Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Now picture the scene. By the side of the road a group of male hitchhiker are trying to catch a ride. A nineteen-year-old girl stops to pick them up. The guys refuse to get in. They don’t trust her, they say; they fear they are going to be raped!
You think this is a spoof, well, I can assure you, it's not. The country in question is Zimbabwe, where three women currently stand accused of picking up male hitchhikers with the intent of harvesting their sperm. The victims apparently were drugged or subdued at knife or gun point before the women forced themselves upon them. In one case a live snake was alleged to have been used. Afterwards the ‘donors’ were dumped naked by the roadside.
Reports of male rape first appeared some three years ago, but the story only achieved widespread prominence after the police arrested sisters Sophie and Netsai Nhokwara and Rosemary Chakwizira, three prostitutes, last October, when they were found in possession of a bag of – ugh – used condoms. They were subsequently charged with the violation of seventeen men.
The story is just so bizarre, even more bizarre than the sort of thing that normally comes out of Zimbabwe. For one thing why the sperm was taken in such circumstances has still to be established, though it is thought that it is used in ‘juju’, traditional witchcraft practices designed to bring good fortune. For another it’s unclear why force is used, in that men are not usually noted for their reluctance to donate sperm freely, though possibly compulsion adds, ahem, to the potency.
According to Watch Ruparanganda, a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe, the practice, which he describes as ‘mind boggling’, is a lucrative business. Apparently he first came across it seven years ago while doing research for his doctoral thesis among the street youth of Harare, the capital. He was told that businessmen would take them to hotels where they were entertained by prostitutes, the only charge being that they hand over the used condoms afterwards.
Though the women have been in custody for several months, appearing in several preliminary hearings, no trial date has been set. Because there is no law in Zimbabwe criminalising rape by women they have been charged with aggravated indecent assault. The anger is such that, according to their lawyer, they have received death threats.
It also seems impossible that the trail process, if it ever comes, will be in any way fair. They have already been paraded on national television as ‘female rapists’, though the evidence against them seems to be tenuous at best. Dunisani Mthombeni, counsel for two of the accused, says that the authorities are reluctant to go to trial because they have arrested the wrong people.
The case has provoked mixed reactions. Zimbabwean women’s rights groups have criticised the reaction as disproportionate, shifting attention away from female rape victims. Men are reported to be afraid, refusing to get into cars driven by women, “Even if she is old”, said one hitchhiker outside Harare. But this has not stopped the local press printing a cartoon showing a naked man trying to attract the attention of women drivers.
I refuse to prejudge the issues here, though I find my credulity stretched to the limits. There is, according to some reports, an international market in stolen sperm, a commodity so plentiful, so readily given - some even paying for the pleasure - it beggars belief that it has any value at all. It’s as well to remember also that Zimbabwe is a country run by Robert Mugabe, where scapegoats and diversions from the misery of everyday life are always welcome. Meanwhile the country’s tourist board could mount a new campaign; not come to Zimbabwe but come in Zimbabwe.