Economic problems exacerbate violence against women

Zimbabwe's economic problems are exacerbating violence against women and their sexual exploitation, women's groups say.

"With all the economic problems, violence has taken a new twist," matrimonial lawyer Nomsa Ncube told IRIN on Thursday. Ncube was one of the organisers of a march on government offices in Zimbababwe's second city Bulawayo this week, to protest violence against women.

Over the last few years Zimbabwe has suffered serious economic problems. Salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation which hit 144 percent in October, and unemployment has risen. The land reform programme has also seen farms change hands with thousands of farmers and farmworkers facing an uncertain future.

The government has tried to intervene through price controls on basic commodities, and by fixing the foreign exchange rate. But this has spawned a lucrative market for hoarders and speculators who have taken advantage of shortages.

"Our main concern at the moment is that women are being forced to have sex with hoarders [of commodities]," Ncube said.

"The woman goes to the corner house where things are being sold and she is served by a man usually between 19 and 25. She is charged a very high price for maize and says she doesn't have enough money, and her kids haven't eaten. He looks her over and says she has something else to pay with and tells her to come back in the evening.

"I find that so cruel. A lot of women related the same experience," Ncube said. "We feel so frustrated. That's why we went and banged our pots on the march."

Violence against women can also have a direct political dimension.

A researcher for an organisation that studies organised violence said there were many cases of politically active women who supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the March presidential election who were targeted for assaults, and sometimes rape.

"There are still some new cases of assault and death threats, usually because the women support the MDC," the researcher said.

Sheila Mahere, director of the Musasa Project, an organisation that provides shelter for victims of domestic violence said: "We feel domestic violence is on the increase and reporting on it is on the increase, which is a good thing because it is not hidden."

But, she added, some women have been too frightened to lay charges of assault, or because the perpetrator could be a bread winner.

"We have seen an increase in relation to the economic environment in Zimbabwe. When you have shrinking resources in the home, this can exacerbate a situation between spouses, it causes frustration and unleashes violence. We don't want poverty to be an excuse for violence, but it does exacerbate the situation," Mahere said.

The Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) have taken another approach, and are currently calculating the losses domestic violence causes the economy.

A similar American study found that companies reported they lost anything between US $3-5 billion a year in profit from women and men who missed work because of gender-based violence.

ZWRCN would calculate the cost to the economy of one or both spouses dying, the cost to the government of sending an ambulance to help a women who had been beaten, the cost of the investigating officer's time and resources, and the cost to the courts and prisons as the case was followed through, ZWRCN director Isabella Matambanadzo said.

"We want to know what price we are paying for violence against women," Matambanadzo said.

For many women, new hope would come when the Domestic Violence Act, drafted by the Musasa Project, in consultation with other organisations, was finally passed.

Mahere said they were lobbying parliament and women's groups to make sure the draft goes through unchanged and becomes law.

However, Zimbabwean women still needed support institutions like a gender commission to ensure proper implementation of anti-violence laws, she said.