Before the strange men burst into the house where she was sleeping alone, before they scoured the house for her sister and her husband – political enemies they “most likely wanted to kill” that night – before they harassed her with a blizzard of questions she could not answer, before they each took turns to rape her violently, one rough man after the other, before she faced cameras to pour out her story – before all of this, Netsai Moyo (not her real name) was an everyday, unmarried woman living with her parents on a plot in Chivhu, central Zimbabwe.
But following that February 2008 night she can not recount without breaking into plaintive sobs, Netsai’s life will not be the same again; she got pregnant and infected with the deadly HIV virus from the gang-rape; her son, too, tested positive for HIV, and she says traveling and getting anti-retroviral drugs in her rural hometown is a nightmare.
Netsai (pictured left) was attacked in my hometown, Chitungwiza, while visiting her sister, whose husband is a well-known musician and opposition supporter; his songs openly deride the government and President Robert Mugabe. When the intruders could not get their target – the couple had already escaped – they settled for Netsai, who is also a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC.)
I have not met Netsai in person to know her story; I have attended the screening of a documentary the chronicles the cases of five victims of politically motivated rape in my home country, Zimbabwe. It is the opening day of the Annual Human Rights Film Festival at Maitisong in Gaborone; the nine-day festival is run by the center for human rights in Botswana, Ditshwanelo.
Dozens of people pack the auditorium for the screening, afterwards, fielding questions at Kudakwashe Chitsike, program manager at Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU,) a Harare-based non-profit that made the film.
The documentary – A State of Shame: Politically Motivated Rape in Zimbabwe – chronicles, in their own words, the harrowing tales of four other victims, each a woman in a different part of Zimbabwe, each raped by one and sometimes several people, and each, for the crime of supporting the “wrong” political party.
One was dragged from her house where she slept with her child, blindfolded, then gang-raped in a nearby bush; her husband was in hiding, and for three days after he returned, she was too traumatized to tell him of the attack. Another, as soon she had been raped, was thrown into a nearby river as her assailant disappeared into the bushes. A third, who was raped on three different occasions by a militia commander – including once at the “base” where they held her hostage – felt “relieved” because at least on the first attack, her rapist had the courtesy of wearing a condom.
Politically motivated rape goes as far back as the gory 1970s civil war that led to independence in Zimbabwe. In 2008, the climactic year in country’s political crisis, scores of women were seized, abducted and raped because their or their husbands’ political leanings.
“These are the stories of only five women,” says RAU program manager Chitsike, about her organization’s film. “No-one knows exact the number of women raped in Zimbabwe. There could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands.”
Estimates put the number of women raped between May and July 2008 at 2,000, according to the film festival’s official flyer. Where women are raped in conflict areas such as Congo, Ivory Coast, Bosnia and other countries – in what ex-United Nations special representative Margot Wallström terms a “war within a war” – Zimbabwe’s politically motivated rape cases are rather a “war within a peace.”
And according to Chitsike, the absence of a full-blown war presents a challenge of rallying support and sympathy about these stories outside of Zimbabwe. Internally, her organization has met indifferent responses from government leaders.
“Why are you showing us MDC (opposition) women only?” they ask, and go on with their business, while Chitsike’s organization insists that their project was open for women from all parties. Chitsike adds that although no additional security will be provided for the women in her documentary, they bravely agreed to have their faces shown and their stories captured on film in order to spread awareness.
While police systematically ignore these cases, a few women have gotten justice when they removed their stories from the political context within which they occured. The militia commander who raped an unnamed woman and Judith, one of the women in the film, was later charged, tried, and convicted. He received a 52-year sentence, but with good behavior, will serve only 25 years in jail.
According to Chitsike, Judith only got justice after she reported her rape without mentioning the political motivations of her rapist. Despite these isolated cases of justice served, the authorities’ blind eye to politically motivated sexual crimes remains an uphill battle for human and women’s rights activists in Zimbabwe, like Chitsike and her organization, RAU.