Rape and torture used as political weapon in Zimbabwe

“The main issue for many women in Zimbabwe is politically motivated violence. And it is not just rape that we are talking about. We are talking about beating and violent sexual assault of women, just because they vote for a party of their choice,” says Zimbabwean women’s rights activist and filmmaker Kudakwashe Chitsike from the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU). She has been in Copenhagen to talk about politically motivated violence against women in Zimbabwe.

Kudakwashe Chitsike is speaking of the thousands of women who were systematically and deliberately raped and tortured in the run-up to the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe by men loyal to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. The rapes are an attempt to break the back of Mugabe’s political opponents by intimidating them and their husbands and families into not participating in the political process.

Things have not improved in Zimbabwe since 2008. According to a newly published report by RAU titled ‘Women and Political Violence: An Update,’ “the situation on the ground [in Zimbabwe] has not changed in any material detail from that on 2008 … [in fact] the political terrain is even more explosive and tense.”

There is therefore a very real chance that the upcoming elections to be held this year will see similar instances of politically motivated violence against supporters of Mugabe’s political opponents, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), not least women, unless something urgent is done to stop Mugabe and his henchmen.

Ineffective international law

“52% of women who participated in a survey in Zimbabwe stated that they were victims of political violence,” says Kudakwashe, “meaning that they had encountered some form of violence as a result of their political affiliation. This is unacceptable considering that Zimbabwe has signed regional and international instruments protecting and promoting women’s rights.”

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as other similar regional treaties such as the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and discrimination against women is forbidden in accordance to section 23 (2) of Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Additionally, rape as part of a systematic attack against a civilian population has been regarded as a crime against humanity since 1998 by the international community, as well as a war crime. And several UN Security Council resolutions (such as Security Council Resolution 1325) have been promulgated that recognise the need to stop women being used as weapons during conflict situation, although very few of the perpetrators have been jailed or convicted.

But the present level of intervention by the UN and the international community is vastly insufficient, she says, and is not felt in the villages of Zimbabwe. “Without looking at the situation on the ground, the UN resolutions will not do the women any good. It is not being applied within the country.”

Women who are affiliated to the MDC receive little actual protection, as the recurring examples of the use of rape as a political weapon in Zimbabwe show. “It has been reported during the liberation war in the seventies and since 2000 there has been increasing reports of political motivated violence against women,” Kudakwashe says.

But even though rape as a political weapon has been used in Zimbabwe for many years, the systematic raping of an estimated 2-3000 MDC-supporters by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF youth militia, Central Intelligence Organisation agents, soldiers, police and so-called “war veterans” affiliated with ZANU-PF in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, stand out in scope and brutality.

When rape is not just rape

Many of the women who were systematically raped in 2008 were also severely beaten prior to the actual rape and then gang-raped until they lost consciousness. Many have had their property destroyed, lost their livelihood and have been intimidated by the perpetrators or police officers since being raped. And many have been stigmatised and ostracised by their husbands and communities, and have subsequently had to flee their houses and communities, many across the border to neighbouring South Africa.

Most of the victims subsequently have not reported the rape to the authorities, nor have they received trauma care for the sleeplessness, flashbacks, nightmares and feelings of hopelessness they experienced, according to a report on politically motivated rape in Zimbabwe from 2010 made by RAU and the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors.

And since politically motivated violence against women is severely underreported, the problem is probably bigger in scope than such reports can anticipate, says Kudakwashe. “We know that women do not report rapes, we know the numbers are much higher because women and men know that perpetrators act with impunity.”

Victims of politically motivated rape receive little protection or help from Zimbabwe’s legal and medical care system either. Many of the victims from 2008 were refused treatment by the state medical facilities or found it difficult to even pay the administration fees that are required to acquire a protection order against the perpetrators.

This is the case, even though the victims of politically motivated rape are often severely traumatised by the psychological and physical consequences, which include fear of HIV infection and pregnancy, of the act of rape itself.

Systematically raped by the system

The reason for the lack of support from Zimbabwe’s state institutions for the victims becomes evident when one understands that the orders to systematically rape and torture MDC-supporters probably comes more or less straight from President Mugabe himself.

Mugabe has been quite open about how any opposition to his rule is to be dealt with. “Those who try to cause disunity among our people must watch out because death will befall them,” he said in March 2000 during a ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Pungwe-Mutare pipeline. He was even more specific in singling out the MDC following the general strike in 2003, when he warned “the MDC and its leadership” that “those who play with fire will not only be burnt, but consumed by that fire.”

Such statements are clearly meant as a thinly veiled ‘go-ahead’ to Mugabe’s followers in their intimidation of civil society in general and supporters of the MDC in particular, and have clearly been acted upon. Not least because using rape as a strategy for cowing the opposition into silence is a cheap method of suppression, and one less prone to international condemnation than actual armed conflict. There is no need for expensive weaponry and no shortage of penniless young men who are willing to contribute for a small fee in a sexist and politically oppressive society such as Zimbabwe.

And with the next election in Zimbabwe to be held before the end of this year, many fear that the systematic politically motivated raping of 2008 will reappear to help ensure that Mugabe remains in power.

So unless the impunity of the perpetrators – both those who commit the actual acts of rape and those who order or sanction it – comes to an end, we are likely to hear more horrific stories of politically motivated rape on Mugabe’s political opponents.

Loosing faith in the system

As for those who have already been raped in order for Mugabe to stay in power, they have seemingly lost faith in Zimbabwe’s justice system, the potency of the MDC or the intervention of the international community on their behalf.

Indeed, most of the victims interviewed by RAU in 2010 said that they were more concerned with rebuilding their lives through “immediate medical, social and psychological support” than in “justice” being served.

Raping women thus excludes women from participating in the political process in countries such as Zimbabwe, and is subsequently not only a psychological or health-related problem for the victims, but also a democratic problem for the country as a whole.

And the problem is by no means unique to Zimbabwe. Political motivated violence against women is a problem that is both regional and global in scope, says Kudakwashe. “Politically motivated rape is used in a lot of African countries, for instance, including Angola, Rwanda, DRC, Ivory Coast and Libya.”


Politically motivated violence against women is clearly both vast and multifaceted problem that will not go away by itself. Reporting and analysing the problem is one thing, but actually finding a solution is much harder.

According to Kudakwashe, any durable solution must include a coordinated effort that also involves people in Zimbabwe mobilising and revealing the crimes that go on in their neighbourhoods and their country as a whole to the world.

“We are failing to mobilise people living within Zimbabwe,” she says. “In 2008, people just stayed in their houses. Instead, the community needs to act together. Civil society in Zimbabwe needs to let people know their rights. The government is also failing. We are forgetting to engage men as well, to make the issue of violence against women a national issue. And we need to do a lot more around advocacy to involve people abroad.”

“Ending politically motivated violence, especially against women is what we are calling for,” Kudakwashe says in conclusion, “as this will encourage women to participate in political processes at all levels in Zimbabwe. Violence should not be used to create fear. Results achieved through fear are not legitimate.”

[The quotes in the article are from Kudakwashe Chitsike’s presentation at a debate meeting on “Political Violence against Women in Fragile States” at DanChurchAid in Copenhagen on August 18, as well as from the author’s correspondence with Kudakwashe Chitsike.]

Africa Contact and Zimbabwean partner organisation, the National Constitutional Assembly, have started a campaign in Denmark, Zimbabwe and the EU to focus on documenting and combating political violence against women, giving women a political voice in Zimbabwe and contributing to the development of a vibrant civil society, where also the concerns of women will be raised.

Read more about the campaign ‘ACT NOW AGAINST POLITICAL VIOLENCE – Targeting Women in Zimbabwe’

See interview with Kudakwashe Chitsike here.

See the film ‘Hear Us – Zimbabwean Women Affected by Political Violence Speak Out’ by Kudakwashe Chitsike here

2 Responses to Rape and torture used as political weapon in Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Er boligskatten vigtigere end politivold, systematisk voldtægt og sultkatastrofer? « Stiff Kitten's Blog – development & socio-political issues

  2. Pingback: Ligeværdige partnerskaber er vejen frem | Kenworthy News Media

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