‘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:

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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.*

 

The power of the “carefree black girl” narrative

“Technology is nothing without the capacity to make people dream. That is where the power of technology resides…It is embraced insofar as people believe in the promise of inheriting it, of improving their own lives, making it better and freeing themselves of structural constraints.  The internet intensifies that capacity to dream and that narrative of liberation” – Achille Mbembe, The Chronic, Chimurenga magazine

Carefree adj. : untroubled, buoyant, radiant, light-hearted, happy.

“What a time to be alive.” (Future & Drake, 2015) Indeed, what a time it is to be alive. I’m writing this as I sit on my single university-accommodation bed in Edinburgh, Scotland. I got a scholarship for my Masters, and my mother practically shoved me onto the plane. I miss her terribly. I don’t know how else to repay her, but to continue my journey as a carefree black girl, unconquerable. (If you’re Zimbabwean, please pronounce that last word the same way we sang it in war cries at school :’D)

This morning I saw the news of Viola Davis of How to get away with Murder making history as the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress. Uzo Aduba won her second Emmy for her role as “Crazy Eyes” in Orange is the New Black. Nominated for Davis’ category was my main main, Taraji P. Henson as well, whose role as Cookie ignites a fire in my heart and pushes me to slay with all my might. Today I was also overwhelmed with images of #BlackDayOut on Twitter, a day where People of colour all over the world post pictures of their melanin, celebrating their complexions in a world that dehumanises and erases them daily. Nothing made me happier than seeing my people happy and proud to be who they are.

The narrative of the carefree black girl has never been more important in my life as it is now. This narrative speaks to me as a black, Zimbabwean and African woman whose culture and societal norms are suffocating and burdensome. I am conditioned to care; to care about my appearance to the opposite sex, my ‘wifely’ skills, my virginity (or lack of it), my career but only insofar as it doesn’t hinder my mothering years. I am conditioned to care about the whispers behind my back, the way other girls are behaving, the cultural customs that make me respectable, and lastly of course, the career I should build that isn’t too masculine or time-consuming. I live largely in a society that sees me as a means to an end – a means to furthering the human race, a means to cradling the fragile masculinity of a future husband. To be a ‘carefree’ black girl seems almost impossible in the world I live in. But thank Mbuya Nehanda it isn’t.

To be carefree for me, means to dream constantly. To learn, to evolve and to grow. To unshackle myself from the chains of patriarchy and sexism, even if for a day. The carefree black girl narrative is located in a time when to be womanist is seen as a betrayal of culture and religion. It’s in a time when, as black women we make ten steps forward and often are pushed twenty steps back by people who think our movement is threatening or worse, unimportant. The narrative is shared in spaces that can be hugely dangerous for women (i.e. cyber bullying) and is met with fear, cringing and generalisations. To be carefree however, means to know all this, and to slay anyway. It means to laugh from the depths of your soul, to walk with the confidence of an African dictator, and to rule your piece of the internet with the power of a thousand matriarchs. It means to see your privilege and to confront it head on and listen sincerely to different experiences so as to learn from them. It means to celebrate other black women for their achievements, to spread love and support to those of us who need it most. To be a carefree black girl means to radiate slayage and and to bypass the bullshit on the way up the ladder of success.

I owe my good mood today and my love for my melanin to Twitter’s amazing black women who have breathed life into me these past couple of months.

I will strut powerfully through and over whiteness until it stands in awe of my divinity.

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Women: The ultimate scapegoats.

(n.) A scapegoat is an event person or object that is used to lay the blame on for all that goes wrong, regardless of the contributions of others. This will usually carry on until the scapegoat has gone, or has managed to successfully defend itself against the arguments presented to it.

 

When I was younger I was a pro at scaring the shit out of people. I’d hide behind corners and jump out at you while you walk past, much to the dismay of my parents and anyone else who fell into my hands. There was even a time I hid in a box for a good 30 minutes (you can’t rush these things), and asked our helper to tell my cousin there was something in the box for him. I popped up like a Jack-in-the-box and he (all 2metres and 90kg of a man) let out a small scream that I still laugh about by myself sometimes. My parents both worked, and my brothers were at that stage where they’d stay late at school for sports and activities and go out on the weekends with their friends, so none of them were home much. As a result, I’d end up scaring either our domestic helper or our gardener. The latter was a little more forgiving, while the former often shouted out half her totem narrative and mentioned something about Jesus needing to save her, so I mostly went with our gardener.

One day, in my usual fashion, I hid behind a large wooden plank in the backyard, close to our dog kennel. I waited for our gardener to get close enough before I jumped out from behind it. His eyes widened, he laughed uncomfortably, and then he did the strangest thing. He told me not to scare him again, or he would lock me in his room and “we would see who would be the scared one”. There was something about the look in his eyes that made me uneasy, and so I ran back to the house. My mother had told me not to scare the help, not to play with this young man where she couldn’t see me, and so I didn’t mention it. I still feel uneasy when I bump into him in town once in a while.

Now, you may say that I was a naughty child – this is true. You may say that someone should have been watching me – perhaps this is also true. You may also say that I was lucky that young man didn’t do what he said he would, and worse – this is very true. But some people may say that because I had a working mother (and father as well, but the emphasis would be on my mother) I was subject to the dangers of potential abuse by our helpers at home. This was the argument made by one Superintendent Ethiua (I dare you to pronounce that out loud) Muzvidziwa, head of the Gweru Urban Women’s network, according to an article in The Chronicle. She said that “all mothers (not fathers) must bear in mind that their primary responsibility is to offer parental guidance to their children”. She went on to say that because of the economic slump we find ourselves in, women are having to work longer hours at the expense of their family life and safety of their children. I have a few problems with this article and with Superintendent Muzvidziwa regarding her remarks.

Firstly, the headline reads “Career mums ‘fuel child rape'”. Firstly, what the fuck. That women who are pursuing their God given and constitutionally given right to have a job and earn an income, as well as pursue their passions are the ones fuelling child rape is ridiculous. The same way our society blames women for being raped, is how we blame mothers for ‘allowing’ their children to be raped, with no mention of the real problem, which is the rapist. Are women not supposed to aspire to more than marriage and children? Is having children a sign that I should drop everything I have dreamed of before this child, and cater only to it’s needs? It is my experience that my mother was a better mother because she worked. She gave me the inspiration I needed to not sit around and expect things to be handed to me in life. She taught me how to fight for what I want, to strive for excellence, and to be all I can be, even in a society that sees me as a second-class citizen.

In the entire article, Sup Muzvidziwa makes no mention of the partners of these women. Are fathers also not tasked with the protection of their children? Are they, more often than not, not away from the house for the bulk of the day and sometimes even the night, only returning to have a meal, take a shower and climb into bed? We need to stop framing mothers as primary care givers and fathers as primary bread-winners, as if the two cannot step outside these boxes. Fathers must actively be a part of their children’s lives, and I refuse to let patriarchy tell me otherwise. Sup. Muzvidziwa also encourages women to play more of a part in the curbing of rape and sexual violence. Excuse me? Are we not the ones standing and shouting at the top of our lungs, demanding the end to this violence? Where are the men? Surely most fathers would not want their child to be subject to sexual abuse? Why are they silent about their fellow man’s abuses? And where is her criticism of these rapists?

In 2014, Zimbabwe National Statistics (ZimStat) said that 15 women are raped everyday in Zimbabwe. Lawyer and Harare West MP Jesse Majome said that the majority of rape cases last year were thrown out often because victims were too afraid to testify due to pressures from family and society. Our society needs to change. But women don’t need to stop working. Yes, we must ensure that the people we leave our children with are trustworthy, and that we take care to speak to our children and create an environment that makes it easy for them to open up to us if abuse happens. Notice I said ‘we’, meaning all of us. Mothers, fathers, politicians, police officers, health workers, NGOs, the media – all of us. We need to start framing the discussion on rape and sexual violence in a way that criminalises and chastises the rapist, not the victim of rape and not the mothers of the victims. That we live in a society where women are working longer hours is not an inherently bad thing. We should be overjoyed that women are entering spaces they were shut out of a decade ago; this is progress and I applaud these women. So stop blaming women for violence that is not perpetrated by them. Stop making this discussion about anything other than our need to condemn and eradicate every form of sexual violence and those who carry out this violence. Let us achieve our goals, raise children and thrive in a society that looks to empower us and not tear us down.

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Source: http://www.zimbabweelection.com