Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Scourge of Child Rape in Rural Zimbabwe

Thousands of girls are sexually abused every year, with the state doing little to protect them.
At sixteen, Monica Chihwai has already survived rape and physical abuse.

She told IWPR horror stories that typify the life of most girls in modern Zimbabwe, particularly in rural areas where society discriminates heavily against females.

Now living under the Girl Child Network, GCN, a non-governmental organisation for homeless and abused girls, Monica said her problems started when she was ten years old, after her mother pulled her out of school to work on the land. “She told me I should help in the fields before I find someone to marry me,” she said.

After four years at home and without schooling, Monica said her mother began pressuring her to marry a local businessman.

“After some days Marovangepo (the businessman) came with groceries which included sugar, salt, rice, milk, bread, cooking oil, tea and flour,” recalled Monica, who said he also gave her mother some money. A few weeks later Marovangepo raped her while her mother was away at an evening prayer meeting.

“He shut my mouth with his hands and tied my hands with a rope," she said. "He pushed me and I fell down. He then raped me. When my mother came I told her what had happened, but she told me not to tell anyone because it was a family secret.”

That night she did not sleep. She ran away from home the following morning and walked for five days until she reached Rusape, in eastern Zimbabwe, about 60 kilometres from her home.

She worked as a housemaid briefly in Rusape until the GCN took her in after her story was published in national newspapers. She now lives with other rape victims at a shelter in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town near Harare, the capital.

Thembelihle House, a poorly-funded HIV/AIDS charity in Bulawayo, the country's second city, can accommodate 70 patients, most of them terminally ill. Nurse Priscilla Mac-Isaacs said, "It's extremely difficult working here. Each patient has a unique story which is quite heartbreaking. [In Zimbabwe's current circumstances] people cannot afford nutrition for their own children."

Tsepi Ndlodu is one of Mac-Isaac's patients. She became infected with HIV at the age of fifteen and now she lies, thin and weak, in the terminal stages of a disease that kills more than 3,500 Zimbabweans each week, according to UNAIDS.

Tsepi reported the crime to no one immediately after she was raped. She was too terrified by the shame and the taunts that might follow. Her mother died in 1999 and she has no father. When the HIV infection progressed until by last year it was a clear AIDS illness she sought treatment at Bulawayo hospitals, where there is a six-month waiting list for AIDS consultation. No one told her about antiretroviral drugs and the way they can delay dramatically the onset of full-blown AIDS, but anyway she did not have the money to buy the medication.

Monica and Tsepi are only two of the countless thousands of girls who are sexually abused every year in a country sapped by every conceivable kind of crisis. The problems facing young girls emanate from a mix of traditional beliefs and lack of proper institutions to protect them from the hazards of life in a collapsing state.

More than 40,000 cases of rape are reported countrywide every year but care groups say the real incidence is many times higher because most go unreported. Some eighty per cent of cases that are referred to the police are of girls below the age of 16.

GCN executive director Betty Makoni said one reason rape has increased is because of a common belief, promoted by many traditional healers, among HIV-positive men that sexual intercourse with virgins is a cure for AIDS. “We believe this dangerous belief is fueling rape cases,” said Makoni.

The fact that the majority of girls raped fall in the nine to sixteen age range seems to support this belief. The youngest rape victim reported last year was three days old.

GCN has an average of six rapes reported to it each day, but it can only accommodate two victims because of financial constraints. GCN told IWPR that in 32 of Zimbabwe's 58 districts in which it works, it records an average of 700 cases of rape of girls under sixteen each month. HIV infection among raped girls is widespread.

Doctors who spoke to IWPR said the real impact of rape, HIV/AIDS, the limited availability of antiretroviral drugs and deep poverty would only be felt a few years down the line. “We have a generation that is being condemned to die of AIDS because they are being raped and infected daily,” said one doctor.

For rape victims recourse to the courts is of limited use because of a heavily corrupted police force and judiciary. Makoni recalled how a man convicted of raping a 10-year-old girl was ordered to either serve a five-day prison term or pay a token fine. He chose the latter.

“Such cases are rampant, and many never even get to court because of the unchecked graft, " said Makoni. "Organisations like ours dealing with rape face threats and victimisation if we try to report cases involving government and party officials. The intimidation is really strong when the cases involve big guys.”

Makoni said she receives many calls from mysterious people who want to silence her. She said she had been accused by top government officials of co-authoring a United Nations report with Anna Tibaijuka, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's special envoy, on last year's Operation Marumbatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Rubbish), which led to thousands of homes of poor people being bulldozed and torched by the government in the name of urban renewal. The report said the operation was "inhuman" and that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had shown "indifference to human suffering." Annan described the situation as "profoundly distressing".

In a population of 11.5 million people, the UN estimates there are now more than 1.3 million AIDS orphans, that is children who have lost one or both parents to the epidemic. These orphans are particular targets for abusers. Many end up as street children in the cities and towns where they are easy prey for rapacious men and prostitution syndicates. Care organisations believe the catastrophe can only get worse because a lack of any government initiative to deal with it.

A recent report by the UN children's fund, UNICEF, said there are more than 5000 children on the streets of Harare and the number is growing.

Chris Makufa, director of Streets Ahead, a care group working with street children, said the numbers grow daily because of increasing poverty and abuse. "Rape, abuse and violence drive the kids on to the streets in the first place," he said. "But it becomes a vicious circle because on the streets the boys are sodomised and girls are raped again.”

UNICEF's spokesman in Harare, James Elder, said the organisation is "horrified" by the high incidence of sexual abuse of Zimbabwean children. He said his agency is attempting to step up its work with grassroots communities, trying to help them spot signs of child abuse and protect their children. "With so many economic challenges, coupled with the very high number of orphaned children, there is an incredible level of vulneralility here," said Elder.

Dzikamai Chidyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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