How gendered violence is used to try to silence Zimbabwe’s female politicians
Men are weaponising online abuse and physical violence to keep women’s voices out of politics
Women politicians and activists in Zimbabwe are facing a torrent of gender-based violence, both online and off, in the build-up to next year’s general election.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a huge problem in this deeply conservative country, affecting the lives of millions. One in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and one in four have experienced sexual violence, according to the 2015 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey.
It’s a particular problem in the political arena, where many male politicians commonly use SGBV in an attempt to tame and control women. Zimbabwean society has normalised the weaponisation of violence to silence women who are viewed as too politically opinionated. Women who are bold enough to speak truth to power, who are trying to close the gender gap in politics, are enormously vulnerable to this kind of behaviour.
Politicians as prostitutes
An unfavourable political climate and patriarchal views that disdain feminist leadership deter women from fully participating in electoral processes.
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The instigation of violence against women in politics is underpinned by sociocultural factors that imply that female politicians are ‘homewreckers’ who achieve political influence through immoral behaviour. Many people hold the view that women in leadership and decision-making roles are akin to prostitutes and have slept their way to the top.
The term ‘prostitute’ is part of the political grammar in Zimbabwe, used to discipline women’s participation in party politics
At a recent meeting on violence against women in elections, organised by the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ), the facilitator suggested that male politicians justify their barbaric behaviour of asking for sexual favours by the argument that: “Every woman is doing it – what is so First Lady about you?”
According to academic Rudo Mudiwa, in her 2020 paper ‘Prostitutes, Wives and Political Power in Zimbabwe’, “the term ‘prostitute’ is part of the political grammar in Zimbabwe, used to discipline women’s participation in party politics.” Such terms are often used as a social control mechanism to prohibit women from being actively involved in politics.
However, some women do break through – take the former first lady Grace Mugabe, and former vice-president Joyce Mujuru, as well as opposition political figures past and present, such as Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, Dr Thokozani Khupe and Linda Masarira. All managed to develop their political careers under such socially and culturally constructed constraints.
The rise of social media has shown that SGBV is structural and deeply ingrained in Zimbabwean culture. When men lose arguments or fail to back up their opinions with tangible evidence and facts, they often resort to intimidation and emotional and verbal abuse online. Credible female politicians who base their arguments on academic research are frequent victims of cyberbullying, especially body shaming and slut shaming.
“Cyberbullying remains one of the reasons why women shy away from politics,” says Sitabile Dewa, executive director of the Women Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence. She says online abuse is “used as a tool against women” to make them withdraw from politics.
For example, Zimbabweans who disagree with the political views of Linda Masarira, president of the opposition party Labour, Economists and African Democrats (LEAD), have resorted to bashing her on social media for not bathing. Masarira, who has a dark complexion, has been ruthlessly dragged on Twitter by veteran politicians obsessed with winning political arguments.
Earlier this year, journalist Edmund Kudzayi alleged in a series of tweets that politician and lawyer Fadzayi Mahere had had an affair with a prominent Harare businessman, resulting in the breakdown of his marriage. Mahere – who is a spokesperson for the opposition party Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) – denied the allegations and sued Kudzayi for defamation (which he denies). She is also demanding $100,000 in damages.
It is hoped that the new Cyber & Data Protection Act, introduced at the end of 2021, might help protect female politicians from being bullied online. Among other things, it criminalises cyberbullying, harassment, false allegations and the sharing of sensitive information without consent.
Flawed electoral policies
The country’s constitution, rewritten in 2013, underpins women’s political rights – specifically in sections 17 (gender balance), 56 (equality and non-discrimination) and 80 (rights of women). In addition, a quota system means that 60 extra seats are reserved for women in the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament), in addition to the 210 seats open to both men and women.
But women remain underrepresented politically. Statistics from the last elections in 2018 reveal women make up 48% of the Senate (the upper house of Parliament), 31.5% of the National Assembly and only 13.3% at local government level. By-elections this March resulted in five women winning at local government level compared to 23 men, and 19 female councillors compared to 103 men.
Flawed electoral processes also limit the participation of women. The recent increase in nomination fees for candidates, for instance, is a major structural barrier for women, who already face the gendered impact of poverty, as well as for people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. It also increases women’s vulnerability to sextortion.
The problem of a corrupt judicial system that tends to favour the powerful and influential is another cause for concern. This encourages a culture of silence among victims of political violence, who are not confident in the efficiency or effectiveness of the judicial system. Instead, the victims themselves are often attacked.
In 2020, three female opposition activists – Cecilia Chimbiri, Joana Mamombe MP and Netsai Marova – were abducted by unknown assailants, and reportedly sexually abused and tortured, after protesting against poor health service delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of investigating what had happened, police arrested the three women on allegations of faking their abduction. After two years of court hearings, the case is still ongoing, with the latest hearing due in a couple of weeks.
In June this year, CCC activist Moreblessing Ali was found dead after allegedly being abducted two weeks earlier. The police were accused of not investigating her murder properly because of suspected links to the ruling Zanu PF party, which Zanu PF has denied. Her family were forced into hiding and the family lawyer Job Sikhala was charged with inciting unrest, while a suspect, Pius Jamba, is awaiting trial.
Next year’s election
Zimbabwe is gearing up for next year’s general election, and there have already been several reports of an escalation of SGBV cases within political circles.
In March, Thokozile Dube, the CCC candidate in a local government by-election, was attacked at home by a gang of 40 assailants. The mob reportedly wanted her to withdraw from the election. She complained of ongoing intimidation from “the local Zanu PF leadership, which [has] constantly dissuaded me from contesting in the polls”.
Amnesty International has similarly raised concerns about assaults on opposition supporters and candidates, including Dube.
And last month it was reported that “Zanu PF thugs” had allegedly incited violence and undressed female CCC community organisers during a by-election in Matobo – which the party has denied. In response, WCOZ released a statement saying that such incidents “are a constant reminder that violence is a persistent menace that reverses the gains of gender equality and women’s full participation in democratic processes”.
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