Ruramai is a lanky 35 year old widow from Masvingo in the south-east of the country. She is a mother of three - two girls and one boy.
Ruramai was married young, at 15. The age of sexual consent in Zimbabwe is 16.
When she got married, her now late husband, Simbarashe, was a self-employed cross-border trader who spent most of his time travelling to faraway places such as Dar-es-Salam, Lusaka, Gaborone and Johannesburg to buy clothing for resale back home. This is a common pastime for many in Zimbabwe, a country with an employment rate estimated at over 90 percent.
Ruramai’s father, Zakaria, is a polygamist with six wives and 29 children. Ruramai’s mother is 'wife number two', and she has five daughters. Zakaria is old and unemployed, feeding his large family through subsistence farming.
Ruramai’s entire life has been one of being at the receiving end of violence against women.
Like many large families in remote areas of rural Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to decide not to educate the girl child. Ruramai’s situation is not an exception: she received only 3 years of primary school education before she joined the long line of her sisters and half-sisters as the main providers of labour on Zakaria’s farm.
Denial of an education was Ruramai’s first real taste of gender-based abuse, and by having her labour exploited as a child on her father’s farm, she was further subjected to another form of abuse; namely, child labour. To cap all this, she was married off to Simbarashe at the tender age of 15. This was, undeniably, an act of abuse against her by both her father and Simbarashe.
In some cases the act of marriage is expected to be a blessing, but in the case of Ruramai the act failed to break the cycle of abuse. Although her husband loved and respected her, he was almost always away from home and so she assumed all the responsibilities of running a home at a very tender age, assuming the roles of both mother and father to her children.
The errand nature of her husband’s occupation meant Ruramai did not fully enjoy connubial rights as did other young married women. Although she understood that her husband was justified in spending a lot of time away from home in order to earn a living for the family, it pained her, and it can be argued too that this fact constituted a further denial of her rights as a woman.
One evening Simbarashe arrived home from a long trip to Dar-es-Salam, and he looked weak and sick. He told his wife that he had fallen sick while in Dar-es-Salam and had visited a doctor there who had advised him to take an HIV test, which he had done. The result had been positive, meaning that Simbarashe carried the HIV virus that causes the deadly AIDS disease.
For the first time Simbarashe disclosed to Ruramai that he had been seeing two women: one in Gaborone and the other in Dar-es-Salam. He told her that he had a sickly daughter with the woman in Gaborone, and that the woman in Dar-es-Salam had suffered two miscarriages and she had been sick for a long time.
Ruramai was devastated by the disclosure, and she cried all night. She visited the clinic the following morning, where she took an HIV test which confirmed that she too had the virus. By now Ruramai had two daughters: the youngest was 6 and in her first year at school.
Neither Simbarashe nor Ruramai were put on anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs immediately. The clinic advised them that they would be put on ARVs only after their CD4 count had fallen to below a certain figure. They were therefore advised to visit the clinic regularly for checkups.
Simbarashe continued with his trips, but as he grew weaker and his health deteriorated his trips had became less frequent and, consequently, profits gradually plummeted. He was eventually put on drugs after his CD4 count had fallen to below the figure 350, but he did not respond well to the medication and he eventually died.
As per tradition, Simbarashe’s property was shared among his close relatives. Ruramai had been the most highly prized piece of 'property' that Simbarashe had left behind, and so she was 'given' to his younger brother, Robson. Robson, who was unmarried and had just secured a job in Masvingo town as a clerk, had also taken over Simbarashe’s surviving children as his own, and had immediately relocated to Ruramai’s homestead to share the bedroom with her.
Despite the fact that Simbarashe exhibited all signs of HIV and AIDS during his long illness, and despite the fact that Ruramai was HIV positive herself, Robson, in his wisdom (or lack of it) found it difficult to act against tradition. Ruramai, as was expected, had also been powerless to decide on her future because she was part of the deceased’s property, and her fate had to be determined by the late Simbarashe’s nephew, the executor of his late uncle’s estate. She had to prepare herself to endure yet another round of abuse. But why, she must have asked herself? The answer is simply because she is a woman. Period!
Within a year of Robson having moved in with Ruramai, the two were blessed with a son and Robson named him Simbarashe, perhaps as an act of gratitude for having been left a woman by his relative. Ruramai had now started taking ARV medication and, on the advice of the doctors, she had not breast-fed Simbarashe Junior. Luckily for her, she responded well to the medication and all the signs her sickness vanished.
Hardly a year after the birth of Simbabrashe Junior, Robson was taken ill, and his condition fast deteriorated. Within a couple of months he had wasted away so much he could hardly walk without the support of Ruramai. He was admitted to Masvingo Provincial Hospital where he tested HIV-positive and was immediately placed on drugs. But it was too late, he succumbed to the dreadful disease and died within a month.
Ruramai was widowed once again and, as before, she awaited the executor’s next move.
Two years passed by after Robson’s death, and nothing had happened. Ruramai met and fell in love with a widower who lived in the city. They were both HIV-positive. They dated secretly until one day they bumped into a villager who knew Ruramai well.
Robson’s people were alerted to the relationship and life immediately changed for Ruramai once again. They called for a family meeting at which they accused Ruramai of having brought a curse into the family by having a love affair before the family had conducted the ‘kurova guva’ (literally translated ‘beating the grave’) ceremony, an important traditional ritual that is carried out at least a year after the death of a man or woman who has left behind offspring. The purpose of the ceremony is to bring the spirit of the deceased back into his home to protect his offspring.
The family meeting led to the members taking drastic measures against Ruramai for having defiled their home. An emissary was sent to meet Ruramai’s family to demand back part of the dowry that had been paid to them by Simbarashe when he had married Ruramai. The emissary also demanded that Ruramai’s family take her back, since by her disobedience she had effectively forfeited her right to remain in her matrimonial home.
Another emissary was sent to meet Ruramai’s lover to claim six herd of cattle as compensation for dating a married woman.
Ruramai’s case is not an isolated one. Thousands of women in Zimbabwe go through similar experiences, if not worse. In my view, these acts are all forms of abuse against women, the psychological impacts and long term life consequences possibly worse than the physical form of violence that tends to attract more attention from the government and non-governmental organizations.
As we arrive today at the conclusion of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, coinciding with International Human Rights Day, it is time to redefine gender-based violence with the view to bringing to the front cases such as Ruramai’s, and to mobilise communities to fight this gross violation of the rights of women.
Ruramai and those in her circumstances deserve our help!