Behind every purple door in this Zimbabwean community, is a safe haven for victims of gender-based violence

Illustration by Minority Africa, used with permission.

This story was written by Regina Pasipanodya and originally published by Minority Africa, and an edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

On a November night in 2023, Mercy Matovera escaped from the relentless brutality within the walls of her own home. For far too long, she had endured her husband’s frequent fits of rage, with physical blows that came two or three times a week.

But on this fateful night, Matovera reached her breaking point. Desperate to shield herself and her nine-month-old baby girl strapped to her back, she embarked on a perilous journey in search of sanctuary. As she stumbled along the dusty path, her heart raced with adrenaline.

“When I saw the light of a lantern through the window of one of the houses that were close to the pathway, I quickly stopped and walked towards the house,” Matovera recounted.

She knocked on the door, hoping to find shelter, but the house owner refused to open the door to “strangers.” Instead, she urged Matovera to seek help elsewhere, to try another door; maybe she would find someone willing to help her.

Luckily, Matovera found that house. It was a house with a purple door. “Behind this (purple) door, I found a middle-aged lady who, without any hesitation, asked me to come inside and offered me a cup of water to drink,” Matovera recalled. “She told me that her name was Melody Nyakudanga, one of the elderly in the community.”

Nyakudanga, 65, is one of the senior citizens in Epworth, a peri-urban community about 17 km (10.5 miles) from the Harare central business district in Zimbabwe. She gave Matovera something to eat and a place to sleep. “She assured me that everything was going to be okay,” Matovera narrated.

In Zimbabwe, gender-based violence (GBV), which encompasses three main categories— intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual abuse, and child marriage — remains a silent epidemic, particularly affecting married women. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), approximately 1 in 3 women in Zimbabwe aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, while 1 in 4 have faced sexual violence since adolescence.

The statistics indicate that GBV cases in Zimbabwe have been on the rise; 5,717 and 8,069 rape cases were reported in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

ZimStat reports revealed that more than 8,907 cases of domestic abuse were recorded across the country between January and December 2023.

National Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi urged communities to continue giving credence to the issues of peace and tranquility in families, as violence has resulted in the loss of life, with some women resorting to suicide because of lack of support.

“When couples have challenges, only engagement and discussions can solve the differences, and in those circles that we live, let us help each other and solve matters without any violence,” he told Minority Africa.

Chipo Tsitsi Mlambo of the RhoNaFlo Foundation — a facility-based safe and quality childbirth — is a pioneer of the Purple Door community initiative and believes societal norms play a significant role in perpetuating GBV.

“According to our African belief, girls are raised to believe that they should not question or challenge any form of behaviour of their husbands,” Mlambo said. “They are taught and encouraged to endure pain in silence to protect marital bonds, making it taboo and disrespectful to report abusive partners to the police,” she added.

Rooted in cultural norms and social structures, gender-based violence, especially IPV, is often used by men to maintain control over women within marriages, and usually, survivors bear not only physical scars but also emotional wounds that persist throughout their lives.

In 2022, to break this cycle of silence, Mlambo, working with older women in Epworth who for years have seen and lived with this kind of pain, established the Purple Door Initiative, where they identify strong and warm individuals to provide safe havens to desperate women and girls suffering gender-based abuse.

According to her, the colour purple signifies a safe space for any woman who needs support in desperate times of abuse. 

“For me, Epworth is a community where young girls are getting married at a young age due to poverty. If you ask that young girl today if they can report any form of abuse to the police if need be, they say no, they cannot because most of them fear the police, maybe due to age; they are kids,” she explained.

“Working with the community, we decided to train community-based advocates to become the first port of call during the time of need of abused women, and we are looking forward to introducing this initiative in other areas across the country,” she added.

Alous Nyamazana, a director of Fathers Against Abuse, an organisation working to combat abuse by involving fathers and young men, said that gender-based violence issues require collective action and awareness, and he applauded the pioneers of the Purple Door Initiative.

“It’s time to empower survivors and challenge harmful norms, fostering a safer environment for all,” he said.

Nyakudanga concurs, saying, “As someone who has been living in this community for more than 30 years now, I have seen the worst where women lead a miserable life at the hands of their husbands. Most of the women are dependent; they cannot fend for themselves, considering that they get married before they can even finish school.”

Nyakudanga further explains that the situation was so bad that when Mlambo discussed the idea for the Purple Door Initiative, the elders of the community immediately agreed and painted their doors purple, to symbolize a safe space.

“Now, most people in my area know that behind every purple door, there is someone ready to assist them when facing any form of abuse,” she added.

According to Mlambo, once victims get to the respite (home with a purple door), they get a place to live for a maximum of seven days, receiving counselling from trained advocates. If necessary, advocates will accompany them to report their cases to the Victim Friendly Units at the police station.

“However, a challenge that we have been facing is when victims are supposed to report the matter to the police, the women hesitate, saying they cannot get their husbands arrested,” Nyakudanga explained. “In such a scenario, we engage both the couple's parents and try to get their issues settled so that they can live with each other in peace,” she said.

Nyakudanga adds that this approach has saved many marriages, and she has witnessed some husbands change their ways. 

In Matovera’s case, she is now back with her husband. “We have been going for counselling sessions at Nyakudanga’s house, and I can see the changes in his behaviour. This is something promising,” she said. 

Some names have been changed to protect identities.


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