A pregnant woman is crossing Jason Moyo Avenue. She stops at the pedestrian crossing and a young man shouts out at her.
“Makatenda baba here?”
Did you say thank you to your man?
Loud jeers erupt from the young vendors at the street corner. Embarrassed, the woman rushes on as an older woman tells her not to pay them any attention.
That is what we are told to do from adolescence; to just ignore the jeers, rude comments and stares as there is a common belief that silence will deter the perpetrators. But as women keep silent, their attackers become bolder. From heckling, they graduate to groping and suddenly they feel entitled to take off your clothes if they don’t like them.
As we focus our attention on violence against women this 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, it is disheartening to note that public violence – and our responses to it – still receive very little attention.
Public spaces; safe spaces?
When the few brave women dare to raise their voices, they are often attacked. But such counter attacks are never on the basis of their message, but rather an attack on their person, their anatomy, their very existence. As a result, young women end up shying away from speaking up.
In addition to being shouted down, they have to contend with the volatile nature of public space where, more often than not, civil action turns to physical violence.
As is widely documented, an attachment placement to fulfil the obligations of an academic programme presents a minefield of challenges for young women. And these are the same young women who, at school, contend with lecturers harassing them and threatening them with failure. Many young women, therefore, feel the need to make themselves invisible in public spaces to avoid the consequences of negative attention. And as they withdraw deeper into themselves, their voices inevitably shrink.
Politics, and other critical spaces of social power, is no different either. During one parliamentary session, legislator for Gokwe-Nembudziya Justice Mayor Wadyejena told MDC MP Ronia Bunjira that she needed to cover her bald head with a wig. Even though the offending member was asked to withdraw his words, it is cause for concern that the statement attracted laughter from the male members in what has become a prevailing culture where female politicians have been at the receiving end of insults based on how they look, their marital status and other issues which have nothing to do with their politics. Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa is even reported to have defended Wadyejena’s remarks by calling on all MPs to dress properly.
Trivialising women’s safety?
In recent times, safe cities campaigns have taken centre stage. Sadly in Zimbabwe, these have often been trivialised and relegated to the periphery in favour of what are termed bread and butter issues. It is important for women to recognise efforts such as these and place marches such as the mini skirt marches in the broader context; they are not simply about the rights to wear certain items of clothing, but campaigns aimed at women enjoying their full citizenship benefits.
Until public spaces are safe for women, they will remain at the periphery of the all the important activity in the country. They will always approach all forms of participation mindful of how their bodies can be used against them. If women are secure in all public space, then their voices will not be silenced.
Main image is shared from www.digitaljournal.com