One man pushed his penis into my vagina, another put his penis in my mouth, another in my ear, and the rest on other parts of my body. I began to cry in pain. As they raped me, they said I must join the ZANU-PF and defect from the MDC party. As this was happening, I could see and hear other women being raped around me simultaneously. (A 29-year old Zimbabwean woman)

The other six men were just standing in the same room. They said, “You and your husband are used to singing songs and having MDC meetings. We are ZANU and we don’t want to see you MDC people.” The men made me “dance” for them in bed and move my body while they were raping me. I had to do it because they said, “If you don’t do it, we are going to kill you.” They were all there as each one was raping me—I could hear them. I had the cloth on my face the whole time. All seven of them raped me. They said, “If you report this, we will come back and kill you.” After they left, I thought that I was dying. (A 24-year old Zimbabwean woman)

These are only three of many similar accounts. Many of the women interviewed by AIDS-Free World were held as sexual slaves at numerous ZANU-PF torture camps and forced to swear their allegiance to the party.

The lasting impact of political rape

Women victims of political rape suffer a series of physical, social and psychological consequences which have short and long term effects. As mentioned, one of the primary social consequences is that women are rejected by their families and communities as a whole, for numerous reasons, the first being that they epitomise the homeland’s inability to protect them (14) and because they are no longer suitable, ‘pure’ marriage partners. Third, husbands who fear that their wives may have contracted HIV often instruct them to leave the household (15). When women leave their communities, the agricultural workforce is reduced in numbers, which has numerous other knock-on effects on families. Children have to grow up without mothers, do agricultural work, look after other children and deal with the effects of droughts and food shortages. The repercussions of systematic rape therefore ripple outwards much wider than only the woman who experiences the traumatic event.

Many women victims of political rape are denied access to health facilities. In order for state hospitals to assist a rape victim, she needs to present a police report. Sadly, women struggle to obtain such reports because police are reluctant to hear and acknowledge anything related to political violence. Private hospitals are available, but are too expensive for most women. This limited access to health services means that raped women do not receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) against HIV infection (16). HIV therefore spreads easily through political rape and contributes to the deterioration of communal health and spirits. In addition to the above mentioned consequences, let us not forget that raped women also suffer from numerous psychological side-effects like depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), and anxiety disorders (17).

Final thoughts

The situation in Zimbabwe may not be primarily characterised by ethnic tensions, yet the use of rape to achieve political goals is equally utilised in other African states characterised by ethnic conflict. Mugabe, the dictator of our time, has used a magnitude of ‘cleansing’ strategies in the past and rape has become another highly effective means through which he can rid Zimbabwe not only of individuals, but of communities who support political change and development.

Although numerous documents exist (for example, UN Resolution 1835 and UN Resolution 1820) that declare systematic rape a crime against humanity, little action has been directed against the perpetrators of such violence. Impunity is rampant in Zimbabwe and until the country’s political and economic situation stabilises, it is unlikely that the attacks against women will decrease, especially considering the fact that another Zimbabwean election looms, dauntingly, on the horizon.

NOTES:

(1) Claudia Forster-Towne is an External Consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Charlotte Sutherland is Research Manager for Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues and Human Rights Units ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(3) http://www.un.org
(4) http://news.bbc.co.uk/
(5) The New York Times. October 16, 2009. Zimbabwe opposition boycotts Unity Government .
(6) http://news.bbc.co.uk/
(7) Marsh, M., & Ward, J. 2006. Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in War and its Aftermath: Realities, Responses and Required Resources . UNFPA. http://www.unfpa.org/
(8) United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 2009. Use of sexual violence in armed conflict: Identifying gaps in research to inform more effective interventions.
(9) Goldstein, J. S. 2003. War and Gender: How gender shapes the war system and visa versa . UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 363-365
(10) Sow, N. 2009. Gender and Conflict: Transformation in the Great Lakes Region . International Alert.
(11) Card, C. (1996). “Rape as a weapon of war” in Hypatia 11(4): 5–18.
(12) Sow, N. 2009. Gender and Conflict: Transformation in the Great Lakes Region . International Alert.
(13) AIDS-Free World. 2009. Electing Rape: Sexual terror in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. http://www.aids-freeworld.org/images/stories/Zimbabwe/zim%20grid%20screenversionfinal.pdf
(14) Jacobs, S., Jacobson, R. & Marchbank, J. 2000. States of Conflict: gender, violence and resistance . London: Zed Books.pp. 53-55
(15) Marsh, M., & Ward, J. 2006. Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in War and its Aftermath: Realities, Responses and Required Resources . UNFPA. http://www.unfpa.org/
(16) AIDS-Free World. 2009. Electing Rape: Sexual terror in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. http://www.aids-freeworld.org/
(17) Steiner, B., Bennet, M. T., Sondorp, E., Schmitz, K. P., Mesmer, U., Rosenberger, S . 2009. “ Sexual violence in the protracted conflict of DRC programming for rape survivors in South Kivu”, in Conflict and Health , 3:3.

 

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