Attending court sessions could be a sort of comic relief if not-so-serious or petty cases are being handled.
In one session a man who stood accused of loitering and resisting arrest made inconsistent and incoherent statements that left the court in stitches.
There is also a recent case of a Zvishavane man who answered, “I was born on 1 May in July,” when Magistrate Sherpard Munjanja asked him to state his correct date of birth.
However, there are also depressing cases that the courts deal with every day.
Standing in the dock at Masvingo Criminal Court is a rugged, bald-headed man sporting a long beard. He looks confident and at ease, making strong gestures while cross-examining the complainant, a thin and frail-looking woman in a long dress and sandals.
She seems to be in her early 30s but you can easily tell she is one of those less fortunates from the countryside.
She spiritedly tries to prove her case where she alleges having been physically abused by a man on the other side, but the man, whom I soon discover to be the woman’s husband, makes counter accusations of his own.
A witness is then called from outside, this time a younger woman in her late teens but she looks as wretched and traumatised as the other woman.
She narrates how her sister – the complainant – was beaten to a pulp and left unconscious on the day in question in a dispute involving food.
She makes more of the same allegations against the accused: he is bad-tempered, he batters her, her sister and the children for no good reason, and at times he denies them food and is very possessive.
“We are both married to him and he has two more wives at home with a total of 16 children,” the sisters later tell this reporter.
Besides being newly resettled farmers in the Mazare area in Masvingo North, they are also devout members of the Johane Marange church, an apostolic sect widely known for its pro-polygamy, anti-immunisation and anti-modern medicine doctrine.
Lucia*, the younger sister, has lost three of her four children to what she suspects were immunisable infections.
Their husband is a war veteran who gets his monthly pension but hardly spares a penny for his numerous wives, except giving them food rations which he considers adequate.
“He was his usual aggressive self that day, beating me with clenched fists, throwing me to the ground and kicking me until I lost consciousness. Lucia fled and spent the night in the bush and I woke up the following day at Masvingo General Hospital,” said the woman, who chose to be identified as Angeline.
Neighbours who had called the police had presumed her dead but after she regained consciousness, the police asked if she wanted to open charges against her husband and she hesitantly agreed.
Underlining the abuse is a long history of animosity between Angeline and the other wives who used their seniority in the polygamous marriage to smear Angeline and Lucia.
As a result, the two sisters became punching bags; suffering all kinds of physical and emotional abuse but they hung on to the marriage “for the sake of their children.”
This time, they decided enough was enough and relocated, with their five children, to their older sister’s homestead but their husband followed them and threatened their hosts with death for keeping the two.
Angeline fled to Chivhu leaving all her children – the oldest being 12 and the youngest 2 – behind and is trying to find a job while Lucia took her surviving child to Kadoma where she now squats.
Barely able to make ends meet and with other children to take care of, their elder sister’s husband no longer wants Angeline’s children at his homestead.
“I don’t even have legal proof that the children are mine because their father acquired their birth certificates with his first wife posing as their mother and he is reluctant to get one for Lucia’s child.
“I am worried because most of my relatives have also turned against me for going to the courts, which contravenes church rules,” Angeline says.
The husband was sentenced to five weeks community service at a rural school for the abuse.
Angeline says the husband chose not to have her listed as the mother on the children’s birth certificates to deny her a share of his estate in case he dies, for she, “being young as I am, would claim a share of his money and spend it with other men.”
Sharon Moffat of The Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) says her organisation often deals with cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) but more effort must be applied to sensitisation.
“It doesn’t merely have to be a matter of conscientising women on their rights, it also has to be about sensitising men on how violence affects not only women but men themselves and society as a whole,” says Moffat.
Issues of women’s rights have received considerable attention at national level with the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development.
Those rights, if indications of the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey are anything to go by, remain largely utopian as 15.3 percent of women in Masvingo are in polygamous marriages or unions while 6.8 percent are recorded as having been married before the age of 15.
Chiredzi district, which has some of the highest rates of child marriages, sex work and HIV prevalence, has struggled to stem GBV as more people migrate there in the hope of making a living out of its thriving sugar industry, unmasking the intricate relationship between economic need and probability of abuse.
“We work with the National Aids Council to sensitise people and discourage child marriages as they are an abuse which most likely results in more forms of abuse. Through the efforts of our focal persons, people are no longer afraid to report abuse,” says Chiredzi District Administrator, Clara Muzenda.
The Community Based Aid Programme (CBAP), a local NGO aligned to the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe (RCZ), has roped in traditional leaders to fight GBV in rural areas.
“The fight requires the collective efforts of government, civic society and traditional leaders. Chiefs are opinion leaders with voices that carry a lot of weight,” says CBAP Director Samuel Mhungu.
Chief Marozva, Phillip Mudhe of Bikita district says it was agreed at the council of chiefs to fight GBV.
“We do not try cases of domestic violence anymore because they are regarded as serious criminal cases that have to be heard at higher courts. We take Gender Based Violence and child marriages seriously and whenever a report is made to us, we forward it to the police,” Chief Marozva says.
With diminished economic opportunities and worsening poverty levels, it remains to be seen whether cases like that of Angeline and Lucia will ever be a thing of the past.feature
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He who said it can not be done must not disturb the one doing it!