Domestic Violence In A Tragedy of Lives

Review by Beaven Tapureta – Bookshelf

The Herald, 22 October 2014


A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe (Weaver Press), published 11 years ago, is an important book for policy-makers and the general society. In this book, voices of former female prisoners resonate from different, sincere, valuable perspectives.

The fact that the book has been reprinted twice, that is, in 2012 and this year, and is currently a literature set book for Advanced Level Paper 4 (Contemporary Literature-Post World War 2) for the period 2011-2016, attests to its demand and relevance in our society.

Edited by renowned publisher Irene Staunton and established writer Chiedza Musengezi, A Tragedy of Lives is the result of a courageous project conducted by Zimbabwe Women Writers, a writers’ organisation, working in conjunction with Zimbabwe Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders.

The recorded interviews take a clearly homogenous structure as each interviewee starts with a self-introduction, and then narrates her family and educational background, the socio-cultural milieu that led to the commission of the crime and the prison experience.

It is the ‘thereness’ in each story that grips the reader and force him/her to examine certain conditions that make girls and women vulnerable to crime.

The interviews are split into categories to give a pointer to the nature of the crime committed. The categories include reproductive rights, domestic issues, domestic issues and fear of witchcraft, fraud, commercial sex workers, dangerous drugs, and shoplifting. The analytical essays by Professor Julie Stewart and Jill N. Samakayi-Makarati help readers to understand the underlying facts about female prisoners in Zimbabwe.

While other categories have five or less narratives, there are nine interviews under the domestic issues category as if to highlight the untamed demon of domestic violence in the Zimbabwean society. At the time the book was published in 2003, there was no law that protected victims of domestic violence. The Domestic Violence Act (Chapter 5:16) had not yet been established. It only was enacted in 2007 and yet it seems a few people know about it.

The Act ‘makes provision for the protection and relief of victims of domestic violence and provides for matters connected or incidental to that’. Telling by the heavy reportage of domestic violence in the local, it is as if the Act does not exist especially to the poor as portrayed in the book. It is the poor, uneducated woman who suffers most.

Loveness’ case is rightly covered by the law which considers a crime the ‘forcible entry into a complainant’s residence where the parties do not share the same residence’.

However, had the law been existent during Loveness’ time, she would not have gone to jail for two months (the other months were suspended).

Her ex-husband Frank visited her when it was not proper to do so since they had divorced and she had found a new boyfriend. Although the boyfriend was away, her ex-husband visited and could not leave. He tried to lure her with money which she sternly refused and he began to harass her. Some neighbors then helped her to get rid of drunken Frank. They also beat him, leading him to reporting the case to the police. Frank lied to the police that Loveness had stolen his money and that is what sent her to prison: stealing money from her former husband and arranging to have him beaten.

Beti started to have problems in her marriage when her husband got involved with another woman. He hit her every day and although she sought counseling and reported the matter to the police, she got not help until such a time when she could not take it anymore. One evening, after a domestic dispute, she poured boiling oil into her husband’s ear. He later died.

The cultural chains in many cases worsen problems in marital situations.

Unlike Beti who reported her beatings to the police, another woman Maria, who hit her husband with a pole after she also was a victim of domestic violence, was caught in a certain cultural prison before she went to the actual prison.

Relatives beat up Maria whenever she told them about her suffering. In her own words, Maria says, ‘Throughout the whole period when we fought, I never reported him to the police. I believed in suffering in silence. This is what our elders advise, not to run away from a problem….’

This is a shocking story as one wonders why, Maria, who says her husband would beat her up and cut her with razor blades on the arms and inner thighs, could not think of reporting her case to the police or seek help from anti-domestic violence counselors.

Maria had a very difficult childhood. She only reached Grade Six and was impregnated when she was in that level and this background could explain why she might not have been aware of the law.

These situations are real today, and with thousands of donor money being poured into awareness campaigns, it seems it is getting worse possibly due to lack of enough literature about the issue. Domestic violence has become a way of life especially for the young generation.

A large number of the former prisoners in A Tragedy of Lives committed their crimes due to frustrations with their marital situations and misunderstandings.

After being divorced for being a Zambian, Monica’s husband played a ‘provocation role’ in the conditions that led her to dump him but she stole his property.

Monica’s husband resigned from the police force because of illness and while he was ill and waiting for his pension to come, Monica was supportive to him. When the pension comes, he buys a car and gets involved with another woman, eventually neglecting Monica.

In other cases, women found themselves economically disempowered and in a bid to fulfill the love they harbored for their families, they engaged in criminal activities such as selling dangerous drugs, shoplifting, stock theft, prostitution and fraud.

A Tragedy of Lives is a door through which readers enter into the psyche of the female prisoners. It provides an entry into the physical realities of prison life. Readers get to know how it feels like to have one’s mother or sister incarcerated for crimes that could have been avoided.

Relatives, the police and the prison guards, as the book shows, either psychologically destroy or help prisoners rebuild their innocence.

There could be some improvements done by now to accommodate women in prisons but the book is a constant reminder of what society would become if Zimbabwean prisons are not upgraded to suit women.

Zimbabwe Women Writers, which did the project, has done so much in publishing books concerned with issues affecting women. A Tragedy of Lives is one of the tools organisations can use to unite men and women in the fight against some evils.