A gender based violence policy for Apostolic and Zionist churches was launched last Tuesday to fight heinous abuse that women and girls in the faith have been exposed to.lt emerged that female virgins and non-virgins have been paraded in church, while there has also been forced fasting, genital mutilation and sexual abuse, among other practices.

World Vision International Zimbabwe funded by UN Women and  Danish aid agency Danida formulated the Gender Equality and Gender Based Violence policy to prevent violence against women and girls affiliated to the Union for Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa (Udaciza).

Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Minister Abigail Damasane officially launched the policy document.

She implored Udaciza to ensure implementation of the policy in various denominations across the country.

“The formulation of this policy is in line with Section 56 (3) of the Constitution which outlaws unfair treatment of any person on the grounds of sex, gender, culture, religious beliefs, marital status, age, disability economic or social status among others,” she said.

Consultative meetings held in Harare and Bulawayo highlighted the life cycles of gender based violence.

Social development consultant, Mr George Zimbizi said in some churches, non-virgin girls are given punctured leaves to symbolise their status before being paraded in front of church members.

He said the virgins instantly became targets for early marriages while non-virgins often get into forced marriages as they are told it is shameful “to remain in single in such a state”.

“We discovered at adolescent stages that there is forced virginity testing and child marriages. Menstruating girls are not allowed to participate in normal church services because they are considered “unclean”.

“Healing practices also involve indecent assault, sexual abuse and rape when faith healers pray for their female clients in secluded places, fondling their breasts and touching their private parts.

“In addition, false prophesies were done to instill fear in victims in order to perpetrate sexual abuse and for economic gain,” he said.

Dubbed the “Prevention of Violence against Adolescents and Young Women project” under the United Nations Women’s Cluster of Social Mobilisation and Advocacy, the programme also exposed conflict between faith healing and conventional medicine.

Research under the programme has revealed that pregnant women in some sects are denied access to health services, resulting in home deliveries.  They are also required to fast, take concoctions containing salt, cooking oil, lemons, etcetera; in non-standard measures, often leading to violent vomiting in an act known as “kuspetwa”.

The members also go through “kukireshwa” during prayers. During this process, faith leaders shake the women’s head until they fall down, a practice that is dangerous for pregnant women.

Also rife among Vapostori is a healing practice were infants are made to drink cooking oil instead of breast milk. Newly born babies are detained indoors for seven days.

Then there kupwititidza utsi hwe mafuta, which usually results in suffocation.

Recently, six infants died in Sadza, Mashonaland East province, after an early morning baptism session in a river. Some sects still deny their members access to health services.

“In the childhood stage, forced fasting and genital mutilation is being practiced. Some children are being denied access to health services and education. Those who do so argue that Jesus never went to school and his father was just a carpenter.

“The children do not have birth certificates and they skip school, attending religious sessions,” Mr Zimbizi said.

Researches also revealed that those who are accused of being possessed with demons are humiliated through public prophesies.

“A woman who has given birth to a baby boy will be unclean for 30 days. The mother of a new baby girl will be unclean for 60 days, during which time they cannot participate actively in church programmes, it is referred to as a cleansing period.

“Members are asked to ingest concoctions that make them have running stomachs as part of a cleansing ceremony. In addition, prophets also engage in physical assaults to beat out a demon during healing sessions.”

Zimbabwe enacted the Domestic Violence Act in 2007.

The country is also signatory to international conventions and protocols that speak against violence perpetrated on women and girls.

These include Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), SADC Declaration on Gender and Development (1997) as well as the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly number five, which alludes to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

The National Baseline Survey on the Life Experiences of Adolescents carried out by Zimstat in 2012 revealed that one in three girls in Zimbabwe experience sexual violence before they turn 18.

Apart from the abuse, women in church often take menial roles. According to research, women averagely constitute only 15 percent of church leadership. Only a few churches have female bishops.

Mrs Signe Winding Albjerg said women and girls worldwide are at the centre of Danish development cooperation.

“The challenges that women face are to a large extent universal and patterns can be recognised across countries.

“We believe that no one should be discriminated on the basis of gender. All women and men should have equal access and equal opportunities in the political, economic, social, cultural, civic or any other field.

“Achieving gender equality and ending poverty must go hand in hand. We therefore also support efforts to increase women’s participation in decision-making at all levels.

“We aim to assist women and girls to access resources and seize opportunities that enable them to take control over their own lives. We support efforts to fight discrimination and allow all citizens to play an active role in forming the societies they live in.