How do you get a woman to report to the police that she’s been assaulted or abused if she doesn’t trust the police to take action?
That, says activist Jamila Juna, is a serious problem in Zanzibar.
Juma is the executive director of the Zanzibar Female Lawyers Association (ZAFELA), which she helped found in 2003 to provide free legal aid to women and children. When a woman is assaulted in Zanzibar and wants to make a police report, there’s a good chance Juma will be involved, in some capacity, as an advocate in her case.
And what she’s seen over the years has discouraged her.
“[Some police officers] don’t understand about rape or they think it’s a women’s issue, so they don’t care,” Juma says. “There are so many obstacles for women and it takes a special one to go make a claim, but the system is not a friend for them.”
The police agree with her. “Gender-based violence is persistent in Zanzibar but women are not confident in reporting these issues,” says deputy sergeant Mauwa Saleh, a police officer for 25 years. “In the past, there were very few cases because victims were afraid and there was no special handling or privacy.”
But Saleh and Juma are both optimistic that things have changed in Tanzania and in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of the mainland where they live.
Today, over 400 police stations across Tanzania have Police Gender and Children’s Desks, including seven of Zanzibar’s 20 police stations. As on Law & Order SVU, these units deploy dedicated, specially trained detectives to handle “sexually-based offenses” like rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.
The gender desk initiative was first proposed in 2009 by the Tanzanian Police Female Network (TPFNet), a professional association formed in 2007 that aims to improve the way the police relate to women in the community. The initiative gained financial and operational support from UNICEF and the European Union, and by 2012, there was a network of 417 desks in police stations across the country. The ultimate goal is to establish the desks in every police station and to train thousands of police officers, particularly women, to staff them.
Statistics illustrate the need for these desks. Nearly half of Tanzanian women under the age of 50 say they have been physically or sexually assaulted, with one-in-three girls under 18 experiencing sexual violence, according to a 2015-2016 Ministry of Health survey of 13,376 households across the country. In Zanzibar, the rates of sexual violence are increasing, according to data compiled by the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), as are rates of child sexual abuse, according to research out of Zanzibar University.
But women and girls in Zanzibar who report these crimes to the police are often met with apathy, negligence, corruption, disdain, disbelief and even violence, according to interviews with lawyers, police officers, researchers, community activists, village leaders, counselors and staff of nongovernmental groups.
Deputy Sergeant Juma took an assignment on the gender desks in 2014.
The desks aim to make both special handling and privacy available to victims of gender-based violence. But to Juma, the real impact of the desks is the cultural shift. Juma, as well as eight others interviewed for this story, said the desks are playing an important role in establishing trust between the police and Tanzanian women, carving out an avenue to justice that didn’t exist before.
“The police at the [gender] desks are very active and we work with them,” says Juma. “Some of them on the first day, they don’t care, but then when they see violence every day, they get feelings and they change.”
Despite the prevalence of sexual assault in Zanzibar, rates of reporting crimes to the police have historically been low. In Zanzibar, as around the world, sexual violence is most frequently committed by people with whom victims have a personal relationship. Married women are most likely to experience violence from a partner or former partner, while for girls who are unmarried, neighbors, uncles, cousins, fathers, stepfathers and even grandfathers are often the perpetrators. According to Tanzania’s annual Crime and Traffic Incidents Statistics report, published by the National Bureau of Statistics, gender-based violence against children “mostly occurs in the communities especially within a family.”
Mzuri Issa, director of the Zanzibar chapter of TAMWA, says these crimes are often considered a private matter, if they’re considered a crime at all. Issa has collected data on gender-based violence for over a decade. She says child sexual abuse, including incest, is common because it’s easy for men to take advantage of girls who are young, accessible and vulnerable. This can be particularly true in Zanzibar, where extended families are close-knit, gender hierarchies are strict and young girls are kept close to home.
“Girls are very innocent and dependent,” Issa says. “And the men will threaten them and say, ‘If you don’t do it, I will throw you out of the house.'”
I.Y. says she was 12 years old when her grandfather started to rape her. I met her at a shelter for abused girls, run by the group ActionAid, in August 2017. The building is unmarked and sits behind a high gate in a secret location outside Stone Town. Aisha al Ibrahim, the shelter manager, asked I.Y if she would share her story with me, and she agrees. Her full name is not being used to protect her privacy.
I.Y. is tall and wide-eyed, her hair pulled tightly back in braids. Her teal and pink-striped shirt and long gray skirt hang off her tiny frame, giving the impression of a younger sister who raided her sibling’s closet to play dress-up. Aisha al Ibrahim, the shelter manager, asked if I.Y. would share her story with me and she agrees. The girl, now age 14, is shy but determined — her voice barely audible as her fingers pluck at the fibers of the floor mat.
“The first time he locked the door and covered my mouth and gave me 1,000 shillings [about 50 cents] after,” I.Y. says. “Then he started to come every night.”
The assaults went on for about a year until I.Y finally told one of her brothers. Her brother told her father, who refused to report I.Y.’s grandfather — his own father — to the police. So her brothers and their friends beat her grandfather up and took I.Y. to the gender desk at the nearest police station. The police referred her to the shelter where she waits as the court case progresses.
“I can’t go home,” I.Y. says. “[The police] told me not to come back because we all live in the same house.”
Because these crimes tend to happen within families, or at least within communities, victims face tremendous social pressure not to report. The stigma attached to being a rape victim is significant in Zanzibari society, and the reporting process can expose those who speak out to shame, censure and backlash, according to a study published by researchers from the International Center for Research on Women and the University of Dar es Salaam.
“Talking about rape is totally taboo,” says Issa. “People are not ready to talk about it, but when they do, the system blames the victim. It blames women.”
Reporting sexual crimes can also lead to ostracism. Aisha Iddi, the program officer for ActionAid Zanzibar, says the shelter frequently houses girls like I.Y. who have been rejected by their families and/or whose assailant still lives at home.
“These things happen at home, and girls feel shy because if they say anything, their family might abandon them,” Iddi says. “The families want to discriminate against them because of the stigma.”
The social pressure to stay quiet is a powerful deterrent, but it’s not the only one. Distrust of the police is another factor. If there is no faith that justice will ultimately be served, what’s the point of reporting at all?
Juma has dealt with scores of cases over the years where women came to ZAFELA for help because police bribery and corruption stonewalled their cases by, for example, telling victims to accept money from a perpetrator in exchange for dropping a case. Corruption is a pervasive problem in Tanzania in both the police and the court system, as documented by reports from Transparency International and Human Rights Watch.
Another challenge was that the police wouldn’t take reports of assault seriously, according to Juma and Issa. They say that some male officers believed men were entitled to do what they wanted to the women in their family and/or that the victim was at fault — for something she wore, for something she said, for previous sexual encounters.
A police official did not respond to requests from NPR for comment on these points.
Even if the police took a claim seriously enough to investigate, the chances of a case making it through the courts were slim. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of gender-based violence go free, and usually without making it to trial. In a 2014 report, TAMWA found that courts adjudicated few rape cases due to lack of evidence, repeated adjournment of cases, alleged perpetrators jumping bail, witnesses unwilling to appear in court or unable to pay for transport to court and the legal requirement for a doctor’s report. A conviction was a rarity.
“People are disappointed in reporting because nothing happens,” says Issa.
One of the ways the gender desks aim to encourage reporting is by affording privacy. Police stations tend to be busy. Before the gender desks, a woman who wanted to make a report had to go up to the front desk of a police station, where she might be recognized and overheard by fellow complainants, and state why she was there. Establishing a separate building, or even a separate room, where women could make reports with discretion was key.
While ideally the gender desks are housed in a private location, the reality is that most police stations don’t have extra space available. Only two of Zanzibar’s desks meet this guideline. Mahonda, a village 30 minutes north of Stone Town, has a slick new building to house the gender desk with gleaming tile, a shaded porch, and UNICEF and EU symbols emblazoned on the front. It sits across the street from (and in stark contrast to) the rather ramshackle main station made of peeling white wood.
At the Madema police station, located in town, there is no designated building, or even designated rooms, within the police station for the gender desk. The officers use whatever rooms are available when a victim arrives. Zahor, a police officer at the Madema gender desk (who asked to go only by his first name because he did not have permission from his boss to talk to a journalist), says he sees many cases of girls who say they were raped by fathers, brothers and cousins, making the need for privacy, sensitivity and confidentiality even more critical.
“We have a big challenge in my office because the police station is not a good place for victims to come,” Zahor says. “These cases are very complicated. Sometimes we get cooperation and sometimes we don’t.”
An equally important part of the initiative is the bearing of the police officers themselves. A private interview room can only accomplish so much if the officer on duty is dismissive, judgmental or lacks empathy.
In Zanzibar, 217 police officers out of 5,000 have gone through the gender-based violence training. The training is offered by a coalition of organizations, including Save the Children, UNICEF, ActionAid and Zanzibar’s Ministry of Empowerment Social Welfare Youth Women and Children. They learn about gender-based violence and the forms it can take, how to compassionately engage with victims and how to collect evidence. These units also follow distinct protocols aimed at cultivating trust. The officers wear plainclothes, since uniforms can be intimidating. A female police officer questions female victims whenever possible.
“It’s good to have women officers because people of the same gender can interact more,” says deputy sergeant Saleh Juma. “Some cases are very sensitive and women feel shy to express in front of a man.”
Tanzania’s 2017-2022 National Plan of Action to End Violence against Women and Children sets the goal of reducing gender-based violence by half by 2022. As part of this plan, the government aims to establish a total of 600 gender desks across the country, including 37 in Zanzibar, and beef up the existing desks with better facilities and more resources. It also aims to increase the percentage of survivors who report within 72 hours from 30 percent to 65 percent and increase the conviction rate for GBV cases from 8 percent to 50 percent. These are ambitious goals and may be more aspirational than realistic. Thus far, the rollout and results of the program have been mixed. Of the 417 gender desks across Tanzania, just 30 met the “standard operating procedure” requirements in 2016, meaning they were housed in an area that was private and separate from the main station. Too many police stations, like the one in Madema, don’t have the resources to create this infrastructure, and even with officers who care deeply, like Zahor, the lack of privacy remains a deterrent, according to Sergeant Mauwa. Underfunding is a chronic challenge.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the gender desks are having a positive impact. The number of reported gender-based violence crimes in Tanzania rose from 23,012 cases in 2015 to 31,863 in 2016, an increase of 39 percent, according to Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics.
While it may seem counterintuitive, advocates say this is actually a positive sign because it means more people are willing to come to the police and file a report. Juma, Issa and Iddi all say the gender desks have improved the process of reporting sexual assault crimes in Zanzibar by establishing a dedicated group of police officers who feel like allies. For Zahor, working on the gender desk opened his eyes to the prevalence of sexual assault, and he hopes to continue working at this post for a long time.
“I’ve been on the gender desk for five years now,” says Zahor. “It’s in my blood.”
Rebecca Grant is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn She covers women’s health, reproductive rights, and gender-based violence.
The reporting of this story was funded by the International Women’s Media Foundation