Can Violence Against Women be “Cultural”?

Recently, I was discussing with a colleague some of the current rape cases in India and in the U.S., when she said that rape and other violence against women in countries like India is a cultural problem, whereas rape in the U.S. is not. What did she mean by “culture?” Culture, as most anthropologists define it, is a set of mores and customs that human beings follow within institutions, such as family, religion, and so on. So, the U.S. would not be exempt from “culture,” as it is glue that holds humans together socially. Perhaps my colleague meant that outside the U.S., cultural norms find violence against women to be acceptable, even normal, whereas, in the U.S. there are definite proscriptions against it, both in our laws and in the social system. She is not alone in thinking that women are easy prey elsewhere; whereas, in the U.S. violence against women, especially rape, is an aberration, as a result of inebriation or drug abuse.

This kind of binary drawn between the U.S. and not-U.S. is problematic, for it sets up the former as an exemplar of superior humans who have somehow conquered “culture”! Since this conversation rose out of talking about the rape cases in two different countries, how is a gang rape in New Delhi different from one in New York? According to Uma Narayan, sensationalism surrounds violence against women outside the U.S. She cites examples, such as “honor killing” and “dowry death,” both of which, according to her, are domestic violence cases. In the U.S. we call death at the hands of a lover / husband domestic violence, whereas the same kind of murder when it pertains to Indian women is called “sati” or “wife burning” or “dowry death.” Such nomenclature immediately makes the same kind of violence in two countries “seem” very different. To call a homicide “honor killing” exoticizes it, and explains it away as something expected out of the religious tradition, when in fact the phenomenon may have nothing to do with the religion. Narayan questions the “cultural explanation” that alludes to Sita or sati or the Laws of Manu, none of which add any illumination to the violence under examination. Narayan calls these shorthand explanations “death by culture.” She remarks that when we see huge statistics on American women dying as a result of gun violence, we don’t tar this with the cultural brush.

I wonder why my colleague did not see the obvious: the role played by patriarchal culture that sees the woman as inferior in society. Any rape in any geographical area shows power and control that the victimizer has over the victim.

Even if we allow that some societies condone violence against women, and further victimize women through ostracism, there are forces at play that demand justice and make communities and the government recognize the violence. No society uniformly accepts oppression.


(Photo Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Image / Slate)

Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert rejected “humanitarian rape”

The Bentiu camp in South Sudan where Megan Nobert worked

Sarah Pierce was an aid worker working in South Sudan for the Carter Center when she was raped by a co-worker. Megan Nobert was also in South Sudan, working as a humanitarian aid worker, when she was drugged and raped by another aid worker. The world of sexual violence is so distorted and distorting that Nobert’s initial account, in The Guardian, bears the headline, “Aid worker: I was drugged and raped by another humanitarian in South Sudan.” In what world do the words “humanitarian” and “rape” inhabit the same sentence? In our world.

Both Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert have argued, to paraphrase Lara McLeod, “My rape was awful. But the way the police handled it was even worse.” In these two cases, and so many others involving sexual violence within the humanitarian aid community, the police never handled it. The Carter Center did less than nothing to help Sarah Pierce, other than ultimately firing her for her outspoken criticism of the organisation’s failure to help her. The United Nations never really investigated or did anything. Both organizations claim the incidents were tragic and the organizations did the best they could.

Up to now, there is practically no real research on sexual violence within the humanitarian aid community, despite the “issue” simmering just under the surface for decades. Only now has one organization, the Headington Institute, which provides psychological support for aid workers, begun a research project that hopes to assess the scale of the problem: “This is massively underreported: no one has an accurate read on this at the moment. Most agencies are hearing about these events internally, but survivors are choosing not to report for a variety of reasons. We think it’s likely that 1% or more (between 5,000-10,000 people) experience this during their humanitarian career. But male or female, this is an issue everyone fears, even if they are not naming it. It’s a worst-case scenario that everyone is thinking about.”

Megan Norbert joined forces with the International Women’s Rights Project and launched a campaign called Report the Abuse: Breaking the Silence on Sexual Violence Within the Humanitarian Community. They’ve gathered testimonies and are conducting a survey and are organizing for real change and real accountability. As Megan Norbert explains, “Today I want to talk to you about bravery, and that fact that it is considered to be brave to talk about being victimised by a crime like sexual violence. I don’t consider myself to be brave. In fact, I abhor the word, at least as it applies to myself and what I have done so far. Admitting to being the victim of a crime is not brave. Or, rather, it should not be. It should not be extraordinary to be able to say out loud, write or express in some way the following words: `I am a rape survivor.’ It should not be amazing that someone is able to discuss having been a victim of a violent crime because that is all that sexual violence, rape, is; it is a violent crime … Change will occur, work environments will adapt, perpetrators will be punished. We will no longer need to be afraid. It will no longer be considered brave for a humanitarian to stand up and say they were sexually harassed, abused or assaulted in the course of their work. This is my story and that is the day I’m working towards.”

The silence around sexual violence in the humanitarian aid community is linked to other forms of institutional silence of internal sexual violence. Each time, women are told in so many ways that they are collateral damage of a righteous and noble cause, and that, as Megan Norbert put it, they must just “suck it up.” They should have known to expect something like this. That’s humanitarian logic.

When Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert were told to shut up, they replied, “NO!” Instead they opted to put an end to survivor “bravery” and work to create spaces in which “humanitarian” and “rape” can never again be conjoined, for any reason.


(Photo Credit: JC McIlwaine/ United Nations)

Australia is “shocked” by the routine torture of women and children asylum seekers

Australia routinely throws asylum seekers into prisons, mostly in remote areas or, even better, on islands, “an enforcement archipelago of detention … an archipelago of exclusion.” The gulag archipelago didn’t end; it became the intended end-of-the-road universe for asylum seekers and refugees. Last year, Australia was “shocked” by reports that children represent the greatest percentage of self-harm and suicidal behavior. Now, Australia is “shocked” once again to find that sexual violence against women asylum seekers and refugees occurs. Australia is shocked … but not shamed.

The incidents this time involve three women, two Somali and one Iranian woman. The Iranian is in hospital. One of the Somali women is pregnant as a result of the rape. It took the police four hours to arrive, and then … pretty much nothing happened. None of this is new or surprising. In July, the Immigration Department heard again of rampant violence against women and children, and then … pretty much nothing happened. Advocates Pamela Curr and Daniel Webster know that these three women are “the tip of the iceberg.” Despite the State trying to keep the media away from its penal colonies, none of this is secret or surprising. A week ago, the mother of the Iranian woman, despondent at the entirety of the situation, attempted suicide. Apart from placing under surveillance, under the guise of a suicide watch, nothing changed.

Pediatricians in Melbourne are organizing, refusing to send children back to detention centers, because the situation is so dire. The situation was always dire. It was meant to be. Study after study suggests that the problem of health care for asylum seekers in detention is not inadequate health care. The problem is detention. Study after study shows that children in detention breathe sadness and fear, trauma, that will stay with them, for many forever.

The news this weekend is that the Somali woman may be brought to the mainland to receive an abortion … and then what? Nauru said it would process everyone within a week and now backtracks on that. Australia is planning on moving some or all of the asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island to the Philippines, and none of the refugees or asylum seekers has a heard a word about this from the State. Across Australia, many marched this weekend to protest the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

This is democracy in the current world order. To ask for help is to give up citizenship. If you are a woman and you ask for help, you give up your humanity. The gulag archipelago never left. It became the democratically elected global archipelago.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

“My rape was awful. But the way the police handled it was even worse.”

On Sunday, February 27, Buzzfeed reported at length on the story of Lara McLeod. It’s a devastating, all too familiar story. In brief, Lara McLeod was raped by the fiancé of her sister, Hera McLeod. Hera had given birth two weeks earlier. Traumatized, Lara went home and, the next day, told her parents. They immediately went and retrieved Hera and Prince, the two-week-old. To do that safely, they called the police in. That’s where the awful became the unbearable.

The police called Lara in, interrogated her, compelled her to file a complaint and then arrested Lara for filing a false complaint and charged Hera with aiding in the deceit. From there, it just gets worse. You can read the Buzzfeed account for yourself. The rape and arrest occurred in 2011. Using the charges against Hera, her fiancé won unsupervised visits. Three months later, Prince was found unconscious on his father’s apartment floor. The fifteen-month-old died the next day. The fiancé’s trial on murder is coming up soon. Hera has moved on, as best she can. Lara is struggling.

This story occurs in the leafy well-to-do suburbs of Prince William County, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, but it could as easily occur in the leafy suburbs anywhere. Every step of the way, every single time the State was called in, from the police to the courthouse, the State did more than merely fail these two women. It assaulted them. A French report on this case notes that in France, of women who report being survivors of sexual violence, only 4 percent have reported the crime formally. In the United States, the situation is the same. In South Africa, according to the Medical Research Council, one in nine rapes are reported to the police.

Why are the numbers so low? There are many reasons. Here’s Lara McLeod’s answer, “The night I was raped, I said I wanted to be left alone. People say rape is serious and you should report it, but look what happened to me: I reported my rape, and they told me it never happened.”

Buzzfeed and others have described the police investigation as “botched.” It wasn’t. Virginia, and beyond it the State, got exactly what it wanted, what it pushes strenuously to get: a woman living with trauma, agony and pain who has learned to silently absorb injustice directed at her as a woman. To botch means to clumsily repair or to bungle. No one clumsily repaired or bungled the investigation. No one cared enough to botch the investigation. How do I know?

Every year, on Prince’s birthday, Hera McLeod sends a letter to the two Prince William County police officers whom she holds responsible for the death of her son: “This year, she included a photo of Prince with his two front teeth in, smiling and sitting on a red truck — with his birth and death dates printed above. `On July 1st, 2015, I would have turned four,’ the card said. `May you always remember how the decisions you make impact the lives of innocent people. I will never forget you. I pray you will never forget about me.’ This year, Kimberly Norton, one of the two officers who charged the McLeod sisters, put the card in a new envelope and mailed it back to Hera unopened. She rewrote her return address in block letters. Not Detective Norton, as Hera had written, but “SGT K. NORTON.” She had been promoted. So had Detective Cavender.”

The State got what it wanted. It’s time for us to get the State we want.


(Image Credit 1: Buzzfeed) (Image Credit 2:

Yarl’s Wood’s “appropriate vulnerability” is violence against women

Every year or so, a new report uncovers the programmatic abuse of women asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood. In 2006, Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) and Women Against Rape (WAR) released Misjudging rape – Breaching Gender Guidelines and International Law in Asylum Appeals, which examined 65 rulings by immigration judges. The judges rejected rape claims in 65% of the cases, arguing each woman had failed to mention the rape early on and so must be lying. Since then, the reports have continued, and each shows the situation has, if anything, worsened. If everything stays the same, or declines, what’s new?

“Appropriate vulnerability.”

The most recent study, “Reason to disbelieve: evaluating the rape claims of women seeking asylum in the UK”, finds “the structural and practical obstacles faced in establishing credibility, and the existence of scepticism about rape claims and asylum-seeking more generally, mean that decision-making can often be experienced as arbitrary, unjust, uninformed or contradictory, making it difficult for women asylum applicants who allege rape to find refuge in the UK.”

In a more popular article this week, the author’s explained, “The structure of the asylum system, as well as working cultures around decision-making, can negatively impact women whose asylum claims involve rape allegations. Evaluations of credibility are often influenced by dubious assumptions regarding culture, gender, and sexual violence, and draw upon limited experience of, or empathy with, the peculiar challenges faced by ‘others’. The structural and evidential demands of the asylum process, as well as the political controversies that it attracts, do little to facilitate improvements in the handling of disclosures of rape. Ultimately, success in securing refugee status continues, for too many women, to depend upon their ability to position themselves as ‘appropriately’ vulnerable victims.”

Though grim, the report is in no way surprising. We know that asylum seekers who have been raped must struggle for justice, and, more often than not, don’t get it. We know that such is the case for women generally, and so even more so for the poor and the stranger in our midst. We know the misogyny that informs dismissal of claims of sexual violence. We know that the State and Civil Society built and maintain Yarl’s Wood, where survivors of sexual and domestic violence are not only routinely but brutally denied care services, as are their children, children who have often witnessed the violation of their mothers. We know that from before the beginning to beyond the end, the conditions are designed to further violate women asylum seekers, “this is a journey haunted by silence.” None of this is new, none of this is news, and we know and have known all of it for some time now.

“Appropriate vulnerability” suggests much more than “the treatment of those who come to the UK seeking protection from sexual abuse often remains inadequate.” It’s not inadequate. It’s designed to brutalize women. It is time; it is way past time, to stop analyzing the brutality of Yarl’s Wood as a lack or absence. The State wanted, and wants, a house of non-national women held in a state of perpetual and intensifying violence, and it built it, named it Yarl’s Wood, and called its light Day and its darkness Night, and behold …

Who aspires to “appropriate vulnerability”? No one should, but the State forces women to do so. We have had enough reasoned and balanced reports. We know it is time to end State violence against women, committed in our names. Do it now! #ShutDownYarlsWood #SetHerFree


(Photo Credit: CavaSundays) (Woodprint by Jacob Steinhardt, at Velveteen Rabbi)

From Kerala to Florida, women farm workers are organizing and winning!

Around the world, women farm workers are on the move, organizing and gaining ground for women workers everywhere. This past week, women farm workers in Kerala, in India, and Florida, in the United States, won major victories. In Kerala, tea plantation workers, all women, rejecting the direction of male dominated unions and political parties, went on strike and won! In Florida, undocumented women farm workers rejected the business-as-usual of sexual exploitation … and won! Women farm workers are turning the common sense of global food chains into global food networks and communities.

In July, the Great Place to Work Institute and People Matters rated Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, the largest tea estate in Munnar, in Kerala, as one of the best places to work in India. In early September, over 5000 plantation workers, almost all women, replied, “No!” They went on strike, demanding higher wages and bonuses. Their strike lasted nine days. During that time, the women told trade unions and political parties that [a] that male-dominated unions and parties did not represent the women’s interests sufficiently and [b] the women could negotiate for themselves.

The women allowed only four politicians to join the strike. They unconditionally welcomed 92-year-old VS Achuthanandan, a founding member of the Communist Party India (Marxist) and widely respected for his integrity. They also allowed women politicians PK Jayalakshmi, Bindhu Krishna, and Latika Subhash to join the strike, on the condition that they would stay in Munnar until the strike was resolved.

On Sunday night, the women won their bonus demands, and called off the strike. The wage demands are still being worked out.

For over 20 years, Ananthalakshmi has worked the fields: “Men hardly get tough chores like us. We even load the sacks to the trucks and are disproportionately paid”. The struggle in the Munnar hills of Kerala is for wages, bonuses, equality, women’s dignity and women’s power. By enthusiastically welcoming VS Achuthanandan, the women workers demonstrated that women’s power is principled, rigorous and courageous in its forms of inclusion.

The line of women’s power from the tea fields of Munnar to the tomatoland of Felda, Florida is long and direct. On Friday, five women vegetable packers won a $17 million sexual harassment case. The five women had worked for Moreno Farms, Inc. They said they felt terrified whenever their supervisors threatened to take them to the cooler and trailer. Their bosses groped, threatened, and raped them. When the women refused to submit, the bosses fired them. Three of the five women were raped. When they went to the local sheriff’s office to report the rapes, the sheriffs did … less than nothing. A local attorney, Victoria Mesa, stepped in and took the case, and she persuaded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, to represent the women.

Beatriz André, EEOC’s lead attorney in the case, said, “Having long been silenced by shame and fear, this trial offered these five women the opportunity to give voice publicly to their experiences and their desire for justice.” Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami office of the EEOC, added “I’m thrilled because this jury’s verdict sends a message to every other woman working in Florida’s fields. They do have rights, regardless of their immigration status.” For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this is a cautionary tale: “The women on Moreno Farms suffered unspeakable indignities that could have been prevented, had they been working on Fair Food Program farms.”

Moreno Farms closed in May, which means it’s unlikely that the women will see the 17 million dollars, but this is more than a symbolic victory. First, the women will receive special U visas for victims of crime who assist law enforcement in prosecuting cases. Second, the women won! Five undocumented Latinas won. This local victory is a cross-border, transnational victory, as has been noted in Mexico and beyond.

Tea and tomatoes are big global business. Over the past week, 5000 women farm workers on a tea plantation in Munnar and five women workers in a tomato processing plant in Felda have shown they are not too big to be cracked open by women’s power and mobilization for justice for workers, women, and women workers. The struggle continues!


(Photo Credit 1: Youth Ki Awaaz) (Photo Credit 2: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

In the US and Europe: women, migrants, and injustice

Two news stories worthy of comment today: first, The New York Times reported yesterday that a nine-man, three-woman jury acquitted a young man from the elite prep school of St. Paul’s of rape charges, even when his 15-year-old victim reiterated over and over, that she had said “no” to her rape, several times during the ordeal.

What part of “No means No” did this jury not get?  In the twenty-first century?

The defense lawyer’s bizarre and illogical closing argument, which clearly found favor with at least some of the jurors, was this: “He’s not a saint. He’s a teenager.”  As if all male teens (and all men, it seems to imply), unless they are saints, will rape and assault young girls, and that that is a normal, acceptable thing; as if somehow, rape by teenagers should not be named or punished in the same way as rape by those who are not teenagers.  One of the six men who brutally raped and killed the bus commuter Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012 was a 17-year-old teenager.  Describing someone’s age status is not an argument. It is shameful that it became one, with a whole set of unspoken assumptions about acceptable sexual behavior, and seems to have been accepted by a majority of the members of that jury.  How this majority male jury was selected to decide a case involving a young girl’s rape, gender bias, and other serious concerns about this grave failure of the justice process also emerge.

The other story takes us to violence against a different vulnerable population: those Syrian, Iraqi, Eritrean, and Afghani refugees dying on Europe’s roads and shores, in its fields and seas– those that European countries and international media dishonestly and dehumanizingly call “migrants.”  As Hannah Arendt forcefully argued, based on the experience of Jewish refugees in the mid-twentieth century, these minorities have lost the protection of their states, and are “stateless people” – NOT “migrants.”  Even the term “refugee,” she argued, hid from view the fact that these people were in the position they were in because their states could/would no longer protect them and their basic human rights.  Instead of dehumanizing these stateless people by building more walls and pushing them out to sea, Europe needs to deliver on its promises in the 1951 Geneva Convention—made in the wake of the independence of most of the world from over 300 years of brutal British and European exploitation, dehumanization, enslavement, and colonization—to respect and protect the human rights of refugees.  Somini Sengupta nailed it when she noted, “Countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers, which they cannot do with refugees under the 1951 convention. So it is not surprising that many politicians in Europe prefer to refer to everyone fleeing to the continent as migrants.”

If European states refuse to help these human beings and turn them away from refuge, they are no better than the state governments people are fleeing. In the dissembling name “migrant” that denies people their history and human identity, Europe simply reproduces the inhumane state violence of those regimes it disparages.



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Hannah was raped. It does not end there. Hannah was disembodied; skull fractured, glue found in her eyes, broken bones in multiple areas of her body, her spinal cord – shattered. When Hannah was found, only a pink brassier covered the top part of her body. Her legs were sprawled apart, the only cover came from the beach’s sand and seaweed. Hanna was raped and her murder, an inhumane act of violence.

Hundreds of women and men took to the streets on Thursday August 20th in a march organized by PowerWomen 232, a network for professional Sierra Leonean women. PowerWomen led the way for solidarity, chanting “Justice for Hannah, Justice for Women”. The outrage sourced from the predisposition that Hannah was raped (before autopsy results were released) and then murdered when images of Hannah’s deceased body were proliferated across local social media platforms. Those images forced us all to stop, question, mourn and be reminded that horrific acts of sexual violence very much thrive in our small nation’s shores.

Sierra Leoneans from all levels, high political personalities, leaders of women’s groups, activists, entrepreneurs, and students; the UN body, expatriates, and men marched wearing black, symbolic of solidarity at a time when being passive is no longer an option. Many who marched that day were not expecting this depth of brutality that Hannah’s young body had endured into her death.

Hannah’s death pierces through a plethora of Sierra Leone’s social and political issues currently circuiting in the country. Her death screams over denial about her violent murder, screams over blame (that it is because she was a sex worker that she got raped), and screams over the thick silence that has clothed action when it comes to enforcing punitive action against perpetuators of sexual violence.

Hannah’s death reminds us all that women’s bodies in Sierra Leone are under heavy siege. That Sierra Leone’s highly patriarchal society still subjugates with structural discrimination in practice, custom, and law, with a plethora of women still facing suppression in education, employment and politics. Sexual violence has always been rampant in Sierra Leone – the rhetoric that Ebola has induced a spike in sexual violence undermines the reality that little has been done to improve social and economic options for women.

Hannah was raped, maimed and murdered. Let that resonate with us all. This is a stark reminder that urgent work must be done to continue to speak up against sexual violence; that laws must no longer lie dormant but must be activated with stringent punitive actions against all perpetrators. More women who have experienced sexual violence must speak up, if enough of us are talking about this, sharing our stories – policy makers, communities, our women and men, the world will LISTEN.

Hannah’s death must not go in vain – we must channel our outrage into positive change. We have been reminded that the bodies, and psyches and spirits of Sierra Leonean women are not safe because Hannah was not only raped, she was brutally murdered and left exposed. We cannot turn away, we must act NOW.

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(Photo Credit: Fatou Wurie)

The scale of India’s “one small incident of rape”

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, in 2013, there were, nationally, 33,707 rape cases, up precipitously from 24, 923 in 2012. New Delhi suffered the highest incident of rape, accounting for 1,636 cases in 2013. That’s up from 706 in 2012. Mumbai, Jaipur and Pune, the next three cities with the highest reported incidents of rape, together had 754 rape cases in 2013. In 2013, in 13,304 of the reported cases, the victim was a minor. In 2012, that number was 9,082. Finally, in 94% of the cases, the offender was “familiar to the accused”: a parent, neighbor, relative other than parent, or someone else. 94%.

These numbers are beyond disturbing.

Last month, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley raised a storm of protest when he reflected, “One small incident of rape in Delhi advertised world over is enough to cost us millions of dollars in terms of lower tourism.” The “one small incident” was the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman, now known as the Nirbhaya case. Nirbhaya means fearless.

When protests exploded all around him, the Finance Minister regretted his words, and, of course, the ways in which they had been “misconstrued”. As witness to his recantation, the formal, published version of the Finance Minister’s talk removed the word “small.”

While the diminishment of a terrible event of violence against a woman, and of violence against women, was horrible, and according to many of the responses and critiques much worse, the reduction of sexual violence to an economic equation is equally problematic and wrong. If the `one small incident of rape’ only cost, say, a thousand dollars, would it then be fine? Would it then not be a matter of concern for India’s Finance Minister? Is finance exclusively and only a matter of hard, cold cash, and curiously that of other nations?

There are calls – from the victim’s family, from women’s groups, and from the general citizenry – for the Finance Minister to resign. It’s not enough. Words of repentance and regret are fine, but they do not suffice. Arun Jaitley is part of State power. He has been for years, both in the opposition and now in Cabinet. Let him and his colleagues say less and do more. If they feel they must talk, let them say, publically, that as members of State they take full responsibility for the 33,707 women and girls.

But the place to show real remorse is in the national budget. Invest in those organisations in India that are sisters to organisations such as Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust in South Africa, organisations made up of women and men, made up of individuals and communities, hard at work at the coalface of sexual violence. Incidents of reported rape rose 35% in one year. Raise the budget for prevention of sexual violence and for care for survivors of sexual violence by 70%. Don’t talk about the millions of dollars lost to “one small incident of rape.” Instead, invest in stopping violence against women. Be fearless.

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)

(This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original, in a different version, can be found here. Thanks to the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)

Musasa: A sheltering tree for and of women of Zimbabwe


In Zimbabwe, two out of every three women and girls have experienced a form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. According to a 2006 study, 32% of women in Zimbabwe reported physical abuse by marital partners since the age of 16 years. That was then. Now it’s worse.

The 2006 study was conducted for the Musasa Project, one of the oldest women’s and feminist organizations in Zimbabwe. The Musasa Project was founded in 1988 in response to the escalating violence against women. Immediately, the women of the Musasa Project recognized that their work would involve service provision, advocacy, community organizing, and often raising a ruckus. The women of the Musasa Project have been leaders in every step of the women’s struggles in Zimbabwe. At the national level, this has meant from the earlier Constitutional processes to the domestic violence legislation campaigns to the more recent Constitutional processes to today.

According to their Executive Director Netty Musanhu. “I am sure you are aware of the crisis that the country has been in for the last decade. Things are getting worse – women are bearing the brunt of all that. We are seeing an increase in rape and sexual violence. We ask ourselves the question, if we are having high levels of sexual violence in times of relative peace, what does this mean?”

Despite an ongoing war on women, in which one in three girls is raped before the age of 18, Zimbabwe is officially a post-conflict country. It’s `at peace.’ Crisis is not conflict, according to the men who lead multinational agencies and form public opinion and governmental policy.

Meanwhile, by the government’s own assessment, at least 1500 children were raped in the first five months of 2014. To no one’s surprise, the overwhelming majority of rapes was committed by close relatives, parents or guardians.

The national government this week launched a National Action Plan on rape, which could be a good thing. It has said it is declaring war on rape, which cannot be a good thing. Sexual violence generally, and rape specifically, cannot be addressed with the means or mentality of warfare.

What exactly would war on rape mean, anywhere? What specifically would it mean in Zimbabwe, in which remand prisons are choking with women and men awaiting trial for years in cages in which, often, there is no usable water, food, electricity, or health care, in which people have died of starvation while awaiting trial?

In Shona, musasa means sheltering tree. The women knew what they were doing when they chose that name. The organization works from an explicitly intersectional place, in which domestic violence is HIV and AIDS which are poverty and wealth, which are access to safe spaces. For that reason, the Musasa Project continually supports evidence-based research to see what the situation is, while they sustain a physical shelter for women and children; meet and work with the government, especially legislators and police; run a hotline; monitor communities; and generally try to keep ahead of the arcs of violence. They always keep their eyes on the prize: women’s emancipation through the establishment of women’s power.

In Zimbabwe, elections loom large, and the patriarch is going to go out with a bang. Women who oppose violence, women who work their whole lives to transform violence into justice and peace know that a war on violence is not the answer. Musasa is the answer: a growing, flowing, sheltering tree that connects, one day, sheltering earth to sheltering sky.


(Image Credit: