I just want to walk to the river

I don’t know about you but I have watched a lot of American movies in which there is a guy or two or three who get on to a plane and hold everyone aboard hostage and all hell breaks loose. Or those men in masked faces who invade a bank to carry out a heist. I have seen many movies, with that scene of men in either hoodies or masks who take a bus and its passengers hostage.  You can imagine how I feel whenever I find myself in a bank, in a bus and at an airport! And I always take a bus to and from Downtown DC.

However I realize that over the past few years I have developed another kind of fear.  I have over time realized that I live in fear because of my biological makeup. I am a woman. I have since realized that increasingly in this world there is danger that comes with me being female.  The recognition by some men in both public and the most private of spaces that I am a woman puts me in danger. And understand me right from the beginning that I am not painting all men with the same brush, thus I say some of them. I realize the girl in rural Zimbabwe probably faces the same reality. So does a teenage girl in India whose personal inner space is invaded because she is female. So did Zainaab Salbi. And Malala Yousafzai. And Reeva Steenkamp. And all the other women who on a daily basis experience the use of physical force in order to subdue, to punish and to demonstrate domination over them.  I realize my vulnerabilities and yet I can only do so much to protect myself.

Every single day the media is awash with stories of violence from all over the world. The killing, the raping, the gropping, the genital mutilation, the beating, the utterance of obscenities in public, the murders. The list is countless. On the 23rd of January 2013, a 23 year old girl who was riding in a bus with her fiancé in Delhi, India was gang raped by six men in the bus including the driver.  The representative of the hospital where she eventually died said ‘the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome. More cases of grueling violence continue to be reported since the death of this young woman which spurred a lot of protest from Indian men and women alike. Recently, the South African media reported that a 100 year old great-great grandmother had been raped. In another case in South Africa again, a 23 year old woman had been gang raped by 15 men, an ordeal which was said to have lasted for hours. In Egypt, at the famous, Tahrir Square, in Downtown Cairo, I read about how the perpetrators who move in groups, ‘had their knives held to the women’s  vaginas, while others were abducted, stripped and driven around the city, exposed to public shame”. These sexual assaults were perpetrated on men as well.

What adds to my fear and discomfort is how the world has become so used to the stories. How when we hear of a gruesome murder of a woman in one country we retrieve from our mental files other countless accounts of violence we have read about or witnessed. We now even create and circulate jokes about these! Is this how callous we have become? Is it how trivial these issues have become? Is it how we deal with pain? Whatever the reason is, it makes me shake with fear even more.

Statistics on violence against women in India reveals that in 2011 alone 24 000 cases of rape were reported. I know India has a lot of people but must that be a reason why this might not be found alarming? And yet Indian police stations are said not to have rape kits most of the time. In South Africa “approximately 200 000 adult women report to have experienced either violent assaults, rapes or other sexual assaults every year”. In Sao Paulo, Brazil it is reported that a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds! In Australia a study has shown that violence against women and children costs an estimated US11.38 billion per year. That’s costly! And yet the world has not been moved to take drastic measures!

In the United States, three young women, Michelle Knight, Gina de Jesus and Amanda Berry were rescued a few weeks ago from the house of a man who kidnapped them, repeatedly raped, assaulted and instilled fear in them for ten years. The youngest of the three was 14 years old at the time of her kidnapping. One of them, Amanda Berry fell pregnant, carried her pregnancy to full term and gave birth in the house. Michelle Knight is reported to have fallen pregnant five times and every time she did, her captor would starve her, kick her belly and assault her so that she could miscarry. And five times, she did. Never was she taken to a hospital. Today these three women are free. They are back in their parents’ homes which is to be celebrated. However I keep wondering if they will ever get over the trauma of being in captivity for ten years. I wonder if they will ever walk free in the streets of America. Do you think they will be able to fully explore their potential and live life like their peers do? I wonder. My heart bleeds. From the time I learnt about their story I live in even more fear. As I wake up every morning I wonder what might possibly happen to me, to the girl being dropped at school by her parents or to the woman sitting next to me in the bus.

I mourn when I think of the way in which these and many other issues we face as women cannot be regarded as very important on the agendas of the meetings of the powers that be because there are broader issues to be addressed. I know that better governance in Zimbabwe might translate into an improved life for me as a woman but is it guaranteed? Does that render the violence we continue to face not so urgent and less important? Must we hold our cries because there are “bigger issues” to attend to?

I know and acknowledge that a lot of work has been done in addressing issues of violence against women the world over and even appreciate the successes that have been recorded. With what is happening around the world I can’t help but ask myself a whole list of questions. Is what has been done the best and all that can possibly be done?  Are we missing the point in how we are addressing the problems of violence? I wonder how we feel as society if our very own offspring is reported to have ganged up on one young girl to rape or kill her and among us some people ask what this woman had done or what she was wearing? Are we doing enough in communities to address violence against women and girls? Are we being as vigilant in ending rape as we are in demanding to see the evidence that a girl is still a virgin the day she gets married? What is it that will galvanize us and make us all mad enough to collectively put a stop to the violence that is wreaking the lives of millions throughout the world?

As Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda said at the 2013 Women Deliver Conference in Malaysia ‘when we have the freedom from violence in our homes, in our communities, in our countries, we have opportunities to walk to the river. We have opportunities to walk to school. We have opportunities to be…

I just want to walk to the river. I just want to go to school and not be afraid.

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