‘We had no other choice’ – Of rape culture & the sexual exploitation of girls.

On 6th September, StarFM’s show Pane Nyaya hosted two children who spoke about being forced into prostitution in Harare. One was 9, the other 13. The interview, painful to listen to, sat with me for hours on end. The 9 year old girl explained how she would sell her body to survive – sometimes for as little as 25cents – to old men in bars in her area, often drinking and taking drugs herself so she could numb the pain. She even had permanent ‘boyfriends’ who may or may not pay her for sex, but who ‘protect’ her from other ‘clients’ if they were rough with her. The irony. Some of the men would even take whatever she earned and give her an ‘allowance’ from it – something that shocked me to my core. Not only was she being sexually exploited at 9 years old, whatever money she did make was slipped back into the pockets of the men that exploited her. On top of that, one of the girls explained how she had a child to look after as well – an extra mouth to feed on an already meagre income. In essence, these girls had no bodily autonomy, no other source of income, no chance at going to school or living normal childhoods, free from the violence they had to relive daily, just to get by.

The story was shared on social media and got people talking. Most of the comments related to the account expressed anger and shock at the cruelty of these men (and women who enabled these practices to continue). And then there was this:

blog larry tweet

There are multiple things wrong with this tweet as a point of departure and general attitude. The first is there is a strange correlation between contemporary hip hop music and the rape of young girls in extremely poor areas in Harare. Confused yet? Same. He effectively blames sexually explicit lyrics for the rape of a child, and does not address the fact that an adult male (‘brother’) has deliberately enacted sexual violence on a young girl. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is one example of the rape culture that continuously blames girls and women and ANYTHING ELSE EXCEPT THE MEN THAT RAPE – music, the erosion of so-called cultural values, women’s fashion, a rise in ‘immorality’, pop culture and so on. There is a deliberate refusal to simply say: Rapists cause high levels of rape and sexual assault. Girls and women are not responsible. Music is not responsible. New ‘cultural norms’ whatever the fuck that means, are not responsible. Rapists are responsible for rape. That’s it.

According to Zimstat, there was a 42% increase in rape cases in Zimbabwe between 2010 and 2016. Over 60% of those raped were below the age of 16. How did we get here? Well, a toxic combination of rape culture, an inaccessible legal system for many, an ill-equipped police force and a culture of silence around sexual abuse.

Rape Culture: A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.

The constant dehumanisation and loss of power, dignity and innocence of these girls is rooted in rape culture. Rape culture manifests in various ways, often in comments people make in passing when a woman has been sexually assaulted/raped/molested. Questions about what she was wearing, why she was walking alone, whether she ‘provoked’ her attacker, why she didn’t report the assault immediately after and so on, shifts the blame for the violence on the victim. Rape culture also denies the very real widespread nature of rape and sexual assault in women and girls’ lives across the country (and the world, really). There is a strange denialism about whether sexual violence is happening at the alarming rate it currently is, despite overwhelming evidence that is presented by women time and time again. The effect of this is that women are seen as being ‘overly sensitive’ or overreacting when we speak about sexual violence and its effects on us and the way we view the world. For every account made about sexual violence, there’s a counter narrative claiming that women are exaggerating and – if you’re openly a feminist like me – that we simply hate men and have no logical base for doing so.

Rape culture strips girls of bodily autonomy from a very young age by sexualising children while simultaneously telling them that ‘losing’ their virginity before marriage lowers their worth. Couple that with a culture of silence around rape and sexual abuse in families, churches, work places and schools, and you have yourself an epidemic of men who won’t take responsibility, men and women that won’t force them to take responsibility, and girls who have been scarred for life but cannot speak about it for fear of facing even more violence.

Our generation has borne the brunt of a failed state – high unemployment, acute poverty, political violence, a broken economy and a society whose ability to fight back is hampered by police brutality. In the midst of all this, those who suffer the most are often women and children who have the lowest ability to access resources and opportunities to give themselves a decent life. Our leaders have stopped caring for the most vulnerable in our society, and have allowed a culture of impunity to thrive, alongside misogyny and patriarchal policies and perspectives.

Going forward, if we’re going to give our girls a fighting chance at life, we need to stop perpetuating the narratives that see them as even slightly responsible for the violence enacted against them. We need to take a hard look at the society we live in and fight every instance of rape culture immediately. We need to care.

*Organisations like Katswe Sistahood have been at the front-lines of the war on girls’ and women’s bodies, and they continue to denounce the rape culture that we’ve all become accustomed to. They offer practical assistance to girls like the ones in the interview, roping in government officials and partners.*

 

‘Voting against my father’ – Tearing the fabric of violence.

Two days ago, the MDC-T youth held a demonstration in Harare to demand that ZEC put in place electoral reforms ahead of next year’s elections. The demonstration, as I read, began peacefully, but as usual the police violently cracked down on protesters. Those unfortunate enough to be in bank queues nearby were hit by the canon spray as well, while they experienced another violence of not being able to access the very money they have earned.

I remember thinking of how common this all is – police brutality in the face of a fight for basic rights and freedoms and answers that citizens deserve. Our country has been smothered by a fabric of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is in our best interests to tear that fabric and start building the country we all really want. This piece is deeply personal, and speaks to my encounters with this state violence and how it’s shaped my view of politics. It’s been particularly difficult to write because of my proximity to perpetrators of this violence. I want nothing more than a fresh start for this country and for our people, and I believe it’s possible. But we have to take a hard look at the ways this fabric of violence was woven and how we’re continuing that violence, if we’re ever going to tear it.

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2005 was the last time I listened intently and uncritically to my father’s take on politics. I  had just begun the teenage phase where I was perpetually annoyed with my parents. But what I felt that day was deeper than mild annoyance, and I knew that. His convictions had stopped moving me; if anything, they began to cause confusion and discomfort, which eventually, years later, turned to something close to disappointment. He’s dead now, and I’m older; and thankfully I ask more questions than I did back then.

2005 was the year of Murambatsvina, the government’s operation to demolish informal housing and business structures in urban areas across the country. It had a profound impact on my relationship with politics and my understanding of state violence, even at that age. Zimbabwe was going through a painful economic slump which was only to worsen over the years, reaching the tipping point in 2008. The currency was weak and jobs were scarce. The informal economy served as a source of much-needed income for urban residents who couldn’t access the formal sector or who simply couldn’t survive on salaries paid in a currency that was worth less and less every day. It was also the first time I had ever even considered my father to be a perpetrator of violence.

That’s important. A perpetrator of violence.

It wouldn’t be the last time, and it began a complex period of both loving him dearly and making wonderful memories, but gradually despising what he represented politically.

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Murambatsvina’s destructive effects that plague our country to this day. Source: http://www.herzimbabwe.co.zw

Operation Murambatsvina was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. You see, my father was pictured in one of our newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. “We’re cleaning up the city,” he said, after I asked if this didn’t seem harsh to him. “I mean, we’ve issued warning after warning…we’ve been clear about this from the start.” He tried to make some comparison with an example I might understand, but by now I had stopped hearing him. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth”.

I try not to think of my father very often anymore. But when I do, it’s with a feeling of both deep fondness and deep disappointment. Some days the latter outweighs the former. To me, he symbolised a party that rose on the backs of passionate black people’s painful sacrifices, steadfast resolve and a leadership that could see the Zimbabwe that many couldn’t even dream of. But there was an underlying violence in their actions that I saw and understood to an extent, but couldn’t fully articulate, and that I desperately want us to rid ourselves of now.

Tearing the fabric

I grew up thinking the state had everyone’s best interests at heart. More often than not I’d hear the words “sovereignty”, “freedom”, and “independence”, as did everyone else really. Except I listened to them twice – both from the mouthpieces of the party and one specific mouthpiece, my dad. I was taught to associate Zanu-PF with freedom and black empowerment, but more importantly as the only source of political and economic freedom and empowerment. It was this portrayal of a single ‘saviour’ – the ‘pasi nemhandu-ness’ that labelled anything outside of the ruling party as enemy and ‘other’ – that threaded together the fabric of violence we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

For years we’ve been taught to see difference in political opinion as being an inherent threat or something to be shunned and destroyed immediately and without question. It’s infused in the slogans we chant at rallies, the Facebook comments on political party pages, the high school history books, the newspapers and news sites, the arguments during dinner and the WhatsApp groups we rant to. The violence is everywhere. It’s in the way MDC supporters feel entitled to our votes, and the way Zanu supporters are willing to do anything to win. It’s the reason why, when independent candidates or new parties come about, we’re quick to tear them down. We’ve done things the same way, over and over. We’ve covered ourselves completely with the fabric, tearing it occasionally, but never enough.

This is where we are. But it doesn’t have to be where we stay.

2016 was the first time I felt my heart awaken with the possibility of taking back what our leaders had stripped from us. It was a long, hard stare at the fabric and how long and thick it had become. It was an attempt to tear the fabric of violence and sew a different kind of fabric – one woven together with democracy and tolerance and the ability to oppose one another without feeling threatened and insecure. We’ve already started weaving a new fabric. We may have to undo a few knots or close a few gaps, but we should never stop trying. Our efforts are in every refusal to accept poor governance, every protest, every counter argument on vote-splitting, and every demand to have our dignity recognised by our leaders. It’s in every bit of encouragement we give to those who speak truth to power and fight for our rights, that the fabric starts to tear.

2017 was the first time my grief didn’t fully consume me. And it was the first time I felt a deep sense of longing for a better country, and that I actually thought a better country was within our reach. And I realised that even more than I loved my father, I love myself. I love myself and my country enough to help work towards a future I can be proud of, and enough to be part of tearing the fabric of violence alongside everyone who’s fighting for a new country too.

2017 – The year my heart started beating again.

“Grieve. So you can be free to feel something else.” – Nayyirah Waheed

About a year and a half ago, my heart stopped beating and I couldn’t breathe. Death. Death to the life of a young black woman whose heart had packed up and sunk deep into the grave where he lay. Beneath the dirt, covered with cement, and topped off with flowers from his enemies. Gone. I remember the cry I let out when people started to walk away and go home. I remember struggling to breathe because in that moment, I died with him.

This was 2015. When the gamatoxes ran wild and the G40s had yet to really get going, and the bond notes were yet to be set free. When the vendors were told to leave again and the President was going to rule from the grave and the drought had started to claim lives of the ‘resilient’ people ruled by painful mediocrity. My heart lay still, buried under 6 feet of red earth, waiting. Occasionally it would stir up, but only to feel pain. It’s 2017. Last year, the-year-that-we-will-never-speak-of, is gone with what we thought may be winds of change. And this year is the year I took my heart back from the grave where he lies, and the year it starts to beat again.

Grief is that horrible feeling that never really goes away. It consumes you and dictates how you think about yourself, the deceased, the people you love and the world you want to change for the better. Grief strips away the pretences you held up for so long, the inhibitions you should have never had, and it jolted me out of my slumber and comfort of a good, stable life. Grief takes away, but it strange ways, it also gives. This piece is for myself, but it’s also for anyone who has lost a loved one and doesn’t know what it means to love/live without them. The beauty of new years is they give the impression of a new start. They give the kind of hope that is fleeting, but hopefully makes an impression long enough to last you half the year before you need another pep talk.

There’s so much grief has taught me, but I’ll share the 5 most lessons I’ve learned that I want to (need to) take with me into 2017.

  1. You’re stronger than you know – There will be days you can barely get your eyes to open fully and start your day. I know these days well. You will think ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and shut the world out and feel annoyed at every text of encouragement, because don’t they know you can’t do it? Cry, kick, scream, stay silent, pray, run – do whatever you need to do to make sure you wake your heart up again. If the most that you can do is take a shower and go back to bed, it’s alright. Give yourself days when you don’t have to be the you that everyone relies on, needs and turns to. You will surprise yourself when you wake up the next morning, and you’re breathing again. Give yourself time, you’re stronger than you know.
  2. You can’t ‘do life’ alone – To this day, all I want most of the time is to be alone. People can be irritating as fuck when all you want to do is wallow in your misery and loss. But people can also be kind and loving. Allow people to love you and to want to be there for you. Tell them when you need some alone time, but don’t hide from them forever. They mean well, I promise. No one is an island, and no one is expecting you to suddenly ‘be okay’. You know who your people are so keep them as close as you can.
  3. Value your peace – For months I felt like all I was doing was calming the storm inside of me. It was loud and angry and violent. I had no peace, and the storm was destroying me. When you find a slither of peace, be it in a novel, with a friend, on a morning walk, while you pray in your garden – GUARD IT. Guard that slither of peace with your life because you and I know how seldom it comes around. Guard it and never let anyone take it away from you, no matter how important they are in your life. Be kind to yourself and value the peace that keeps you sane.
  4. Everything you need is within you – This is a great time to introspect and understand yourself better. It’s a time I realised who I really was, what I really thought, and what I really wanted and didn’t want. Everything you need to heal and succeed at life after this pseudo death is in you. It’s in your passions, your frustrations, your dreams, your actions, thoughts and gifts. Don’t doubt yourself.
  5. Don’t give up on yourself – This is something I still need to work on. Trust that you have what it takes to make it through this year. You’re all you have, and at this point you need to take a step outside the grief circle and believe in yourself. And if you can’t muster up all that faith, call a friend who affirms, loves and is always there for you. Don’t give up – we’ll make it through.

My heart is beating again this year, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m hopeful and excited about the year because I know what it’s like to lose hope completely, and I never want to go back there again. I hope that in whatever way, this piece brings you peace and you can take away a few things that will help you calm your storm.

“Grieve, so you can be free to feel something else.”

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Christmas Day, 2016. The day I decided to get my heart beating again. Also the day I danced heartily for the first time in months.