She must cover up?! : Reflections on the #MiniSkirtMarch

Activism, Gender, Human Rights, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe

On Saturday 4 October 2014, Zimbabwean women, led by Katswe Sistahood, launched the #MiniSkirtMarch- a protest against men who publicly harass women for their dressing, especially at commuter omnibus ranks. The messaging of the #MiniSkirtMarch was about women refusing to have the way they dress dictated to us or to be used as an excuse for abuse. It was about rights and choice and how these should be respected. The #MiniSkirtMarch was about confronting our society’s double standards about women’s bodily integrity and autonomy. It aimed to send a strong message that there are no tolerable excuses for perpetrating violence against women in any form. It was not about all Zimbabwean women wanting to wear miniskirts because some, like me, have different preferences.

It is not our culture?

The excuse often given to justify why women should not wear what they want is that certain dressing is not part of our culture. Which culture? As far back as history tells us through art, stone carvings and folktale; our cultural dress has never been about covering up. Mhapapa neshashiko (the skin hides covering women’s backs and fronts) were very short. They covered the ‘bare essentials.’ Women’s breasts were not sacred, they were left hanging open. Our society borrowed the concept of wearing clothes from the Victorian British culture through colonisation. Our crisis is that we borrowed a concept in development and so as British society has transformed its values including shaking off patriarchal notions that dictate women’s choices, we have remained stuck in the past holding on to a half-borrowed concept? We choose to dictate the length of a woman’s clothing. Until a few years ago, some men on our streets beat up women for wearing trousers. Some men in their homes today forbid their wives from wearing trousers or short clothes? Why do we find the exposure of a woman’s legs offensive today when our real true culture did not find the exposure of her legs, stomach and breasts so? Why do we find pride in the terrible Colonial Victorian teaching that says it is shameful for the beauty of a woman’s body to be exposed the way she feels comfortable? For a nation that preaches sovereignty, we do embrace our mental colonisation quite comfortably when it allows the oppression of women.

This cartoon, which is part of the Kenyan #MyDressMyChoice campaign, whose message resonates with our #MiniSkirtMarch captures this point.

 

Kenyan Cartoon part of the #MyDressMyChoice Campaign

Kenyan Cartoon part of the #MyDressMyChoice Campaign

It’s not about dressing…

Abuse is about power, access and control and not about dressing.

Covering the whole body except for the eyes will not protect women from abuse. I personally witnessed this on the streets of Sudan and Egypt where all women, Arab, Black and White were sexually harassed.  The men did it because they could, with no consequence. Society was permissive of their abuse and so they whispered lustful words to us and groped us on the subways; even those in Burqas, where the only body parts visible were the eyes. The abuse was so bad in Egypt, that the Egyptian government created “women only” sections on the subways. It is hence not only offensive, but downright ridiculous to suggest that wearing clothes that are “offensive” to some men’s senses justifies harassment. As a friend said to me; “Is it not ironic then that these men find wearing a mini-skirt more indecent than attacking the woman for wearing the skirt.” They will strip her, drag her across town, cheer and jeer in the name of morality; and then call themselves human? Does she look ‘more decent’ stripped naked?

Abuse of women knows no class. When men dictate what women wear, they are asserting their property rights over women. Men feel that it is their right to determine what women wear; I am sorry maybe that worked when our laws still treated us as perpetual minors but the times have changed. The Legal Age of Majority Act tells me I am an adult, with full rights as citizen to make choices about my life including how I choose to dress.

But back to the point on power, it must feel good doesn’t it; for a powerless man, without a dollar in his pocket to dress down a beautiful, intelligent and ambitious girl. In that fleeting moment when he strips her naked, he must feel that he has power. Humiliating her makes him feel good and invincible. He could have done it to the similarly dressed girl in her Mercedes Benz, but because he has no access to her she remains safe. Another man however, in that other girl’s circles, will, with access, do to her what the girl on the street is subjected to, if not worse. Society’s reaction in both instances is to question the girls’ dressing; they provoked the reactions, right?

No, wrong! A man will not suddenly attack a woman for wearing a miniskirt! That vile character is in him. Men who attack women for their dressing use dressing as an excuse for expressing their debauchery. As a society we are helping them to get away with murder when we promote the idea that women are prey and must hide themselves from would-be hunters. We make excuses for criminals and criminalise victims, fooling ourselves to think they invited their own abuse. We are wrong! If rape was a crime of lust, then only mature women would get raped. How come then children, who have not matured enough to be sexually attractive are raped by their own fathers!

Our society, men and women alike, thrives on excusing bad behaviour and using deeply hurtful words for individuals who do not fit into broad social categories. The same applies with women’s dressing. To be considered respectable, women must wear a certain type of clothing. Wearing clothes deemed too short, too revealing, or too tight and offensive to some members of society’s sensibilities is a reason for labelling. ‘Ipfambi-hure’-she is a prostitute they say. Haana hunhu-she is of loose morals. Idioms such as “Chigamhira mudenga bra rehure” are used to describe women who wear push-up bras to expose their cleavage. The paradox here is that cultural dynamism is promoted through language that disrespects women yet women’s dressing choices and preferences must not be part of societal transformation. The biggest irony is that the Generals of the Moral Police, who frown upon women, including ‘powerful women who wear miniskirts in the company of younger men’ may themselves wear ground sweeping skirts but lack that one element that makes us human-separate from others animals; the ability to think and reason, to realise that my choices are mine-you are free to make yours differently. And so we are sociliased into conformance, failing to say and do what we really think and want; what famous Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie calls “turning pretense into an art form.”

As Zimbabwe commemorates the 16 days of activism against gender based violence, the key message is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in our communities: ‘Promoting safe spaces for women and girls.’ Our current reality is that women are not safe, in their homes and on the streets. We must increase our efforts to create public spaces free of violence, including verbal violence, and sexual harassment. Creating those safe spaces is about addressing these stereotypes which marginalise women. Yes we are diverse in our beliefs and strong opinions and choices but we must express these opinions respectfully, with civility and courtesy and stripping women naked because we do not like their dress choices is disrespectful and uncivilised.

The Perfect Valentines’ Gift

Gender, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe

One in three women on this planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. Set against the world population of 7 billion, and a total global female population of about 3.5 billion, it means not a hundred (100), not a thousand (1000), not ten thousand (10 000), not a hundred thousand (100 000), nor a million (1 000 000), but ONE BILLION (1 000 000 000) women shall suffer some form of violence in their lifetime. This is an atrocity of unparalleled proportions, yet it is happening right under our noses.  It needs to stop and there is something that we can all do to change this.

On 14 February 2013, anyone who thinks this is unacceptable can join the global campaign to end violence against women and rise. Imagine one billion individuals rising in unison and solidarity to say THIS ENDS HERE!!!

Spread some love, preach peace and advocate an end to violence against women(Picture credit turnbacktogod.com)

Spread some love, preach peace and advocate an end to violence against women
(Picture credit turnbacktogod.com)

Renowned world leaders such as the Dali Lama have pledged their support and commitment to this campaign. Celebrities such as Jane Fonda , Anne Hathaway , Alice Walker , Thandie Newton, Jessica Alba, Kerry Washington, and many others are rising.

Give yourself and the world the perfect Valentines’ Gift: Rise and play your part. Organise or assist in organising an event advocating an end to violence against women on 14 February. Sponsor such an event. Join an event in protest or dance. Spread the word about the campaign. Blog about this. Sponsor the fight against violence against women. Build a shelter for victims of violence. Counsel an abused woman. Give medical attention to victims. Support a woman to walk away from an abusive relationship. Protect a child from abuse. End child marriages. Fight human trafficking. Educate a boy child not to grow into an abusive man.

A central feature of any event organised to protest the violence against women should be DANCING: as dancing is the quintessential way in which women can celebrate the freedom to own their bodies. It is easy to do, can happen anywhere, and men are REQUIRED (and welcomed) to join in.

Zimbabwe is joining the rest of the world in rising. Like the One Billion Rising Zimbabwe Facebook page, and share your reasons for rising.

*The One Billion Rising global movement to end violence against women and girls is the brainchild of Eve Ensler, an American activist and award-winning playwright.*

The tragedy of indifference

Africa, Emancipation, Women

“A man should conceive a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it. He should make this purpose the centralizing point of his thoughts.” – James Allen.

So what is the purpose of music?Is it just to entertain? Is it to bring society together? Is it to educate societies? Is it to paint narratives and stories of how societies evolve? To mourn, to celebrate, to express love, gratitude or anger? Is it all these things? Whatever the case may be, one thing is for sure- the nature of a society is shaped by the things it consumes and values-music included.

This picture illustrates something very important; the marked difference in a society’s appreciation of an artist whose music addressed societal woes and tragedies and one, in my view, whose lyrics consist of nothing more than a cacophony of repeated phrases. Surely, a message calling for the respect of women ought to be a billion hits attraction, or does our society just not care for such ‘incidentals?

Nudity cheapens women yet it sells

Gender, Human Rights, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Misogyny-a deep hatred of women- is the sentiment that the media is brewing with the content that it is spawning each day and yet we have allowed them to get away with it-even becoming accomplices to the crime ourselves as women.

Representation violence! Anyone ever heard that expression before?  When people hear of violence against women, physical violence comes to mind-the one that leaves bruises and scars on women’s beautiful skins.

Yet everyday representation violence is in our faces yet we hardly see it and we do not even comprehend its consequences and how it fosters mindsets that make the other forms of violence permissible in our society.

Naked women on advertisements of cars-do boobs drive cars?

Surely by itself if the car is worth buying people will buy it. How does the naked woman make the Lexus the car of my choice?

Naked women on realtor’s websites-what has that got to do with selling houses?

Movies in which men beat up their girlfriends because they caught them cheating-what happened to dialogue?

Music videos with naked women caressing and (whining up) to a fully dressed man-and the songs are about making money-explain the link between nudity and money please?

Yes each day the media, print, electronic is prostituting women’s dignity and perpetuating violence against women.

Oh yes some of you right now are thinking-but the women want it. They love posing naked. They consent to these adverts-They are paid for it so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the media has cheapened the body of a woman to such an extent that any advertisement without an attractive woman will not sell. What sells is not the product but the face of the advertisement.

So if the industry has already laid out its rules driven by masochistic tendencies, what choice does a woman who is fighting for survival in a  harsh world have besides capitulating to its demands.

If the first advert had not had a naked woman, would this woman have such a terribly sexist precedent to fend off?

The reality of today is that nakedness sells and the choice is limited to selling or not selling. At the end of the day, that is no choice.

People buy perfumes because they smell good, not because a naked woman is used in the advertisement. Why do women continue to be abused in this manner?

The media names and shames a woman, blaming her for being sexually assaulted and imputing that she “asked for it.” In films teenage girls who get raped will  either be wearing a short skirt, flirting with the guy or get drunk and so when they get raped the sentiment is why were they doing all that-. They should have been more careful. -But what excuse ever justifies a man who forces himself upon an unwilling woman-drunk or not, naked or not??? In other words, the media through such films represent rape more as a sexual act rather than focus on the violent aspect which makes it a crime.

Criminologists have conducted studies which have shown that the majority of child sexual offenders, child molesters and other perpetrators of sexual offences are regular consumers of pornographic material-be it films or magazines. Pornography increases behavioural aggression and cultivates views of women as objects rather than beings. Again the media’s representation of women is to blame.

The media has normalised the face of rape as that of a woman and so no one is shocked anymore when they hear that a woman was gang raped by 12 men.

The media has made it seem as if fat and big women are unattractive and so women starve themselves, deprive themselves of the food they love in a bid to be smaller and hence more attractive. Is this not psychological violence?

How do we make it stop when few women worldwide own the media? How do we restore the value of women? How do we negate repair terrible representations that paint women as objects? How do we repair those who already view women in this manner?

I was inspired by the lyrics to the song Times like these by the Jamaican artist Queen Ifrica in which she bemoaned the negative role that artists and the media have played in ploughing under society’s decency and exploiting women when she says:

“They took away the voices, that gave the people pride
Now we’re plunging into darkness
We all have to play our part, make a bold start
Every disc jock[ey], tell every artist
Media houses, we notice you love [to] support the slackness
How so much alcohol [is] in our parties
While the girls are broke out
And the something she drinked [has drunk has] knocked her out
Now she don’t [doesn’t]care where they prop her up”

Watch the rest of the video here

Feminist Chronicles: Diary 27: Catherine Makoni

Uncategorized

One of the words I have decided to make part of my permanent vocabulary is ubuntu. This word which refers to the same thing though spoken to in many cultures and languages across the African continent is about our humanity, the notion that as human beings we should relate to each other with dignity and respect. One of the first things that drew me to Catherine is her conclusion that Zimbabweans have lost their UBUNTU. I agree with her.

 I know fellow Zimbabweans that I look at and frown upon. No I am not being judgemental or maybe I am but here is what I see in them and if after you have read this you do not frown upon their behaviour too then I guess you are not judgemental. They think every commercial sex worker is a prostitute and that they do it because they are possessed by a demonic spirit of prostitution or because they just want it. What about the victims of trafficking? What about the woman who had no choice? Of course because we always have a choice we always assume every individual has a choice, right? I frown upon Zimbabweans who make fun of the women’s movement and how the quest for gender equality is un-African and ungodly. How would they feel if they had to live in an environment in which they were considered incapable because they are women, in which they did not have choices about where they live, where they work and what they do because they are women, an environment in which they had to work twice as hard to prove their capabilities, where they are used and discarded because that is how society is structured. I frown upon people who think simply because their life is perfect then they need not worry about other people’s welfare. In Ndebele they say Indoda iyazibonela, in Shona Nhamo yeumwe hairambirwi sadza, and in English Each man for himself and God for us all. Is that our humanity?

Catherine speaks to these issues in a much more articulate manner than I am doing here. Speaking to the strife and trouble that wrecked Zimbabweans’ lives in the article We have lost our ubuntu  she said,

“We all know what’s wrong and what’s right but no one is willing to do what it takes for the common good. The shelves are empty, but as long as I am managing to put food on my family’s table, who cares that my neighbour’s children are going to bed hungry? As long as I can access cash through various means, who cares that someone has been spending days and nights outside the bank waiting to withdraw their paltry money. We look at them, we feel sorry, we despair but we are relieved that it is not us standing in the baking sun as we go about our business. We do not intervene. We do not speak out when we should. Hatisisina hunhu. We have lost our ubuntu; that which makes us members of the human family.”

Cover to the Book in which Catherine's story: Letters to my cousin was published.

She is a champion for women’s rights.  One of the most interesting articles written by her is Women as vectors of disease: The problem with ill-thought campaigns . In this article, she criticises the reference to and lumping together of divorced women, single women, commercial sex workers, mistresses (known as small houses in Zimbabwe) as mahure (whores). She also frowns upon HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns that depict women as the problem, with a woman portrayed as the jar of honey into which many men want to dip their fingers but instead they get out of it infected. She criticises the portrayal of women as the problem and asserts that the spread of HIV/AIDS is a problem perpetuated by the societal expectation of what women can do and can’t do which men can do such as engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners what she terms ‘toxic masculinities.’  She makes the apt point that the spread of HIV/AIDS is not the fault of women who do not conform to the cultural practise that is perceived to be acceptable and ‘normal.’ I agree with Catherine completely when she states that blaming women for men’s immorality only stigmatises women whose lifestyles differ from the promoted cultural and religious hegemonic norm. Indeed the expectation for women to remain virgins while single and remain faithful after marriages will only work if men do the same, otherwise as things stand where men are expected to dally in all sorts of sexual adventures while single and comfortably boast of a small house after marriage is a recipe for the continuation of the spread of the disease.

 She has written on how women are abused in a bid to silence them and silence their voices in the political arena. In her article If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails  she describes Rutendo  a woman who, “knows the pain of displacement only too well. At 64, she had to suffer the pain and humiliation of being gang-raped by boys young enough to be her grandsons. The trauma of that experience lives with her still. None of her close relatives know about her ordeal. She never went back home after that night. Now she goes from relative to relative, living from day to day, wondering when she will die. She wonders if she could be infected but she has not been able to go for tests. It’s a lot for her just to wake up and go about the business of living. Rape is not an event. It lasts a lifetime.”

She has also addressed the question of why Zimbabwe had to enact a Domestic violence Act,  which she says was necessary to address violence in the private sphere which before 2006 no other act regulated yet it contributed to the death, injury and maiming of many women. In that article she challenged the notion that the dressing of some women invites upon their selves attacks from men. Catherine’s challenge of the notion of decency struck me as one of the most well argued positions about African women’s dressing, a point that I have always made but never had the authority to quote (which I now do).

She says “Notions of decency are notoriously difficult to define. Who gets the privilege of setting the standards for decency for society? Allow me to explain. During Victorian England, the exposure of a woman’s legs was considered indecent exposure in much of the western world. Around about that time, in Africa, most of us were still in our animal skins. Exposure of women’s legs was par for the course. There was nothing indecent about it. The settlers who came to Africa were coming from Victorian England and they imposed Victorian notions of decency. Gone were the animal skins, in came the voluminous dresses and skirts (totally inappropriate for the weather, one might add!) So successful was this process of inculturation that a lot of people (Mr Namate included it seems) are still advocating for this mode of dressing, long after its chief proponents have realised its folly and moved on!!”

She is a critic of the high levels of corruption within the government in Zimbabwe and has boldly challenged the source of the President’s vast wealth collections in Zimbabwe and around the world. Following the announcement of the increase in the President’s salary from $400 to $1750 in 2010 she boldly stated in her article Now we know his salary, perhaps he can disclose the full extent of his wealth,

Good to know the president got a salary increase from $400 to $1750. Good percentage increase for himself there. Wonder how many people would get an increase of +400% in this environment? Not many l would wager. Anyway now that we know how much he earns officially perhaps we can have another front page disclosure of how much he earns from other perhaps “unofficial sources of income”? It would be interesting to know how the family could afford to send the first daughter to school in Hong Kong on a $400 salary.  Maybe she benefited from the Presidential Scholarship Fund?

I also fell in love with her analysis of how the Constitution and matters of the Constitution impact women. Her point that most of the women in the women’s movement think once matters of personal are addressed in Section 23 of the Constitution then women’s issues are fully addressed and all is well in our little newly created paradise on earth. Indeed that is a falsehood because the lives of Zimbabwean women are more than just about abuse, inheritance, maintenance, custody, divorce and division of matrimonial property. The women in industry and commerce, business, agriculture, mining, politics, tourism, aviation, medicine and many other fields are affected in some ways similar to the men in those fields but in some instances in unique ways too hence a holistic approach to their constitutional rights must go beyond the personal issues to address the public day to day life as well.

Catherine has previously worked with the Women in Politics Support Unit and now is  Regional Programme Officer : Justice and Peace for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). A lawyer by profession, a civil society actor and a writer Catherine has published many articles. In her story : Letters to my cousin which was published in the collection African Women Writing Resistance An Anthology of Contemporary Voices and published under the section on Young Women on Sexuality. The short story is presented in the form of letters in which an older and mature cousin advises her younger cousin Jane who is in a relationship with a man 10 years older than her to be wary and make informed decision about where she takes her relationship. Jane is advised to be careful not to let the older man use his financial and emotional maturity to influence her into doing things she does not want and to insist on using a condom should she want to have sex with him.

Here are some tidibits from that story. The rest you can read for yourself:

“That eleven year age gap has implications Jane. You will always be unequal”

“When I asked if he was married you said you did not know. You didn’t think to ask because you assumed he wasn’t, otherwise he would not be asking you out. Sometimes I forget your naiveté and the sheltered upbringing that you have had”

 “Not everyone is nice and honest. Thee are men who will prey on young girls.”

Rising from despondency to hope: The tale of a healer

Activism, Gender, Violence Against Women, Zimbabwe

“Violence against women causes trauma. It takes away women’s ability to make progress in their lives. It destroys families, breaks up marriages and increases the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Listening to her striking words, I felt the conviction that drives her vision in life; to assist victims of organised violence and torture (OVT) to find healing from their trauma. Born 47 years ago, one of five siblings, in Guruve, Zimbabwe, Abigail Kadaira is a force to be reckoned with. She recalled growing up in a broken home as her parents divorced when she was only nine years old. She now lives with her mother and two nephews in the small farming town of Chinhoyi in Mashonaland-West Province.

Sisi Abby, as she is fondly known in many circles, has been a human rights activist for many years. She is a member of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). She served as Vice Chairperson in her Province in 1999. She also joined the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an organisation fighting for a people-driven constitution in Zimbabwe, at its inception in 1998 and served as Chairperson in her province from 1999 to 2003.

“At that time, I was one of only 2 women who served as Provincial Chairpersons in the NCA, “she explained.

She participated in various protests demanding a new constitution and decent working conditions for workers.

“I wanted to claim my rights as a Zimbabwean, a woman and a worker. That is why I became an activist,” she boldly stated.

As a consequence of her activism, Sisi Abby faced reprisals. On 4 March 2002 the offices at Lomagundi Cooperative Union in Chinhoyi where she worked were bombed. 4 days later, 4 petrol bombs and a huge boulder were thrown into her house. She lost household property and incurred costs repairing her damaged home. In 2003 while attending a national planning meeting for the NCA in Harare, Sisi Abby was heavily assaulted by the police with baton sticks, stepped on her back with boots and suffered a miscarriage. She bled profusely for three months, never quite recovered her good health and was never able to conceive because of that incident. The perpetrators in all incidences were never apprehended as impunity rules.

However, this tragedy began Sisi Abby’s journey to self-discovery and growth. Following her brutal attack she was invited to participate in a trauma healing workshop in Harare facilitated by the Counselling Services Unit, an organisation working with victims of OVT.

“In the beginning I was suspicious of the process. I was like a caged person but then I started to open up. That workshop was the beginning of my healing,” she stated.

Sisi Abby’s healing came from the Tree of Life (ToL), a program that brings together victims of OVT to join hands and share their experience of trauma in a safe space called a circle. ToL workshops take place over two to three days, consisting of a series of circles. The circles adopt the analogy between individuals in a community and trees in a forest. Participants discuss their roots (ancestry), trunk (childhood), leaves (important features) and fruit (family and future plans). ToL instigates a renewal in participants and allows them to find healing in their own time; helped by the knowledge that others who have been through the same experiences found ways to deal with their trauma.

Having risen from despondency to hope, from a victim to a survivor, Sisi Abby is a facilitator within the ToL.

“In 2006, I was asked to become a facilitator for the ToL. I started off as a volunteer,” she explained.

Sisi Abby has facilitated more than 20 workshops covering both rural and urban areas. Each workshop has 10 to 12 participants. She loves knowing that her work transforms victims into survivors who can live without fear and trauma.

“As a survivor I love this job and I do it with my whole heart because I am helping people who face the same problems I once faced. I also love it because we go deep into the grassroots working with all political parties and chiefs,” she said.

Sis Abby works with women, some of whom were raped, contracted HIV and bore children from rape.

“Some of the women have not told their husbands because in the community people will reject you. I faced the same problem when I got hurt. People would ask what sort of a woman I was for doing what I did,” she sadly explained.

Sisi Abby trains youths to become grassroots facilitators in their communities. So far she has trained 15 youths. She refers individuals with medical problems to the CSU and partner organisations such as Aqua that also run the trauma healing circles.

Sisi Abby has also taken the circles outside her work to her church, the Church of Christ.

“This year, I ran a circle with youths at church…I am going to have another circle before the year ends because those I involved in the first circle said it helped them.”

The downside of her work is the pain she feels when she hears the victims’ stories.

“After the circles, the stories weigh heavily on me. For instance I once had a circle in which all 10 participants had been raped. The ways in which they had been raped were different but their stories were all difficult to listen to.”

Despite the challenges Sisi Abby is determined to continue working with victims. She follows up on participants in her workshops, many of whom have given positive feedback on the usefulness of the workshops to instigate healing. She receives requests to spread the ToL to others who have not yet received help.

“I try to help them and I listen to them, she explained.”They trust me and this helps them to heal.”

She hopes that someday, all victims will receive healing.

“Zimbabwe is big.

As the interview came to an end I looked at this remarkable woman and could not help admiring her fortitude.

*This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.* I am one of the 2011 Voices of Our Future Correspondents.*

Of course; they have a lot to hide!

Activism, Africa, Gender, Human Trafficking, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe

When I first heard this piece of news I was shocked, then I became angry and then I turned defiant and decided that I would chart my own destiny. The piece of news is that out of the 192 member states of the United Nations, Zimbabwe has decided to declare itself so special, setting itself apart by changing the theme on the Commemoration of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence to suit its own ‘context.’

The official United Nations and global theme for this year’s commemorations is supposed to be:

“From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!”

The new (Indigenous) Zimbabwean theme now reads:

“From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge All Forms of Gender-based Violence.”

To back-step a little bit let me start from the beginning…

The 16 days of Activism against gender based violence is an international campaign originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute sponsored by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. The 16 days begin every year on the 25th of November which is earmarked as the International Day for the elimination of violence against women to the 10th of December celebrated as International Human Rights Day.

This year’s commemorations cover five (5) sub- themes namely;
 Bringing together women, peace, and human rights movements to challenge militarism
 Proliferation of small arms and their role in domestic violence
 Sexual violence in and after conflict
 Political violence against women, including Pre/During/Post-election violence
 Sexual and gender-based violence committed by state agents, particularly the police or military

The 16 days’ campaign is a time to educate one-self; to spread the word; share knowledge, to organise events and activities, to engage with the media; celebrate women human rights defenders and activists, advocate for women’s human rights, and lobby the government. Usually these things are done with the particular theme for the year in mind. What this means is that during this year’s commemorations we must educate ourselves on militarism, spread the word about it, share the knowledge we have on it, celebrate the women who have been subjected to it and lobby the government to end it.

Is anyone wondering why the Zimbabwean government changed the theme?

Maybe this should bring us to the question of what militarism is, in the context of gender based violence.It is an ideology. That ideology creates a culture of fear. It condones violence and induces fear by cultivating a culture of terror among populations through the use of military warfare, aggression or other forms of violence.

Why must we reject it?

Militarism has grave consequences. It is coercive, intrusive on the dignity of people and poses a huge challenge to human security. Since it is a way of looking at the world; it influences how we perceive those who surround us; family, neighbours, the general public and the rest of humanity. If we embrace militarism then we are condoning a culture that perceives every individual as the enemy and embracing violence as the only effective way to resolve disputes. That is unacceptable!

Why is it important for Zimbabweans to discuss militarism?

If there ever was a more appropriate for Zimbabweans to talk about this issue, then this is the moment we should seize. Our past experiences with politically motivated violence in the context of elections need to be aired. Militarism has been used to suppress dissenting voices and those who think that they have an inherent right to take this country to its purported historic destiny feel the need to rid it of any contrary views and positions. Violence has become an instrument for these people to achieve their grandiose end.

In 2008 when Zimbabwe had its combined municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections, violence was used to force people to vote for certain political parties. Such violence wrought havoc on the lives of many. The killing, maiming and scarring of children, women and men, traumatising and shattering their lives was never accounted for. The women who contracted HIV/AIDS from the rape now have to live with the disease and the wounds on their hearts remain fresh to date. Mothers bore children whose fathers they do not know consequent of gang rapes during elections. Homes were burnt and destroyed. The memories of the insertion of sharp objects and hot substances such as ash and chillies into the private parts of women remain vivid yet no one wants to talk about it loudly.

Elections are in the pipeline. Probably the campaign plan is to do in 2012 as was done in 2008. Why am I not surprised that the theme for the 16 days of gender activism has been distorted. Of course talking about militarism will bring the dirty linen into the public (as if we already don’t know it all). What is in play is the realisation that talking about it will lead to calls for action to end it, and address its past occurrences, something that those who hold our nation by the horns do not want to see happening. Without militarism they lose their political stranglehold.

So no, there shall not be discussions of militarism in Zimbabwe these 16 days.’ Before we have started speaking to this theme, the government of Zimbabwe has hijacked the process and has distorted the theme to prevent the concept of militarism from being fully explored in the discussions taking place. Of course, there is a lot they have to hide.

Join me in rejecting this blatant abuse of power by speaking as loudly as we can against militarism in Zimbabwe.

When men get raped

Gender, Human Rights, Women, Zimbabwe

On 11 0ctober the headlines in most Zimbabwean newspapers were blazing with the title “Dozens storm female ‘rapists’ police station.” These headlines followed the arrest of three women suspected of raping men based on the 31 condoms filled with semen that police allegedly found in their vehicle.

Since these women’s arrest the police has had to ward off mobs trying to get a ‘glimpse’ of these ‘monsters’ with others eager to mete out street justice because these women are ‘evil’ beyond imagination. The police has gone to great lengths to publicise mere suspects and the media has sensationalised the whole case.

Every day 3 year olds are raped. Young women are molested. Old women are raped some for political reasons by men young enough to be their grandchildren. Fathers rape their daughters, uncles-nieces, brothers-sisters and strangers force themselves upon women yet not one of these men has been paraded to the whole nation so others could identify them as possible rapists.

Has the rape of women become so normal that it does not shock people anymore? Is this case much more of a priority because the victims are men? Sexual abuse against men is a crime and is a violation of their human rights to the same extent that it is the same when committed against women.

This case is reflective of the investigative incompetence of the police in Zimbabwe. It is also telling of the extent to which the rape of women has been normalized yet it is the most abnormal thing that men do. For newspapers to sell the headlines need to show the ‘oh-so-shocking’ tales of men getting raped because the stories of women simply do not catch the eye of the reader. This is not only depraved but quite saddening.

The women are now charged with seventeen counts of aggravated assault because rape as a crime only applies with regard to women and not men in Zimbabwean law. These women deserve to be treated with dignity. As suspects to a crime they must be presumed innocent until a properly constituted court of law finds them guilty. They deserve a fair trial. In this case their guilt can only be proven if one of the complainants who came forward’s DNA sample matches one of the samples of semen that the police is said to have. The semen remains the only legitimate piece of evidence that could link the women to any crime. In the absence of such a match the state has no case against these women and any outcome without such evidence would be a travesty of justice.