The women of Zimbabwe have had varying experiences with national law enforcement agencies and many of them are unpleasant. These experiences are the same regardless of whether the women are activists or not, but perhaps worse for female activists. Police officers have been responsible for some of the most serious human rights and rule of law violations in Zimbabwe today. Police brutality in Zimbabwe extends to opposition politicians, students, trade unionists, journalists and members of civil society organisations, this paper however focuses on women. Women have encountered torture, assault, harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment at the hands of the police, who act in breach of their professional and legal obligations.
The police have a responsibility to respect human rights, but the fate of women activists, especially those from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) members, tells a different story. In a series of reports from 2007, WOZA demonstrated the perils of both being an activist and female, showing the kinds of abuse and the consequences of abuse at the hands of the police. From a sample of 1983 WOZA members, 42% reported assault, 33% reported physical torture, 64% reported humiliating and degrading treatment, and 78% reported political threats. Many violations occurred during the course of protests where the police were the perpetrators, but it was also the case that equally many took place in police custody. The female members of the NCA have also suffered the same fate; as they stated in a 2009 study, 70% of the perpetrators of violence were from various branches of the police force. Assault was the most common violation, mentioned by 80% of these members, and the weapons used in the assaults were baton sticks and booted feet, part of the uniform of the police.
The brutality meted out against female civil rights activists, is well documented, with one of the most notorious cases being that of Jestina Mukoko, Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Jestina was abducted from her home by members of the Central Intelligence Organization on December 3, 2008, and held captive in police custody for several weeks, where she was brutally beaten, tortured, forced to confess to an alleged plot to mount a terrorist incursion from neighboring Botswana, and subsequently imprisoned before being brought to court, where she was eventually granted bail on February 27, 2009. Jestina's experience of police intimidation was not an isolated incident; another example is the case of Gertrude Hambira, now living in exile in South Africa after being harassed by senior law enforcement agents and members of the Joint Operations Command [JOC].
Police abuse is not the privy of women activists, even women who attempt to report domestic violence are frequently disrespected, and often told to go back home and resolve their differences with their partners. The Domestic Violence Act came into force in 2007, and was hailed as one of the most progressive laws for the advancement of women in Zimbabwe. Despite this Act being in place, women continue to be subjected to abuse by their partners as there is a general reluctance by the police to enforce the Act and protect abused women.
The manner in which the police handle women will potentially undercut women's confidence in the police's ability to deal with domestic violence issues. Many police officials view domestic violence as a “private” matter, best left behind closed doors. This has resulted in attitudes and systems that minimize police responses and discourage specialized responses to women who are victims. The conduct of the police is a breach of Section 5 of the Domestic Violence Act, and numerous international treaties, as they frequently decline to listen to complaints, investigate them, advise complainants, facilitate access to medical assistance, and ensure the women are aware of the legal remedies at their disposal.
Whilst women are protected by law as citizens of Zimbabwe, this becomes ineffective when the protection cannot be implemented, and especially when the ones supposed to offer protection are perpetrators of violence and intimidation. Women and children should be confident and feel secure when they see a policeman or a soldier. There is need to restore confidence in law enforcement agents so that they protect women and their dignity.