Rotina Mafume Musara
MA In Counselling Psychology: Student – Great Zimbabwe University, Zimbabwe.
Mental health has become a topical issue around the world and in Africa and subsequently in Zimbabwe. Mental health is almost a buzz word with some knowing what it means and others following in the band wagon. It begs the question what does mental health mean to the average woman, to the average Zimbabwean woman. Without the voice of the Zimbabwean woman in her understanding of mental health, we risk as a society to use the word and not critically analysing and producing evidence led research that seeks to address the mental health issues of the average Zimbabwean woman. Research Studies on the prevalence of mental health problems in African girls and women reveal a growing concern for women’s mental health. Many African women develop mental health issues as a consequence of facing sexual abuse, unemployment, crime, lack of education, poverty, the burden of care responsibilities, violence, hunger and so forth. Studies  have shown that the prevalence of depression is highest in African studies (5.4%) compared to the other regions of the world. In all regions of the world, women are disproportionately affected, more vulnerable, and report a higher prevalence of depression compared to men. Most research conducted in Zimbabwe has been done in primary health care settings, and about 25% have reported depressive symptoms. Studies have shown high vulnerability to depression among women, especially during the postpartum period and among people living with HIV.
Impact of Abuse and Violence on Zimbabwe’s Women’s Mental Health
In Zimbabwe about 1 in 3 women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and about 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual violence, since the age of 15, according to the 2015 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (UNFPA). Emotional, sexual, and physical abuse by intimate partners in the household, increases Zimbabwean women’s vulnerability regarding mental health issues. During pandemics and emergencies, gender-based violence is exacerbated and women are even made more vulnerable. During the first lockdown period of the COVID 19 in Zimbabwe, Musasa a women’s rights organisation received a 65% increase of distress calls on its GBV hotline (toll free line). Thus, there was a pandemic in a pandemic. Due to retrogressive cultural and religious practices in Zimbabwe, which promote the culture of silence, most cases of GBV are not reported. Again, because Zimbabwe is a patriarchal society, women are mostly silenced and survivors blamed for experiencing the violence. Thus, most women suffer mental health issues and experience depressive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide. In addition, girls who suffer sexual and physical abuse in the early stages of their lives seem to be more likely to engage with drug and alcohol abuse, are less sensitive to violent practices and have lower school attendance and performance. The trauma that women experience due to abuse is not fully acknowledged and sometimes trivialised due to the fact that society have normalised abuse. Statements and social scripts that have been thrown around and internalised in the Zimbabwean society, make society ignore the vital and important component of mental health in the lives of women. Such statements as ‘varume ndozvavari’, ‘kugarira vana’, ‘mweya yemadzinza’ etc make light the issue of abuse and mental health. These statements assume that if someone is staying for the sake of their children, then they don’t suffer the trauma and depression. The statements which are informed by patriarchy also make excuses for the men.
Possible Strategies for Improving Women’s Mental Health in Zimbabwe
To assist survivors of abuse and women in general in Zimbabwe, there is need to make mental health services accessible to survivors. Most mental health services are out of reach of the ordinary Zimbabwean woman. Thus, policy makers need to prioritise mental health and ensure that women have access to them. Furthermore, its important, to circulate mental health information to women across the country. Access to information is very critical for women so that they know when and where to access the services. There should be increased training for psychologists and psychological centres, investments in mental health programs, strengthening community-based interventions and removing cultural and religious barriers that prevent women from accessing mental health services.
 Machisa, M., Shamu, S. Associations between depressive symptoms, socio-economic factors, traumatic exposure and recent intimate partner violence experiences among women in Zimbabwe: a cross-sectional study. BMC Women’s Health 22, 248 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-022-01796-w