President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 2018 inauguration was seen as a new dawn not only for the country’s political and economic elite, but for LGBTQ and intersex Zimbabweans and other groups. The LGBTQ and intersex community nevertheless continues to reel from intimidation, harassment and ostracization five years after the late-President Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country with an iron fist, left office.

The 2013 Constitution that is currently in use does not outlaw consensual same-sex sexual relations, but same-sex marriages if one is found engaging in sexual activity that is regarded as illegal. The Zimbabwean government, in other words, does not have a problem with anyone who is part of the LGBTQ and intersex community as long as they do not get married or have sex in public.

Even though the Constitution may appear to tacitly protect LGBTQ and intersex Zimbabweans, their everyday experiences, especially when it comes to the issue of gender-based violence, is vastly different.

“Mainstream dialogue of GBV (gender-based violence) in Zimbabwe has predominantly given salience to the experience of cisgender category of women over LBT women. Little to no conversation has been facilitated on the experiences of LBT women, who are disproportionally affected by GBV. GALZ (Gays And Lesbians of Zimbabwe) has recorded extreme cases of correctional rape, sexual assault and physical assault and intimate partner violence (IPV),” said Samuel Matsikure, programs manager for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group.

According to a study conducted by GALZ in 2021, at least one in three lesbian, bisexual and transgender women experienced violence inflicted based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Gay, bisexual and trans men have also experienced heightened emotional and physical violence, and a lack of accountability exacerbates these experience.

GALZ has also documented cases of intimate partner violence, but the restrictive environment in which it works perpetuates silence around them. Other factors that contribute to this inaction include an unresponsive police force and judicial system and a patriarchal society that does not acknowledge violence between partners of the same sex and ridicules men who report they are survivors of intimate partner violence.

At least 65 percent of people who GALZ interviewed for their 2021 study said they never reported the abuse they experienced for fear of double victimization. 

“This is primarily due to the fact that law enforcement is relatively lux to take action and investigate same-sex partner violence and general violence perpetrated on LGBTI people and society at large also turns a blind eye to this calibre of violence. Such attitudes in turn, discourage victims to speak out and report GBV,” said Matsikure.

Matsikure also described the government’s commitments to protect LGBTQ and intersex Zimbabweans through its National Development Strategy as nothing more than lip service.

“The government has indirectly made considerable efforts to protect LGBTI people from all forms of harm and abuse,” said Matsikure. “However, government is yet to fulfill such commitments creating challenges such as, hesitancy of law enforcement agencies to crack down on GBV experienced by LGBTI persons and hesitancy of LGBTI persons to report or speak out against GBV due to fear of blackmail, homophobic backlash, stigma non-recognition of females as perpetrators of IPV. Lack of political will and leadership to address GBV against LGBTI persons. Delays in seeking treatment, there can be significant delays between GBV and presentation to medical care.” 

“Moreover, constant threats of deregistration of organizations working on the protection of human rights and LGBTI rights by the State limits the interaction of communities with the law enforcers as same-sex conduct is still criminalized,” added Matsikure. “The perception that the current Constitution outlawed homosexuality hinders some government entities from openly assisting LGBTI persons where GBV or IPV has been reported yet the Constitution only mentions same-sex marriage.”

Trans and Intersex Rising Zimbabwe also said they were working on establishing a safe environment for LGBTQ and intersex Zimbabweans in which they will coexist with the heterosexual community.

TIRZ says it’s working through a an initiative that focuses on three areas: Family and friends, sensitizing people on LGBTQ and intersex issues and building an educational and informational support system that focuses on creating lobby, advocacy, religion and cultural programs. TIRZ hopes these efforts will create common ground and allow dialogues with heterosexual Zimbabweans.

TIRZ Program Director Chihera Meki said LGBTQ and intersex Zimbabweans still face major challenges, despite these efforts.

“Challenges such as gate keepers as well as religious and cultural beliefs have affected the program to reach out to the various communities, to help close the gap on information,” said Chihera.

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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