Three women from Harare, including one who was raped by two soldiers, have recounted how they were allegedly abused by the security forces in the aftermath of the January 14 protests against a steep increase in fuel prices.
Apart from widespread reports of sexual violence by security forces, women were also left with deep scars during the violent clampdown on protesters.
Human rights groups say over 17 women were raped by soldiers during the clampdown targeting opposition and civil society activists.
The army and police issued a joint statement last Tuesday saying no rapes had been reported, but Violet Phiri* of Epworth told a harrowing story of how she was raped by two soldiers wearing masks while two others watched.
Phiri said she was sleeping at home on January 16 when the soldiers burst into her room.
“I saw four soldiers in masks. It was a scary sight,” she said in an interview at one of the many safe houses in Harare sheltering victims of the army crackdown.
One of the soldiers asked Phiri if her husband was home and after she told them she was single, they became even more aggressive.
“I told them that I was single and there was no one in my room but they just pushed me aside and started searching everywhere, under the bed and the wardrobe,” Phiri said.
“They kept referring to me as a prostitute and one of them ordered me to take off my clothes.
“It was humiliating to strip naked in front of strangers, but I had no choice as they were pointing their guns at me.
“One of them stepped forward and told me to lie on the bed. He unzipped his trousers and started raping me while the other three watched.”
When the second soldier started raping her, Phiri was convinced that she would die.
“Fortunately, the other two did not touch me,” she said.
“I cried myself to sleep and I did not tell anyone until the next morning when I approached the landlord and told her about my ordeal.”
Like many victims of sexual abuse, Phiri did not report the incident to the police saying it was a waste of time.
She is among a group of rape survivors receiving counselling from a Harare-based civic organisation. Phiri wants to go back to her rural home once she recovers.
An official at the organisation said most of the rapist soldiers did not use protection, exposing the women to HIV infections.
“Many women most likely missed the 72-hour window, which is allowed for one to take preventive prophylaxis,” she said.
Esnath Shava* (64) also from Epworth said she suffered a stroke after the menacing soldiers raided her house in the aftermath of the protests.
“They came in the dead of the night and ransacked my home,” she said.
“I am a widow and I survive by doing small projects, but they took away my groceries and robbed me of cash.”
Shava said one of the soldiers threw a knife at her, leaving her traumatised.
“I cannot sleep well at night and I am afraid to even go and report to the police because their colleagues are the ones who stole from me and terrorised me to the extent that I am now afraid to sleep at my house,” she said.
Chenai Matore* was harassed by soldiers that claimed they were looking for her husband who has since gone into hiding.
“They came on many occasions looking for my husband and each time they would harass me and shout obscenities, but I told them that I did not know where he was,” she said.
Matore said her husband initially hid at maize fields before retreating to the rural areas.
Appalled by the attacks, women across the country last week wore black in what became known as Black Wednesday.
Some of the organisations involved in the protest were Justice for Women Zimbabwe, Female Prisoners Support Trust and Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence.
“The gravest violation aside the cold-blooded murder of citizens is the sexual assault and rape of women during the crackdown,” the groups said.
“So far 17 women have come forward to seek medical and psycho-social support following rape by armed security agents.
“We believe there are still many affected who are afraid to come out and we are calling upon them to come forward and seek assistance.”
The head of the Musasa Project — a charity set up to tackle violence against women and girls — urged Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri to investigate the alleged cases of rape.
“We all celebrated your appointment as minister of Defence. Our expectation was that women and girls would in our lifetime feel safe around the military,” Nettie Musanhi tweeted.
“Reports of sexual abuse against women and girls by soldiers are worrying and require investigation.”
Amnesty International said the Zimbabwean authorities “must act swiftly to ensure security forces are held to account for the ongoing brutal human rights violations — including torture, rape, beatings and killings of civilians”.
— Additional reporting by Thomson Reuters Foundation