THE ZANZIBAR government in collaboration with civil society organisations and international community are mounting efforts to end sexual abuse in Zanzibar, but the vice just cannot go away.
Enactment of tougher laws, improvement of criminal justice system, public awareness campaigns and legal support to rape victims are some of the actions which have been implemented across the Isles.
In fact, during the last few years, Zanzibar, a semiautonomous archipelago, has recorded some progresses in the fight against sexual abuse cases.
For instance, awareness has been created, especially by non-state actors to report cases from the grassroots level backed by the establishment of grassroot networks and mushrooming of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).
A One-Stop-Centre has been created at Mnazi Mmoja Referral Hospital, where medical checkup can easily be accessed among other services: The centre also includes the presence of police officers and lawyers.
Another notable success is the establishment of gender desks at some police stations, a project supported by the UNICEF.
The move has fuelled the mainstreaming of gender in the police force and treated GBV cases with the sensitivity which is required.
The reported rate of sexual violence has as a result continued to increase, thanks to the ongoing massive sensitisation campaigns by women groups and human rights organisations for the cases to be reported so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.
In spite of the overall increase in reporting over the years, the problem lies in the fact that the conviction rate for sexual offenders remains persistently low, with perpetrators largely going unpunished.
The low conviction rate is attributed to the challenges police, the DPP office and other stakeholders encounter in investigating and prosecuting such cases. Police, magistrates and state attorneys, speaking at a round table discussion coordinated by the Tanzania Women Writers Association (TAMWA) Zanzibar, conceded that the majority of offenders still escape the arm of the law due to a number of reasons, mainly reluctance by victims and their families to cooperate with authorities.
State Attorney Suleiman Mohamed Maulid says sexual assault cases are some of the most difficult to prosecute.
In order to take a case to trial, a prosecutor needs to believe there is a reasonable likelihood a conviction will happen, said Mr Maulid, from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“You need to at least preside over these cases for you to understand how difficult it is to prosecute them,” he says, noting that cases that involve people that are acquaintances or romantically involved are the most difficult ones to prove.
“Sometime you file the case into court, only to find that the victim who initially appeared interested to pursue the case has tied knots with the suspect and is reluctant to continue with the case,” added Mr Maulid.
Some parents and guardians refuse to cooperate with investigators for a number of reasons, including fear that the image of the family will be dented, noted Mr Maulid.
His argument was backed by his colleague, Ms Ghania Mohamed Ali also from the office of the DPP, who said increased public awareness campaigns were helping survivors gain the courage to come forward and report the crimes, but very few would pursue their respective cases.
“Some would only cooperate when the incident is still hot, but later on they change their minds and withdraw from the case, this is common when the offender and victim are a boyfriend and girlfriend.
Evidence shows that most rape cases end in marriage,” she claimed She added that a big chunk of reported cases fail to proceed past the investigation stage due to evidence issues.
On his side, Mr Othman Mohamed Khamis, a district magistrate, pointed to poor cooperation from the public, especially when it comes to testifying in sexual assault cases, as among reasons for the limited prosecution rate.
“Many sexual crimes are committed against children, and in most cases it proves difficult for them to recall the incidents correctly when testifying in the court,” she says, adding that lack of enough magistrates to preside over cases also causes delays in the prosecution process.
A police officer representing the Regional Crime Officer North Unguja and Head of Gender Desk at Mahonda Police Station, Ms Fadhila Ally, refuted claims that police officers were colluding with offenders and their victims to settle rape cases out of court.
Mr Khamis concedes that there were occasions when families approached the police trying to settle their cases out of court, but the law enforcers decided to file the case and forward them to the DPP.
He said in such scenario, the parents were likely not ready to help with investigation.
“Parents or guardians also tend to be reluctant to cooperate with investigators when the offence is perpetrated by a family member or somebody known to the victim, such as the bread winner of the family, or other close relations of the victim,” he says.
Ms Ally cited another problem impeding sexual violence investigations as the lack of capacity for investigators in terms of adequate personnel, training and resources to handle the complexities that are involved.
TAMWA project coordinator, Ms Hawra Shamte said while it was true there was weakness on the part of the society on how they perceive and treat sexual assaults, there were still many gaps in various institutions found in regard to sexual violence and access to legal remedies.
Ms Shamte argued that for better results, the institutions, namely police and judicial organs in collaboration with other key stakeholders must identify and plug those gaps.
Speaking last Friday at the launching of a soap industry at Bambi Village in South Unguja Region, the Deputy Minister for Labour, Empowerment, Elders, Women and Children, Ms Shadya Mohamed reiterated the need for every Zanzibari to say no to sexual offence.
The Deputy Minister warned that the situation was worrisome, and urged everyone to take lead in the fight against sexual crimes, insisting that the government alone cannot fight this war.
“Every one of us should be concerned and take this problem seriously,” urged Ms Mohamed, adding; “In the ministry, we receive so many complaints related to sexual offenses.”
She warned against out of court settlement of sexual offence cases, revealing that the government is mulling over enacting a new law that will impose tough penalties on parents who negotiate with offenders.
The deputy minister said perpetrators of sexual crimes have resorted to killing their victims in order to avoid the arm of the law in the wake of stringent laws enacted recently by the government. The law imposes death penalty for rapists.
Ms Mohamed, referring to recent incidents in which two women were killed after being rapped with all suspects eventually nabbed, warned the culprits that the government has a long arm, and no one can avoid being arrested.
She encouraged victims of sexual abuse to report the incidents immediately and testify whenever the need arises, reminding them that “without evidence there is no case.”