HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Martha’s physical abuse started in 2013, a year after her wedding.
“I told my family what I was going through, and all they said was, ‘Hang in there. It will stop at some point,’” says Martha, who requested her last name be withheld for fear of further violence.
Today, she bears scars on her thighs, arms and lips from the night her husband held active electric cables to her body. She had questioned him about bringing other women into their matrimonial home.
That night, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore and fled to a neighbor’s home.
Reports of various forms of violence, including gender-based and domestic, are on the rise in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s economic deterioration is one driver of the abuse, according to the Musasa Project, a nongovernmental organization in Harare that provides shelter for those abused.
“The cases we are receiving now compared to five years back are more brutal,” says Netty Musanhu, the Musasa Project’s executive director. They include murder and rape.
Musanhu says institutions charged with protecting women, such as the courts, don’t mete out punishment that discourages abuse.
Martha says her husband was sentenced to perform three months of community service because of the assault. Advocates say domestic violence sentences are notoriously weak.
“Some of the sentences which are given to perpetrators of gender-based violence are shocking, and it shows the institutions themselves have normalized violence,” Martha says.
According to data from Zimbabwe’s 2015 Demographic and Health Survey (the most recent available), 35 percent of women 15 to 49 years of age reported experiencing physical violence.
And Zimbabwe is not unusual. The World Health Organization found that 1 in 3 women in the world have experienced physical or sexual violence.
But advocates say Zimbabwe’s crumbling economy is adding new challenges, which are contributing to the rise in abuse.
“Roles have shifted, and a lot of women are now breadwinners. And men are in an unfamiliar position that they have to be looked after by women,” says Musanhu. “This has created a lot of tension in the home.”
But some advocates say the rise in reported cases is a measure of progress.
Ten years ago, Zimbabwe enacted the Domestic Violence Act in 2006 to provide protection and relief to those who find themselves in situations of violence. Along with the measure came awareness campaigns to encourage people to report violence in the home, says Glanis Changachirere, director of the Institute for Young Women Development, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for marginalized young women.
“People are now coming out and reporting such cases,” she says.
Musanhu says there is also a rise in the number of men who are reporting cases of abuse. This spring some 20 percent of their clients were men in abusive relationships.
But the cultural acceptance of domestic violence remains a powerful obstacle.
Tsitsi, who asked that her full name not be included for fear of retribution, says her husband assaulted her after he found out she was pregnant, accusing her of infidelity.
“I only realized that I was pregnant after five months, since I was on family planning,” she says.
Tsitsi fled to the Musasa Project, where she delivered her baby a few months later.
Tsitsi returned to her husband after he asked for forgiveness.
“I had to go back because I have no one else to turn to,” she says. “My parents are deceased and my only brother is not economically capable of taking care of me and my two children.”
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated interviews from Shona.
This article was published through a partnership with Global Press Journal.