Uproar in Zimbabwe as teenager who ‘fought off sexual assault’ charged with murder

Activists believe the case, in which the accused says she acted in self-defence, shows the law fails women

A teenager has been charged with murder in Zimbabwe despite claims she was defending herself against a sexual predator. The action has triggered protests from lawyers and activists, who have raised concerns about how victims of sexual violence are treated in the country.

Tariro Matutsa, 19, said she acted in self-defence when she picked up a piece of firewood and hit 40-year-old Sure Tsuro several times last month. She said he had cornered her as she cooked over a fire at her home in Mudzi, a rural area east of the capital, Harare, exposed himself and aggressively demanded sex.

According to the police report: “As he approached, Matutsa grabbed a piece of firewood and struck him several times across his body, and twice over the head.”

Tsuro staggered off but was found dead the next morning.

The case has triggered a debate about women’s rights and the prevalence of sexual violence in the country. Women’s rights activists say Zimbabwean law should protect women who kill would-be attackers in self-defence. But, they say, the country’s self-defence law is too weak to protect women as the courts can decide whether or not harm was intended.

The law states that if a person “genuinely and on reasonable grounds, but mistakenly, believes that he or she is defending himself or herself or another person against an unlawful attack, he or she shall be entitled to a complete or partial defence to any criminal charge”.

The Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga said such cases made women ‘reluctant to protect themselves against sexual predators and harassers for fear of state and social backlash’. Photograph: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

The novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga said Matutsa’s case shone a light on the objectification of women in Zimbabwean society.

“This is yet another example of how women are seen as objects of male sexual pleasure and men’s general wellbeing in Zimbabwe. Even when a woman defended herself from a man whose intention is to violate her sexually, she is expected to put his wellbeing before her own,” said Dangarembga.

The writer, whose literary works highlight women’s struggles, said women should not be persecuted when they defend themselves. “Now she is blamed for the consequences to the deceased’s family brought about by the deceased’s own behaviour,” she said.

“While I feel for the family, this kind of reaction is unfair and has the added unacceptable effect of making women reluctant to protect themselves against sexual predators and harassers for fear of state and social backlash,” Dangarembga said.

The teenager’s case has reignited anger in Zimbabwe about how rape victims are subjected to lengthy judicial processes, with some jailed.

In February 2016, Benhilda Dandajena, a visually impaired domestic worker, grabbed a kitchen knife and fatally stabbed a fellow worker who was trying to rape her. Dandajena was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, a year and a half of which was suspended.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a lawyer, said: “Our law needs to be looked at, so that police can have discretion when they look at the evidence. It should also allow the magistrate to grant bail. But when they say it’s murder, then [the case] needs to go to the high court.” Mtetwa urged women’s rights organisations to push for legislation to protect rape victims.

“It is painful because she [Matutsa] is an orphan. There is no one who will look out for her. Our women’s movements should do more to support these girls,” Mtetwa said.

The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) have offered Matutsa legal representation and counselling.

In a statement, the WLSA said Matutsa “acted in self-defence and did not intend on committing murder”.

The 19-year-old spent a week in detention before being released on bail. She is due back in court on 23 July.

• In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

Contributor

Nyasha Chingono in Harare

The GuardianTramp

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