SHARIFFA Mohamed (not her real name) is a young Zanzibari woman who is still in her early 20s.
Though a mother of two, she hasn’t lost her natural beauty. Despite occasional flashes of smiles revealing her stunning beauty, they can’t hide emotions of agony, regret and shattered dreams written all over her face.
Emotionally overwhelmed, Shariffa takes her time as she recalls the painful moment that changed her life. And, she struggles to hold back streams of tears rolling down her slim face.
But, she had to tell the story that robbed her of a bright future. Being in love for the first time, Shariffa had huge illusions. But, her ill-advised decision to go out on a date with the boy she loved and trusted, marked a watershed in her life.
“It was a holiday and he called me, and I went out with him. He took me to the beach with friends, where we stayed there until sunset,” she recalls who was then in the final year of her ordinary level studies. “On our way back home, he said we should make a short stop at his uncle’s house. Initially, I never suspected anything wrong,” she recounts the incidents of the fateful day.
“When we got in, I felt a bit nervous because the house was silent.There was no one inside and I soon realised that he had some ulterior motives. He began making some sexual advances and I firmly told him I wasn’t interested. “He tried to persuade me into it, but I did not change my mind. When he saw that all hope of success had faded, he suddenly grabbed and pushed me to the ground,” she narrates.
Shariffa says she shouted at him to stop and get off, but all her plea fell on deaf ears. He continued. “He was powerful and easily pinned me to the ground.” He forced himself on her and the horrific drama was over in a few minutes, the visibly heartbroken Shariffa tells her ordeal.
“I was only 17 years old and had never slept with a man before. I was angry with him, I never thought he could do such a thing to me because I trusted, and yes I loved him, but I wasn’t ready for sex. “I was in great pain, but I benefitwas too scared to tell my parents. I kept it to myself. I was a bit confused. One part of me really hated him, because he took my virginity away, but there was this other part that loved him,” she said.
A couple of weeks later, she started experiencing unusual condition. She suddenly became sleepy and lethargic; Her mother noticed it and took her to a doctor where she received the shocking news-she was pregnant. Her father was furious with her upon receiving the heart breaking news.
He was bitter at her for she had brought shame onto their family. They pressed her seeking to know the man who was responsible for her pregnancy. Worried about the consequences, Shariffa had no option but tell the truth on the day she was date rapped.
Initially her parents reported the incident to the police, but later on withdrew their complaint. They had held a couple of family to family meetings and decided Shariffa should marry her 24-year-old rapist.
“The marriage was used as a way to cover up the rape and to keep my husband out of prison,” she says. A year after Shariffa had given birth to their second child, her husband deserted the family. The marriage had lasted four years.
“He crossed over to the Mainland. I hear that he is living with another woman in Bagamoyo,” she says, revealing that he has never been in touch with her ever since he left. She is now taking care of her two little kids as a single parent. It is like the whole world has crumbled on her, she says with a lot of regrets.
Shariffa is just one of thousands of child brides who end up marrying their abusers in Zanzibar. Unfortunately some of these marriages end miserably and prematurely. Many teenage rape incidents remain unreported, but of recent more and more victims are coming out and reporting sexual crimes, thanks to sensitisation campaigns by civil societies and the government.
Victims are encouraged to report the incidents and cooperate with law enforcers. Gender desks have been established at various police stations in line with enactment of tougher laws for sexual abuse offenders.
Last year, a staggering 579 rape cases were reported, out of which 533 involved young girls, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labour Empowerment, Elderly, Women and Children. And, 92 boys were defiled while nine girls were sodomized.
In spite of the overall increase in reporting sexual crime incidents in recent years, the conviction rate has remained persistently low, with perpetrators largely going unpunished. For instance, out of 579 rape cases reported, only 149 cases were filed into the court of law, with only ten culprits convicted.
And, 327 cases are still under investigation, 70 were dropped by police and 16 were dropped by DPP. The low conviction rate is attributed to the challenges police, the DPP office and other stakeholders encounter in investigating and prosecuting such cases.
Families are largely to blame for poor conviction rate, says Makame Mgeni Simshamba, a regional magistrate, who has presided over several sexual abuse cases reveals. He cites ‘muhali’ a deep rooted practice in which the victim’s family and the accused person collude to escape the arm of the law by settling the matter out of court as the main stumbling block.
Fear of abandonment and fear of embarrassing family are also cited as the main reasons for not reporting sexual violence. “Most often, families settle sexual abuse cases at family level where both the perpetrator’s family and the abused child’s family members either force the abused child to marry the perpetrator if the two are matured,” he says.
While some families are said to opt for cash in order to settle the matter out of court, others are pushed by the quest to protect the family image, especially when the culprit is a family relative. The law demands both sides of the pending sexual abuse case to cooperate with investigators, but often the victims’ families refuse to show up.
“We have many incidences where such cases ended in marriage after the families reached an out of court settlement and decided to marry the abused child to their perpetrator. In such scenario, the magistrate’s hands become tied,” says Simshamba.
He says most teenage rape incidents occur between young adolescents who are in relationships and that makes it difficult to prosecute the cases, especially when the victim opts to protect her boyfriend. He says prevention of sexual abuse is important and should begin with addressing the cultural values and norms that support and tolerate sexual assault.
Parental care and proper guidance of children, particularly edifying them about reproductive health and sexual abuse could mitigate the problem. The Minister for Education and Vocational Training, Ms Riziki Pembe Juma calls upon parents to break the silence and talk to their children about reproductive health and sexual abuse as a way of keeping them safe.
“Talk to the student about their body changes as they grow and risks of being sexually abused. If they know, they will take precaution,” said Riziki at a meeting to encourage ‘parents/children communication’ held in the Isles recently.
She said talking to children is the best way to minimize or avoid problems that face them such as being afraid in fighting for their rights, underage sex and marriage, unwanted pregnancy and other sexual temptations. Many parents still consider it a taboo to talk about topics linked to reproductive health and sex with their children.
But, Ms Riziki argues that adults have a great role to play in shaping children in the country along with fighting Gender Based Violence (GBV) and abuse of children.
“Let us work together to ensure that our children understand their growth and how they can avoid temptations, particularly engaging in sexual intercourse before the required age,” she said.
Minister for Labor, Women and Children, Maudline Castico is equally concerned with rampant and unabated teenage sexual crimes and urges parents and guardians to put in their best to bring up the girl child, and ensure adolescent girls are nurtured, educated and taken good care of.
The Minister argued that the society must understand that depriving women of fundamental rights and equal opportunity will only destroy the nation.
“Women are the cornerstone of societal development, we must give them equal opportunities for sustainable development of our country,” she argues.
The Minister warns that the government will exercise zero tolerance to perpetuators of sexual abuse against girls and those who entertain child marriages, saying they should brace themselves for longer sentences. Ms Castico believes male parents also have a great role to play to guide their sons so that they become more responsible and have respect for girls around them.
She said fathers should bond with their male children and spend time talking to them about their biological changes as they grow up and why they should avoid early sex. Director of the Department of Women and Children, Nasima Haji Chum pleads with girls to avoid distractions and concentrate on their education so that they build their future.
She said it was only through education a girl child can liberate herself and contribute considerably to her society and nation. Speaking at a round table discussion coordinated by the Tanzania Women Writers Association (TAMWA), Zanzibar, human rights advocates urged authorities to step up efforts in curbing sexual crimes.
Ms Amina Yusuf says some reports of rape are being dropped before any real investigation has taken place, which not only raises huge concerns but increases the risk that rapists are going unpunished, free to rape again.
She says her daughter was sexually assaulted, but despite reporting the incident to the police as well as identifying the perpetrator, the police officers showed reluctance to apprehend the suspect.
She admits that muhali poses a serious challenge to the ongoing war against sexual crimes but raises a particular concern at the widely perceived prevalence of corruption and lack of accountability in the police force.
Hawra Shamte, Policy and Advocacy Manager at Tamwa Zanzibar, says though the responsibility for the eradication of sexual assault rests with the whole community, police, DPP, and court should deal accordingly with perpetrators.