Traditional leaders in Zimbabwe's Masvingo Province, in the southeast of the country, are partnering with gender activists in a bid to curb domestic violence.
"Our partnership with traditional leaders started when we approached them [for help] in publicising the Domestic Violence Bill before it was signed into law ... early this year," said Mabel Sikhosana, Masvingo provincial coordinator of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCZ), an umbrella body for organisations fighting for the rights of women and girls.
Although traditional chiefs are generally patriarchal, she told IRIN that activists had been pleasantly surprised by their commitment and willingness to speak out against domestic violence, and chiefs in all of the province's seven districts were actively supporting outreach programmes for the eradication of domestic violence.
"What we did was to first hold meetings with traditional chiefs, where we would first sensitise them about issues to do with domestic violence," Sikhosana explained. "This is actually a pilot project, but some chiefs who heard about our work would invite us to come and address their communities on issues to do with domestic violence, including HIV/AIDS, women's and girls' rights, and gender equality."
The project, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), aims to promote the effective use of legislation in combating domestic violence and creating awareness of the rights of women and girls.
"The pilot project on the Domestic Violence Act will enable all stakeholders to jointly uphold and protect the rights of women and children, thereby favouring the emergence of a just and equitable society conducive for sustainable development and poverty reduction," the Canadian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Roxanne Dube, told IRIN.
"If the realities and voices of half of the population are not fully recognised, the reduction of poverty and the creation of a more secure, equitable and prosperous world will remain a distant dream," she said.
CIDA is also funding the Girl Child Community Gender, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Capacity Building Programme, which aims to increase knowledge of HIV/AIDS issues and is largely based in rural areas, where the project hopes to reach up to 10,000 girls aged 18 and below.
In the process, the programme will train 300 coordinators, 200 traditional, religious and local leaders, 100 law enforcement agents and up to 5,000 members of the community.
"The project stems from the recognition that awareness and knowledge about issues on HIV/AIDS, the girl child and gender equity are critical to the development of girl children, and contribute to the elimination of discriminatory social and cultural practices that subordinate and marginalise them," Dube said.
Awareness campaigns pay off
According to Netsai Mushonga, national coordinator of the WCZ, programmes designed to disseminate information about domestic violence, and particularly awareness programmes for the vulnerability and needs of the girl child, were starting to bear fruit: "Domestic violence in some areas where we have done awareness campaigns is no longer acceptable."
|Domestic violence in some areas where we have done awareness campaigns is no longer acceptable|
The Domestic Violence Bill was signed into law on 13 February 2007 by President Robert Mugabe and gazetted soon after, but the Act will not come into force until the President fixes the date of commencement by Statutory Instrument, which allows different dates of commencement to be fixed for different provisions.
All major police stations have victim-friendly offices, which are supposed to be manned by officers who have received training in how to handle cases of sexual abuse.
Sgt Choice Chikuni, of the Victim Friendly Programme, told a meeting of women in Masvingo town, the provincial capital, that as a result of the absence of a commencement date for the Act, it was difficult to handle cases of violence in homes. "In most cases ... we are treating cases of domestic violence as common assault."