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‘We just have to brave it’: Women face assault on Zimbabwe’s public buses

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BY MARKO PHIRI

When Zimbabwe’s government started running a bus system earlier this year with fares on average one-third lower than those of private bus companies, Thandekile Gama was excited.

The 33-year-old hairdresser had grown tired of paying up to $3 (less than 10 U.S. cents) every time she took a trip within Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, so the new bus system with fares capped at 50 cents seemed like a gift.

But that gift came at a cost: Gama said the more affordable fares have led to overcrowding on the government-owned buses, putting her and other women she knows at greater risk of sexual harassment and assault as they travel.

“The buses are crowded, as would be expected, but there are creeps who ride the buses to fondle women,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “You just feel a hand feeling you up and then disappearing.”

Reports of harassment and rape on public transportation are on the rise, said Auxillia Sibanda, an assistant inspector with the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), at a public meeting in July.

She did not provide specific numbers, noting that the statistics were still being compiled.

World Bank figures show about one-third of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing about  two percent  annually.

Across the country, rapid population growth has led to increased demand for public utilities, including transport, according to legislator and women’s rights defender Tabitha Khumalo.

But authorities did not anticipate the impact of that demand on the safety of female commuters using public transportation such as private and state-run buses as well as unlicensed “pirate” taxis, she said.

The government re-launched the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) buses in January, several years after the state-owned company’s fleet was grounded following a litany of problems that included millions of dollars of debt and allegations of government corruption.

At the time of the re-launch, information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said Zupco was part of the modernisation of the national transport system and assured the nation that there would be “adequate security” to protect passengers.

Zupco’s acting CEO Everisto Madangwa said in a phone interview that those security measures include assigning at least one police officer to each bus, “to ensure passenger comfort and safety”.

Madangwa declined to directly respond to the accusations of sexual harassment on the company’s buses, but said the government regularly adds to the fleet to both meet demand and decrease congestion on the buses.

He added that the company plans to grow from the current 500 buses to 3,000 countrywide, without specifying a timeline for the target.

FINANCIAL RESPITE

Madangwa could not provide figures for how many passengers use the Zupco buses daily, but noted that the bus system has been popular from the first day it started running.

Gama and other passengers say much of that popularity stems from the low fares, which provide some financial respite for a population struggling through crippling inflation and shortages of bread, fuel and hard currency. (L8N24G1OY)

Female passengers have long been subjected to whistles, crude comments and groping on buses, Gama explained, but with so many people using the Zupco system, the harassment has become more aggressive and invasive.

“The sexual harassment has become too much, but (these) buses are the cheapest,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation as she stood in a long queue to board a Zupco bus.

“We just have to brave it.”

A 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 women in five of the world’s biggest commuter cities – London, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Cairo – found 52 percent cited safety as their top concern while using transport.

For Khumalo, the problem of women’s safety on Zimbabwean cities’ public transport systems is a “recent phenomenon, seen after the entry of government buses and proliferation of pirate taxis”.

She and a group of other female legislators have lobbied the government to set up a database of sex offenders “as many of these perpetrators are repeat offenders”.

In general, said Khumalo – who also serves as the national chair of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – the government could do more to protect and support survivors of sexual violence.

Figures released in 2018 by the Musasa Project, a women’s rights group, revealed that up to 50% of rape cases in Zimbabwe go unprosecuted.

Lawmakers are currently drafting a bill that proposes a mandatory minimum of 60 years for the rape of anyone under the age of 12.

FEAR OF REPORTING

Bulawayo police spokesman Abednico Ncube told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that police were doing everything they could to ensure women’s safety on public transportation.

But the congestion means officers “cannot monitor each and every passenger”, he added.

Ncube advised anyone who experiences sexual harassment while riding on a bus to report the incident immediately after it happens.

“It is important for victims of indecent assault to attract the attention of witnesses as soon as they feel violated so that police can effect arrests,” he said.

But there is a problem with that advice, said Gillian Chinzete, project director at the Institute for Young Women’s Development, which supports women’s participation in political processes.

Women in Zimbabwe are often reluctant to report harassment for fear of not being taken seriously, she said.

“There must be training of the police on how to deal with cases of public violence against women … as a way of instilling confidence in the victims,” said Chinzete.

Gama, the hairdresser in Bulawayo, agreed, saying that she and other women she knows have learned to live with being groped on the bus.

Because to go to the police, she said, is to risk being ridiculed for reporting a “petty crime with no known perpetrator”.

“It’s difficult as it is to report rape,” she said.

“Imagine trying to report being fondled by a hand you did not see.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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In the community

Myths on Covid-19 pandemic spread across Hwange

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BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI

Innocent Tevedzai, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Chamber of informal Association for People With Disabilities  says after getting inoculated vaccines to prevent Covid-19 pandemic, he was told that he will lose his fertility in the coming years. 

Royal Ndlovu, a Victoria Falls Combined Residents Association member says he was also discouraged from taking the vaccines after he heard that he was not only going to lose his fertility, but vaccines also meant losing his libido. 

Zimbabwe first rolled out Covid-19 vaccines early last year with the country relying mostly on Chinese made vaccines to bring the pandemic that paralysed the economy under control. 

 

Hwange district, where Ndlovu and Tevedzai come from was one of the areas that were prioritised by the government in the vaccination blitz as it sought to have tourist resorts re-opened for tourists, but community listening sessions held by VicFallsLive in some parts of Hwange district in Matabeleland North showed that some people are still sceptical about the safety of the vaccines.

Community leaders said the government did little to counter the misinformation, which is largely blamed on social media and this fuelled vaccination hesitancy. 

As such, ordinarily, Zimbabweans are caught up in a lot of myths and of course misinformation about the pandemic.

“We were told that we will not be able to conceive as this was intentionally done to reduce the population.” Tevedzai said. 

“Lack of verified information made it worse for us because we had to be vaccinated to gain public access at the time when misinformation and social ills such as teen pregnancies rose.” 

Hwange villagers, like other people in many parts of Zimbabwe were victims of misinformation about the vaccines, including allegations that those who got the Covid-19 vaccine will turn into baboons or that the vaccines were part of a scheme to reduce Africa’s population.

Even the World Health Organization says the Covid-19 outbreak and response was accompanied by an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not.

For Michael Ncube, a Victoria Falls City Council’ acting Public Health Officer, “this makes it tough for people to then find reliable sources and dependable guidance when they need it to fully curtail coronavirus,” he said. 

The myths Ncube added, included claims on cures and prevention.

 “For instance, people were told that when they vaccinate they will lose fertility or will die as this was deliberately done by the government to reduce Zimbabweans population, which is just mythical and therefore untrue,”

“We would like to assure out residents that the vaccines are safe and the country has highly specialised health personnels who also confirmed them and because of those vaccines, that’s why we have managed to set a barrier to prevent the transmission and that has paid off, as we have seen hospitalisations and deaths reduced and the economy fully opened.”

Zimbabwe has administered over 12 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines so far. 

 

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In the community

Zimbabwe’s forests threatened by rising demand for coal

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BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI

Mazia Dube’s daily routine involves delivering tonnes of charcoal at one of Hwange’s busiest truck stops and he says his workload keeps increasing.

Dube is hired by different people, who illegally obtain the charcoal from the forests in Hwange’s Madumabisa village, to drop the loads at the Truck Inn Stop in the Cinderella area from where it is loaded to Bulawayo bound haulage trucks.

The demand for charcoal among households in Zimbabwe’s urban areas has been rising sharply due to rolling power cuts as a result of depressed electricity generation and the country’s inability to import enough power to cover for the deficit.

“I make a profit of US$0.50 (£0.47) for every bag of charcoal I deliver at the truck stop,” Dube said. “A bag of charcoal costs US$7 (£6.62).”

He said on a good day he can make as much as US$100 (£94.5) from the charcoal deliveries with the business reaching its peak during winter.

Experts say high electricity costs coupled with frequent power cuts in Zimbabwe has pushed the demand for firewood for cooking, lighting and heating.

This has accelerated the destruction of Zimbabwe’s fragile forests as the country loses about 60 million trees – some 33 000 hectares of forests – every year.

Mthelisi Sebele, an ecologist with the Forestry Commission in Matabeleland North, said the illegal cutting down of trees for firewood and charcoal had resulted in an alarming loss of indigenous forests and land degradation, especially in districts such as Hwange.

The Forestry Commission is a government body mandated to protect state forests and it says the illegal charcoal industry has become a huge source of concern.

“Throughout the province, Hwange has become a hotspot, especially in areas such as Madumabisa Lubangwe and Matetsi up to Dete along the Nyantue River and Dinde,” Sebele said.

“The problem has been proving difficult to control since it started from Hwange around Deka Drum and spread in other areas from 2000 to 2010.

“It has even spread to Victoria Falls and other areas controlled by the Zimbabwe Parks and

Wildlife Management Authority, rural district councils and the Environmental Management Agency.

“Through our investigations we have established that there is high demand for charcoal, especially in Bulawayo, and Hwange is the supplier.”

Charcoal – favoured for burning hotter and longer than wood – is made from heating wood without oxygen.

The practice is taking root across swathes of the country, dominated by native forest hardwoods such as the mopane hardwood species, which takes over a decade to fully grow and adapt according to research.

Last year, 158 people from Matabeleland North and Bulawayo were arrested and fined for trading in charcoal with over two tonnes of charcoal confiscated by the authorities.

Sebele said those arrested during the clampdown included people who poached wood for carvings, which is also big business in tourist areas such as Victoria Falls.

“In Hwange we confiscated 505 bags of charcoal and made 20 arrests, and in Dete we repossessed 690 bags and arrested 50 people,” he added.

“In Lupane seven bags were also confiscated and 39 people got arrested for that offence while in Bulawayo and Victoria Falls a total of 69 people were arrested and 25 bags of charcoal were confiscated,”

“Our concern is that with the way the cutting down of trees is done it means that we will lose out as a country on farming, timber production, community livelihoods, climate change, soil proliferation and deficit of wood fibre production.”

The Forestry Commission is pushing for tighter laws to curb the practice and is proposing mandatory jail terms instead of fines, which are proving to be not deterrent enough.

Currently anyone caught selling firewood and charcoal can be fined US $59 (£55.8) or sentenced to a year in jail.

Trymore Ndolo, a Victoria Falls Combined Residents Association member, feels the illegal cutting down of trees to make charcoal or for firewood is linked to growing poverty in communities.

“Here in ward 11 we have over 1000 people who have no access to electricity in their homes and some of them are poor and unemployed,” Ndolo said. “So sending them to jail or imposing a stiff fine is unjustified.

“Authorities must actually set up a hub where people can sell the firewood at a very affordable price while on the other hand they work on making licensing accessible and easier because we protect trees.

“We should have answers to people’s daily needs.”

A new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says over 2.4 billion people (one in three) globally depend on firewood for cooking.

It says an estimated 12% of wild tree species is threatened by unsustainable logging “with declines in large-bodied species that have low natural rates of increase also linked to hunting pressure.”

“Seventy percent of the world’s poor are directly dependent on wild species,” IPBES noted in its July report.

“One in five people rely on wild plants, algae and fungi for their food and income; 2.4 billion rely on fuel wood for cooking and about 90% of the 120 million people working in capture fisheries are supported by small-scale fishing.

“But the regular use of wild species is extremely important not only in the Global South, from the fish that we eat, to medicines, cosmetics, decoration and recreation, wild species’ use is much more prevalent than most people realise.”

In response to the emerging deforestation problem in Matebeleland North, the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT), a not for profit organisation operating in the region, has distributed over 4000 eco-friendly rocket stoves to communities.

“We have distributed 4361 of those stoves in 11 wards in and around Victoria Falls,” VFWT’s community development coordinator Edith January told The Standard.

“The aim is to reduce deforestation and reduce carbon emissions produced through burning wood and we aim to keep distributing more so that we protect the environment while being aware of the daily needs of those communities.”

Wood fuels represent significant economic value in many countries, accounting for approximately US$ 6 billion (£5.68 billion) for the whole of Africa, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

More than $1 billion (£946 million) of this amount was made up by charcoal- The Independent 

This article is reproduced here as part of the African Conservation Journalism Programme, funded in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe by USAID’s VukaNow: Activity. Implemented by the international conservation organization Space for Giants, it aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Written articles from the Mozambican and Angolan cohorts are translated from Portuguese. Broadcast stories remain in the original language.

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In the community

PDC to host Dirimwe Festival in Hwange

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BY TICHAONA MATARUSE 

Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) will this Saturday host a high level Dirimwe Festival in Dete to celebrate conservation work done by the organisation over the past three years. 

The event is being organised by Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods in Transfrontier Conservation Areas (ProSuli).

The ProSuli project aims at understanding and supporting sustainable livelihoods in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Areas.

ProSuli local facilitator Fraser Bitu said the project runs in three countries and its engagements are aimed at understanding how people in Hwange’s ward 15, which has been their area of operation for the past three years, perceive the future of their livelihoods. 

“This project runs in four sites, in three countries and Hwange ward 15 as part of the Kavango-Zambezi TFCA is one of them. Over the past three years, we conducted more than 60 engagements focusing on six villages-Magoli, Jwape, Dingani, Chezhou, Sialwindi and Malonga,” said Bitu.

ProSuli has also invested in water sources in Hwange to augment water shortages in the dry district.

The organisation has repaired six boreholes and solarised two of them.

They also initiated nutritional garden projects to sustain the livelihoods of the communities.

The event will also mark the end of a cycle of conservation work in Hwange’s Ward 15.

“We have repaired six boreholes and solarized some in ward 15. We have had several programs including capacity building, training, leadership, farming, peace building, local culture, and others,” said Bitu.

He said the project has been successful because of respect for culture by both beneficiaries and community at large.

“This upcoming event will thus seek to celebrate the progress made and bring the Hwange community together to better support and sustain each other both on conservation and local development,” said Bitu.

The occasion will be graced by the traditional leaders including Chief Dingane-Nelukoba and Chief Nekatambe.

Political leaders and the District Development Coordinator’s office have also been invited, together with tour operators around the Hwange National Park.

The programme will start with a tour of Dirimwe which will be characterised by storytelling, drama, songs and poems .

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