A teenager has been charged with murder in Zimbabwe despite her claims that she acted in self-defence as she fought off a would-be rapist with a piece of wood.
The move has sparked outrage from lawyers and activists, who have raised concerns about how victims of sexual assault are treated in Zimbabwe and called for more protection for women.
Tariro Matutsa, 19, claimed she acted in self-defence when she hit Sure Tsuro, 40, several times with a piece of wood when he cornered her at her house in Mudzi, a rural area east of the capital, Harare.
According to the police report Tsuro exposed himself and aggressively demanded sex and “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 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 July 23. (Source: The Guardian)