YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – According to the chairperson of Zimbabwe’s Gender Commission, 22 women are raped every day in the country, one woman is abused every 75 minutes, an average of 646 women are sexually abused monthly, and one in three girls is raped or sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18.

Margaret Sangarwe offered that grim summary in 2019, ahead of that year’s program of 16 days of activism against gender violence.

Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference argues that the high incidence of rape in Zimbabwe can be explained by the lack of a social safety net, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The government-imposed lockdown means that women and girls are trapped with their abusers. This is extremely concerning, especially because this means they may not be able to flee the situation,” said Roselyn Were, head of CRS’s PEPFAR-funded Pathways project in Zimbabwe, which helps survivors of abuse transition back into society.

Were recently spoke to Crux. Below are exerts of that conversation.

Crux: How big a problem is rape in Zimbabwe?

Were: Rape is rampant in Zimbabwe. According to the National Baseline Survey on life Experiences of Adolescents (NBSLEA), a third of females, aged 18 to 24, experience sexual violence before the age of 18. At the same time, estimates show that only about 30 percent of sexual violence cases are reported. This means that in reality, many more cases of abuse are likely happening.

Who are the perpetrators?

There have been very few studies examining the identities of the perpetrators of rape. However, statistics from police reports indicate that perpetrators are often people (specifically men) whom survivors know. In fact, data shows that nearly 80 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 indicate that the first time they experience sexual violence, it is by an intimate partner. Neighbors are also often cited as perpetrators in 10 percent of reported cases.

You say the number of rapes in Zimbabwe is growing. Why?

One of the main reasons we’re seeing an increase of rape is because of a lack of a social safety net. We’ve seen many family structures that have been compromised. Families are living apart as parents and older siblings travel to search for economic opportunities. Children, especially girls, are left exposed to their perpetrators, many of whom may be male relatives or relatives with whom children are left.

In the short term, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. The government-imposed lockdown means that women and girls are trapped with their abusers. This is extremely concerning, especially because this means they may not be able to flee the situation. We are worried about this trend, as studies show that during the Ebola crisis not only did sexual and gender-based violence increase, teenage pregnancies subsequently increased by 65 percent in certain communities.

This is why it is critical to continue to provide services to survivors of gender-based violence during the pandemic. Victims of abuse can call our toll-free helplines or send a WhatsApp message, and we provide transportation and relocation services to get them out of abusive situations.

How easy is it for rape victims to find justice in Zimbabwe?  

While there is a criminal justice system, it doesn’t always work the way it should. For instance, there’s no mandatory minimum sentence for rape, which means sentencing has not been uniform. Also, most legal aid organizations are in major towns or cities, which means those in remote areas can’t get the help they need. What’s more, the government theoretically provides financial support for witnesses to offset transportation costs so survivors can be present at their court cases. However, survivors often do not receive this support because the money is not available as a result of the financial situation.

What impact does this crime have on the victims? 

Rape is devastating. At the individual level, it affects the mental health of the survivor and damages his or her self-esteem, confidence, and sense of worth. Survivors often cannot function in society as they used to. Rape also exposes survivors to the possibility of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. An unwanted pregnancy is another possible outcome. There have also been instances of survivors who have committed suicide because he or she hasn’t been able to come to terms with being raped.

CRS has partnered with the Musasa Project to help abused women heal. What kind of help do you offer? 

 Catholic Relief Services, through the Pathways project, partners with Musasa to offer several services to survivors of gender-based violence. From the first contact with a survivor to when we can successfully reintegrate her back into society, we provide counselling; legal advice; referrals; linkages to clinical facilities; temporary shelter; financial support for medication; and transportation. We offer counselling services through our one-stop centers and counselling centers or through mobile clinics, where counselors go into communities to offer the service and educate the community about gender-based violence.

When you meet a woman who has just been raped, what is the first thing you tell her?

We tailor responses to survivors of violence depending on the circumstances of each individual case. However, one key issue that we try to address very early on is the issue of blame. It is important to let a survivor know that the rape is not her fault. This is fundamental to ensuring that she can begin on the path to mental well-being.

We also ensure that through the process of reporting, medical care, and legal processes, the survivor is not re-victimized in any way.

Having said that, sometimes the most immediate need is to get her to a safe location. Recently, a woman called our toll-free line after being abused, and we could still hear the perpetrator in the background. She was afraid that he would attack again if he caught her calling for help. Our first concern in a situation like that is to get the victim away from harm immediately. Thankfully, in that instance we were able to get the woman to safety.