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:
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.*