"In a Dark Time", a documentary film about sexual abuse in Zimbabwe perpertrated by pro-government militia, premiered last week at Witwatersrand University, one of South Africa's most respected tertiary institutions.
In the film, 16-year-old Sarudzai recalled how she was alone in the family home with three younger siblings when militiamen surrounded it. Her father was at a funeral. Her mother was in the bush, hiding from the militia. Fearing they would set the hut on fire, Sarudzai stepped out. She was raped right there, she said, to punish her mother for supporting Zimbabwe's opposition party.
Sarudzai and other women featured in the documentary said their attackers were militiamen known as the "Green Bombers", a government-created youth brigade often accused of human rights abuse. For protection, the film maker and women interviewed have remained anonymous.
The event, organised by Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, sought to alert academics and human rights activists about gender-based human rights abuses, like gang rape and sexual torture, reportedly taking place in Zimbabwe.
"We need to break the silence of academia and human rights institutions in South Africa about what is happening in our neighbourhood," said Dr Sheila Meintes, a member of South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality and a lecturer in political studies at Witwatersrand University.
International human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and Physicians for Human Rights have documented systematic rape and sexual torture of women during Zimbabwe's political violence since 2000.
Last year, Amnesty International warned about "mounting reports of rape and sexual torture by the militia, continuing the pattern seen before presidential elections in March 2002".
Tony Reeler, regional human rights defender with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, described what he said was a new pattern of sexual violence in Zimbabwe.
During 2000 and early 2001, human rights watchdogs documented widespread torture of opposition supporters. About 40 percent of these were women. They were beaten up, stripped naked and humiliated, but few were raped or sexually abused.
After June 2001, rape and sexual torture of women became more prevalent and brutal. It allegedly happened in front of family and neighbours. As a result, the whole community experienced the psychological impact.
"One individual's physical torture becomes a mass psychological torture," explained Reeler.
The Zimbabwean government has dismissed reports by local and international human rights groups that rape is used as a political weapon.
"Yes, we have seen the allegations, but I don't need to tell you that definitely these are fabrications," Betty Dimbi, an official in the Department of Information told IRIN. IRIN was unable to get further comment on Tuesday from the Zimbabwean government.
Rape remains the least condemned war crime, concluded the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, referring to Rwanda and other civil wars in the late 1990s.
The tide, though, is turning.
In 2001, in a historic decision to acknowledge rape as a war crime, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia began prosecuting rapists. This, says Amnesty International, "challenges the widespread acceptance that torture of women is an intrinsic part of war."
The Rwanda Tribunal is explicitly empowered to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
South African judge Richard Goldstone, a former prosecutor for the Rwanda Tribunal, found that sexual assault can constitute torture and be prosecuted as a transgression of international humanitarian law.
International law condemns rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 were later strengthened by Protocol II, which extends protection to victims of rape, enforced prostitution or indecent assault during conflict.
Broadly, four kinds of rape can be identified in conflict.
Genocidal rape, as in Rwanda and the Balkans, seeks to destroy an ethnic or political group perceived as being the enemy.
Political rape punishes individuals, families or communities who hold different political views.
Opportunistic rape takes place when combatants run amok, assured of impunity in a lawless context.
Forced concubinage involves the conscription or kidnapping of young girls to wash, cook, porter and have sex with soldiers and militiamen. The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association estimated that some 1,000 women were held in militia camps in 2002.
The last three forms of rape are found in Zimbabwe, said Reeler.
Tina Sideris, a South African researcher and activist on gender-based violence, noted the general invisibility of sexual abuse of women during conflicts in Southern Africa. Rape and forced concubinage were frequent during the long-running civil wars in Mozambique and Angola, but ignored in South African media and political circles, she said.
Even in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission "didn't deal with rape as a gross human rights abuse. Women were raped in detention and in guerrilla bases, raped by the enemy and by comrades," she noted.
The TRC devoted a great deal of time to the murder and torture of freedom fighters, but only one day to listen to abused women. "Awareness of the gender dimension in human rights abuses is missing," said Meintes.
In conflicts throughout the world, sexual violence is routinely directed at females as a conscious strategy, although commanders and politicians may dismiss it as isolated incidents by rogue soldiers.
"Rape in conflict is a weapon to terrorize and degrade a particular community and to achieve a specific political end," said a Human Rights Watch report. "The rape of one person is translated into an assault upon the community through the emphasis placed in every culture on women's sexual virtue. The shame of the rape humiliates the family and all those associated
with the survivor."
"I act, I feel differently from the other girls," Sarudzai said in the documentary. "I am not a virgin any more. It happened
against my will. Maybe I have HIV. I wish I'd die. Then I'd feel no pain."
Sideris points out that post-conflict programmes don't deal adequately with gender violence.
One reason is underreporting. Out of shame, economic vulnerability and powerlessness, women keep quiet about sexual abuse.
In Zimbabwe, "the most vulnerable, the poorest, uneducated, unemployed rural women like Sarudzai ... are abused, which makes it all the more sinister," said Reeler.
"We have a responsibility to speak out against human rights abuses and the time has come to do so," concluded Meintes.
More details from Amnesty International