Women must live their freedom

It was reported this week that Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe, made the following statement: “You walk around wearing miniskirts displaying your thighs and inviting men to drool over you, then you want to complain when you have been raped?”

Mugabe’s question points to a terrifying and dominant narrative that makes young women the apex of immorality within society. The statement is neither confined within the borders of Zimbabwe, nor to short skirts or to being repeated by women.

In March, President Jacob Zuma, while speaking to traditional leaders, reasserted a position that teenage mothers should be forcefully separated from their children and sent to Robben Island to study. In essence, incarcerate them into being good citizens instead of “a burden on society”. Of course, you’re not to ask questions about the conditions under which they fell pregnant.

These narratives took me back to the young woman who was raped in a taxi rank toilet in Pietermaritzburg earlier this year because the perpetrators claimed that her dress was too short. I went back to Khwezi, the woman who laid a charge of rape against Zuma in 2006 and “the kanga she wore”.

The everyday violence of these words gives licence to the culture of rape and other abuses, to the violence many black, working class women experience, of exclusion from the economy while working, unpaid, every day to prop up the state and society.

The violence of watching others define your life choices while blaming you for the failures. The emotional abuse. The violence of beatings and rape, of criminal justice systems that give impunity to perpetrators.

This is a country where, between 2013 and 2014, 42 253 (reported) rapes were committed. According to a Gender Links study, only one in 25 rapes in South Africa are reported to the police. These statistics speak of layers of mass trauma – what author Pumla Gqola calls “the South African nightmare” – and are cause for a new revolt.

We also know that in terms of formal employment, young black women (aged 15-34) constitute 49.1% of youth not employed or studying, against the proportion of white men at only 1.1%. We know that young women have the least access to social grants and social security, yet represent the highest number of new infections of HIV, and they are continually violated at schools, where the supposed keys to their futures lie.

Yet the narrative persists. The story where the problem is, ultimately, the victims and survivors; the story where women are told they are their own worst enemy; are responsible for being unemployed, being HIV positive, being a burden on the state. Where even their clothing choices are to blame for rape. But we know that it is the heteronormative, racist, capitalist, patriarchal society that is the problem, not the victims and survivors of violence.

During these 16 Days of Activism for no Violence Against Women and Children, we reclaim the empowering narratives of young black women as people with rights, agency and who are contributing to the transformation of the country. We reclaim the narratives of those who, through everyday resistance, revolt against the structures that keep their oppression intact. Those who revolt against everyday violence.

We are puzzled that the 16 Days of Activism in the department of women in the presidency has now focused its energy on men in the struggle to free women from violence. Through celebrating International Men’s Day and encouraging men to be central, women yet again get erased from a struggle in which they are the primary victims.

That men need to form a part of the solution to gender-based violence is not contested, but we contest approaches that unquestioningly reinforce the problematic masculinities that largely explain our rape epidemic. Approaches where women become bargaining chips to lure men into feel-good action, in a game of power that has little to do with the fundamental transformation required for women to live their freedom in an equal society.

This dangerously plays into the story that if indeed women are the problems and causes of their own violations, then all the solutions must be about saving them from themselves and decentring them.

We reassert our rights to reclaim our bodies, organise and gather in miniskirts – or not. We join the call by gender-justice organisations for the government to institute a comprehensive, transformative and fully funded national plan to address gender-based violence. We remember the courageous Mirabal sisters, who were killed in 1960 for defying dictatorship and gender norms, and who inspired the 16 Days movement. We continue to walk, talk and organise against everyday violence.

Mthathi is executive director of Oxfam SA

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