Mozambique Rape Case Pits Tradition Against Law

Isabel, a 35-year-old Mozambican woman, was raped by 17 men in northern city Pemba allegedly as punishment for trespassing on an initiation campsite.
Isabel, a 35-year-old Mozambican woman, was raped by 17 men in northern city Pemba allegedly as punishment for trespassing on an initiation campsite.
Johannes Myburgh

Women activists and lawyers are pressing for justice in the December gang rape of a woman in northern Mozambique.  Investigators allegedly haven’t visited the crime scene and the 17 attackers walk free as tradition clashes with law in the southern African nation.  Johannes Myburgh went to Pemba in northern Mozambique and brings us this report.

Rape victim recalls incident

A 34-year-old woman was picking cashew nuts in a quiet field close to her house in Mozambique’s northernmost city Pemba last December.  That is when four men grabbed her, accused her of trespassing on an initiation ceremony campsite for young boys of the Makonde people and said she must face punishment.

Isabel, as her supporters call her to protect her identity, describes what happened next.  She avoids eye contact and quietly wipes away tears. ”They came there and started to tear off my clothes.  They started mistreating me, forcing me to have sex with them.  It was the people from the initiation ceremony.  After they abused me, and had sex with me, they were tired," she explained. "So they took the boys who were being initiated and forced them on me.”

Isabel’s children ran to fetch their father.  When he came there he says he was forced to watch the attack. ”I found them while they were doing this thing with the lady.  I asked them, is she not married? her husband said.

A nephew says there were too many attackers to count. ”She counted up to 17.  Then she lost patience and didn’t count them anymore,” he recalled.

The family went to the police when the attackers demanded a ransom of five thousand meticals, or around $190.  Isabel was freed and taken to the hospital.  But her rapists are also free and she says she has met them in the area of the attack, Expansão, where she used to live.  Her nephew says this is prolonging the family's awful ordeal.

“They arrested four at first and later three more.  Soon after they freed everyone," her nephew stated. "Since they were let go, the attackers are taunting us.  Up to now one is in Expansao, but the others have fled.”

Abuse, not condemned, no investigation

Rights groups say investigators still have not visited the field where the alleged attack took place.  When VOA visited the site, Isabel’s clothes still lay in the grass and almost 20 liquor bottles littered the scene.  Police have not been forthcoming in response to repeated requests for a comment.

Isabel’s so-called “punishment” has caused a buzz of discussion between women’s groups and defenders of tradition in Mozambique.

The country passed a law against domestic violence in 2009, but it is not being implemented, says Maria Jose Arthur, from the rights organization Women and Law in Southern Africa. ”In practice people don’t believe in the law.  It doesn’t fit in with their values of gender inequality.  So there are laws that aren’t implemented," she stated. "They give excuses like they don’t have the means, or that nobody can support the family if the culprit goes to jail.”

Local journalist Pedro Nacuo wrote in state newspaper Noticias that nobody condemned Isabel's rape, severe as it was, because of those traditions.  Nacuo later apologized for not condemning the rape himself initially.

Helping the victim

Women’s organizations are pressuring the government to take action in Isabel’s case.  Julia Wachave acts as Isabel’s legal counsel and is outraged that seven of the suspects were released before police even took a statement from the victim.

”What scares me is that the police say that they don’t have enough evidence, which is not true!  Once they arrested them the first time, they were supposed to find out and listen to everybody,” Wachave said.

Mozambique's head prosecutor, Augosto Paulino, has asked for a report on the incident.  A bank account has been set up to fund Isabel’s treatments and her family has been moved to another area in town, says Wachave. ”She walks but not well.  She limps a bit because she can’t exert herself much. She needs more counseling sessions,” Wachave added.

Meanwhile, Isabel is afraid her attackers will come again.  She wants them to be jailed so they can’t hurt others. ”These people shouldn’t be let go.  They can’t let them go, because I already feel death hanging over me,” she said.

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