Zimbabwe looks to new domestic violence law

By Chris Hufstader

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Women activists in Zimbabwe are eagerly anticipating a domestic violence bill will become law in 2007. The Women's Coalition—a group of 27 organizations—pushed the legislature through both houses of Zimbabwe's Parliament by late 2006. Members of the coalition expect President Mugabe to sign the bill in the coming months.

The domestic violence bill is an attempt to thrust domestic violence out from behind closed doors and into the public realm, a difficult task in Zimbabwe and other African countries where many people do not consider women equal to men, and view abuse of women in the household to be a private matter. According to the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), one of every four women in the country suffers some form of abuse in her lifetime, and sixty percent of murder cases are related to domestic violence.

Some notable and progressive features of the proposed domestic violence bill:

  • An expanded definition of domestic violence, including psychological and economic abuse;
  • Outlaws abuse derived from cultural practices that degrade women, such as forced marriages, or pledging women and girls to serve others as a means to appease spirits or repay debts
  • Requires police stations to have at least one officer on duty with expertise in domestic violence at all times;
  • Empowers police officers to arrest alleged perpetrators without warrant in cases where harm is imminent
  • A streamlined process for courts to issue protection orders;
  • An Anti Domestic Violence Committee, composed of representatives of government ministries and non-governmental organizations, charged with the constant review of domestic violence and the consistent application of the new law.

The Women's Coalition includes three Oxfam America partners: the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU), and the Musasa Project. In previous years Oxfam America also funded the work of three other coalition members, the Association of Women's Clubs, Zimbabwe Adult Learners Association, and the Federation of African Media Women's Association.

If the bill is signed as expected it will conclude nearly six years of work. The Coalition's first efforts in 1999 were to educate women about a proposed constitution to replace one negotiated at the end of the liberation war in 1982. Critics of the draft constitution said it discriminated against women based on customary law. The Women's Coalition led a public education campaign that contributed to a defeat of the proposed constitution in a referendum in 2000.

The Women's Coalition then turned its attention to legislation to help improve the situation of women in Zimbabwe, and began researching and actually drafting a new domestic violence bill. It was first proposed to the Minister of Justice in 2001. In 2004 the Women's Coalition submitted a petition to the Minister with 10,000 signatures. In 2005 the effort gained momentum as Joyce Mujuru was named vice president, and the government established a new Ministry of Women's Affairs, and appointed another woman, Oppha Muchinguri, to this highly placed position. Both were supporters of the domestic violence bill.

Overcoming resistance

The Women's Coalition did encounter some political resistance. First, it had to get approval from a special committee for legislature in the president's cabinet before the bill could be introduced to Parliament.

Emilia Muchawa, director of ZWLA, attended the cabinet committee meeting, and said that there were concerns about the articles that outlaw some traditional practices. "There were seven ministers, only one was a woman," she said. "They talked it over and one said, 'if this goes through, I would be arrested.' They could not look at it objectively. We asked them to separate their public role from their private life." Although the cabinet committee was not enthusiastic, Muchawa said they did feel a sense of responsibility. "They knew that they would have to step out of their personal life and answer for their constituency," she said.

After the cabinet approved the legislation in May of 2006, the Women's Coalition then had to find a way to promote the bill in Parliament, where only 24 of the 150 seats are held by women. The bill successfully passed in the House of Assembly in July. However in debates in the Senate in October, more resistance emerged as one member of Parliament, Timothy Mubhawu, said the bill would degrade the status of men and stated flatly, "Women are not equal to men."

Women's Coalition members protested the next day outside Parliament, and officials of Mubhawu's party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), disavowed his statements and suspended him from party membership. The bill passed the Senate and is now awaiting the president's signature. "I am sure he has a positive interest in signing the bill," Muchawa said.

Legal reforms marching on

When it becomes law, Zimbabwe's domestic violence bill will be the latest in a series of important legislative reforms that are helping women claim and defend their rights in southern Africa. It follows two important laws in neighboring Mozambique: the 1997 Land Law, and the 2004 Family Law, both of which help women gain legal title to and inherit land, an essential asset for a secure livelihood in a country dependent on agriculture. The Family Law also established clear laws for divorce, rights for women to hold jobs, and a minimum age for marriage. Oxfam America funded leading members of a coalition of women's organizations in Mozambique that researched, proposed, and promoted these laws.

As in Mozambique, Oxfam America's partners working together in Zimbabwe played important roles in the development, drafting, and lobbying of the domestic violence bill. "Oxfam America was the first organization to invest in the Women's Coalition," Muchawa said, noting that having the Coalition in place helped the work on the domestic violence bill get started. "We had a structure around which we could coalesce on this issue," she said.

Having a variety of groups in the Coalition helped it in three important areas. The first was ensuring the legitimacy of the bill they proposed. "They took the bill out to the public, and made sure there was adequate consultation," said Margaret Samuriwo, Oxfam America's senior program officer in southern Africa. "They also educated women in Parliament, so they understood the bill and could support it. Women in both the ZANU-PF and MDC parties in Parliament worked together to garner enough support." Lastly, Oxfam support for research, which documented the extent of domestic violence in the country and its toll on women, also proved crucial in this advocacy campaign. Having the facts and figures at hand helped members of the Women's Coalition make their case in Parliament and in the media.