29 November 2012

Africa: When It Happens to Another Woman, It Happens to You Too

One Saturday afternoon, I decided to take a walk alone. Having previously been accompanied everywhere I went by my mum or sister or nanny, I reveled in my newfound freedom to linger at shop windows or duck in and out of whatever store I wanted to. Little did I know that on this day, I would learn my lesson about the hazards that come with independence.

"What's your name?" asked a male voice behind me. My mother had taught me well that I should never to talk to strangers. I picked up my pace and began to walk faster.

However, the voice persisted, moving from behind me, to my left side, and finally stopping in front of me.

"I asked you a question. What's your name?"

The voice, I could now see, belonged to a man who towered above me menacingly.

"What's your name? Where do you live? What grade are you in?" The unanswered questions mounted until the man, now angered by my lack of response, took me by the arms.

"You think you are being clever by keeping quiet hey? Well, if I ever see you walk down this road again, I will rape you!" With those words, he let my arms go and walked on.

I remember standing dead in my tracks, my heart thumping and my thoughts racing. I knew what rape is and because I understood his words, the fear had begun to seep through me.

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to keep standing there and let the man walk on. At least that way, he would not be able to find out where I lived.

I headed back into town, to the safety of my mother's office. I had been less than a block away from my home, and yet I had to turn backwards, another 30 minutes to reach a place of safety.

Fear of meeting that man again forced me into hiding. I decided to never walk anywhere alone again. From that day on, I headed for my mum's office straight from school each afternoon.

Her workspace became a place of solace; I did my homework on the table behind her giant desk and watched TV in the canteen area where other staff members ate their lunch. I even got used to leaving for home late at night with my mother right by my side; all because of one man's threat to my bodily integrity. Only my mother made me feel safe.

I remained trapped in my fear for the rest of the academic year (two more terms), only daring to venture alone again when the next school year began.

Fortunately, I did not encounter that man ever again.

You might consider me one of the lucky ones who "got away", but the fear that man instilled within my young mind robbed me of my sense of security for much longer than the few moments it took him to threaten me. It made me all too aware of the reality of rape and violation at a time when my biggest fear should have been getting my Mathematics timetables wrong.

This fear visited me again earlier this year when in January, a group of men lured a woman in our apartment complex into open grasslands just across from where I live. They gang raped her and robbed her of her money.

January is the peak of the rainy season, and the grass is tall and dense. According to the Adult Rape Clinic (ARC) in Harare, the rainy season sadly provides one of the most opportune times for incidents of rape as women are lured into thick maize fields and grasslands, only to be violated there.

In the ensuing months after my neighbour's rape, I once more became a prisoner; afraid to walk alone in the evenings in my own neighbourhood, fearful of what could be lurking within the folds of those tall green reeds.

I believe that this fear is universal to all women because we are all forced to live with this burden of doubt about our safety in the world, this burden that constantly reminds us that rape and violence could happen to us at any time.

If I had run late, or if those rapists had been in the grass earlier, the misfortune that befell that woman could have instead befallen me. What could also have happened to me when - at the age of nine - a man took me by my arms and threatened to rape me?

I could have become yet another statistic, one of the 15 who are raped daily in Zimbabwe as figures released this year reveal.

In a world where over a billion women can expect to face gender-based violence (GBV) in their lifetime, it is easy to become desensitised and callous. It is easy to go through the motions of sorrow and then get back to one's own life because "it didn't happen to me."

We need to understand that this is not true.

Every time it happens to another woman, it happens to you too because that woman who is raped or abused is substituted for you and the masculine denigration of the feminine.

She could have been you. Sadly, one day she could be you.

As we commemorate this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, let us remember that this is not only a commemoration of those who have been raped or beaten. It is a commemoration for all of us and a platform for action. It is a sounding call to women to share the same rage and anger about violence as those who have to suffer the physical, verbal and psychological torment of it.

If we aren't in this struggle together, then we cannot overcome.

Fungai Machirori is a writer and blogger based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence.

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