Sexual violence is commonly used as a form of torture against women, many of whom have been silent about it. Until now. Qudsiya Karrim reports.
Egloo Sibanda looks me in the eye and says with determination: “I want you to use my real name. For too long, Zimbabwean women have been silent about the crimes against them. It’s not going to solve anything if we keep hiding.”
We are in a small room at the Southern African Centre for Survivors of Torture in Braamfontein, where a few women are sharing their stories with the Mail & Guardian. They are from Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo—countries where sexual violence is commonly used as a systemic form of torture.
“Women are vulnerable to torture and its effects, specifically because rape is used as a weapon of war against them,” says Anna Moyo, legal officer at the centre. “In Zimbabwe it’s used to punish women who are activists and opposition members, or whose husbands are. We also have cases were women are raped to infect them intentionally with HIV.”
It is unknown how many of the estimated two million Zimbabweans in South Africa are victims of organised violence or torture, but studies by local human rights organisations suggest the number is high.
A 2008 survey by the Zimbabwe Torture Victims Project found that between 38% and 62% of the 285 Zimbabweans interviewed at refugee reception offices in South Africa reported experiencing torture, with the majority citing political reasons for fleeing to South Africa. Despite this, only a small percentage of them have been granted asylum permits or refugee status.
Local civil society groups and NGOs that provide rehabilitation for torture victims say atrocities against women often involve unspeakable brutality.
Charlotte Schaer, who works with survivors of violence and torture and runs art-for-healing projects in Johannesburg, says there is a substantial amount of prejudice, stigma and fear that keeps women from speaking out about their experiences. “Despite this,” Schaer says, “these women display extraordinary strength and courage to talk about their ordeals, to shed tears but to carry on living. This is how they reaffirm their dignity and empower themselves.”
Sibanda (40) was a schoolteacher in Matabeleland. Zanu-PF militia came looking for her husband, a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) member, during the 2005 parliamentary elections. That’s when her nightmare began. First, visits to her school and home at odd hours. Then the sound of boots trying to kick down her front door. And, always, the threats.
“We’ll kill you if you don’t tell us where your husband is. We won’t spare your children either,” they told her. The psychological abuse persisted for almost two years. “I had no idea where my husband was but they did not believe me. I feared for my life; I was sure they would really carry out their threats.”
Sibanda fled to South Africa in 2007, leaving her two sons in a stranger’s care. She has lost contact with her husband but calls her sons regularly. “Even today they tell me that strange men come to the house, asking where your mummy and daddy are? My chances of going back are slim. I have to stay away to protect my children.” She has an asylum permit and is trying to find a job.
Daya* (33), also from Zimbabwe, sought political asylum in South Africa in 2007. She had worked as a secretary for the MDC. In September 2006, she and her six male co-workers were kidnapped by Zanu-PF militia. “They blindfolded us and threw us into a van. We were taken to a farm and severely beaten for hours. I was gang raped —”
She holds back tears as she tells me that the men stabbed her brother, also an MDC member. He died later.
“They said they would kill my family if they ever saw me again. I left the country as soon as I sorted out my travel papers.” Daya has been renewing her Section 22 permit every three months and is job hunting. “South Africa is not all that safe but it’s better than Zimbabwe — I think I have a better chance of staying alive here,” she says.
Sarah* (30) is from the DRC. On January 21 2009 she and her family hid in the bathroom while rebels attacked her village, Kiwanja, in the north Kivu region. The men found them easily.
“They ordered my mother to have sex with my husband. When she refused, they shot her. Then they ordered my brother-in-law to sleep with me. They shot him too when he said no. They also shot my two sisters dead, right in front of me. Then they told me to sleep with my father — I don’t remember anything after that. I woke up the next morning in a hospital and I was bleeding from my private parts.”
Sarah’s neighbour, who took her to the hospital, told her that she had been gang raped by the men and lost consciousness. Miraculously, Sarah and her father survived. She came to South Africa the next month and is trying to rebuild her life. “It’s difficult. What they did to me still haunts me,” she says.
* Not their real names
The definition of torture
The United Nations Convention against Torture outlines four main elements in its definition:
- The infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering ;
- The intentional or deliberate infliction of pain ;
- The pursuit of a specific purpose, such as gaining information, punishment, intimidation or any reason based on discrimination; and
- Is committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or any person acting in an official capacity.
But this definition doesn’t recognise torture by non-state agents such as militia and rebel groups, prevalent in Africa.
The African Union adopted the Robben Island Guidelines for the Prevention of Torture in 2002 to include actions by these groups.
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