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Strong in the broken places

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Monday, July 26th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

Strong in the broken places

I often wonder what ignites the passion for activism and what motivates individuals to care enough about the plight of others to place themselves on the firing line.

One of the things I discovered about the 24 young women that are taking part in the Moremi Initiative for women’s leadership and development in Africa (MILEAD) here in Ghana is that their passions derive from some of their most painful and deepest hurts.

In essence, they have risen against all odds to face their pasts and use their own pain to alleviate the suffering of others, prevent the possibility of similar pain being inflicted on others and wherever possible to use their experiences to reach out to others.

I once read a daily devotional that was titled, “strong in the broken places” and I never could really understand the meaning of that phrase.

But now I realize that there is strength to be derived from the lessons we learn when life’s tragedy breaks us down.

It all started with a seminar on child sexual abuse, gender violence and all the inherent complexities of these social ills and turned into a cathartic experience when one of the fellows shared a personal horror story.

Herlyn Uiras was diagnosed with HIV after she was raped by a truck driver who had offered her lift smuggled her into South Africa at the age of 16 and dumped her in Johannesburg miles from her country of origin – Namibia.

Herlyn’s story is heartrending, spine-chilling and life-transforming, proving the remarkable resilience of the human spirit and the triumph that comes with choosing to be a survivor and not victim of life’s endless tragedies.

“My friend and I wanted to see what Joburg was like and that truck driver said he could get use into SA. We were excited, we were 16, we were on an adventure. The moment he got us across the border he demanded sex, I refused but he went ahead anyway and when I saw that he would do it anyway, I begged him to use a condom. He wore one but it broke while he was at it. He didn’t stop. And I couldn’t stop him.”

The way Herlyn tells her story is striking in two ways; first she owns the consequences of her choices, specifically the choice to trust a stranger with her life.

She stayed 5 months in South Africa, surrendered herself to the police and was given passage back to her country.

Today Herlyn is 26, working with AIDS organisations to sensitize young children about the disease and is engaged in projects to discourage human smuggling and warn people about the dangers of human trafficking.

Prior to the earth-shattering revelations she made about what she went through, I had already created a profile of her in my mind, as I did with every other young woman I had met there.

I had profiled her as one of the fun-loving, side-splittingly hilarious women I have ever come across.

One would never guess at the sound of her infectious laughter that her life had been touched by such trauma and tragedy – though it wasn’t easy, Herlyn says she got to the point where she made peace with what had transpired – forgiven herself and even managed to somehow forgive the man who had raped and infected her.

As she told her story, she was so composed and we all listened disbelieving because although she spared us the details, most of us could still feel our skins crawl and imagine how she must have felt.

Then somewhere along the narration something just broke in her – she cried and we cried. Cried for that 16 year old girl who didn’t know any better and cried for the woman standing before us, who ten years later re-lives the nightmare to help others and to warn others by sharing her life story across the continent.

I have no way of knowing who’s life may be helped or saved by sharing Herlyn’s story with readers who follow Kubatana’s blogs, but there is no doubt in my mind that her story will help someone, somewhere to either avoid what befell her or choose to overcome whatever pain was inflicted on them.

Having received a fully-packed programme scheduled with back to back lectures and activities lined up for us, I went to Ghana expecting to be taught but when I got here – I found myself learning. Learning the meaning of what it means to be strong, strong even in the broken places.

Power over ourselves

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Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

One of my favourite feminist quotes comes from Mary Wollstonecroft and it says “I do not wish them (women) to have power over men but over themselves” because I believe that is the essence of women empowerment.

I never resonate with the preoccupations of some activists with ‘demanding’ that men create spaces for women in politics, in education etc… the whole idea of creating quota systems sits rather uncomfortably with me.

For what a man gives to a woman, he has the power to withhold at some point and there is no empowerment derived from being ‘given’ – empowerment only comes with what one achieves, attains and realizes from their own efforts.

I don’t doubt women’s capabilities, potentials and talents – I don’t think they need men to ‘liberate’ them – I think they can pretty much liberate themselves – if they acquire education, work their way to the top, begin to actively participate in the highest echelons of decision-making, policy-formulation and governance.

In 2007, when I was at the University of Zimbabwe, we were witnesses to the first ever female candidate to run for the powerful (and often violently contested) post of Secretary General of the Students’ Executive Council, Maureen Kademaunga.

She won the elections in that year because she managed to galvanize the female students into one cohesive, critical mass of voters and became the most powerful student in the country at the time because student activism was very robust, radical and influential.

I have come to believe that what women need is to have power over themselves and that power manifests in overturning the status quo whenever it is employed to oppress, marginalize or discriminate against us.

Recently there was a landmark passport ruling by a Supreme Court Justice Rita Makarau ruled in favour of Margret Dongo who, two years after filing a constitutional challenge (seeking the, nullification of certain provisions of the Guardianship of Minors Act, which she claimed were discriminatory against married women who were not regarded as natural guardians of their children) finally triumphed.

I want to believe that having a female Justice presiding over the case had a lot to do with the verdict; I want to believe having a determined woman who knows her rights had a lot to do with Margeret Dongo daring to challenge the status quo.

I want to believe that the results of that ruling, which will impact favourably on married women were wrought through the actions of fellow women and that no man played a part in ridding us of that cumbersome piece of discriminatory legislation. I want to believe that these are just examples of women exercising power (not over men) but over themselves, over their lives and ultimately over the system of patriarchy that informs the conditions of their oppression, marginality and discrimination.

So, I too, wish that we as women, may choose to have power over ourselves, choose to exercise that power and choose to liberate and empower ourselves.

How do we protect devout women from HIV?

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Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ so the saying goes and it would seem for many Zimbabwean women, Christianity is not just a religion – it is also an escape route.

Attending church, following the routine and keeping religious observances have become a form of escapism for many women in the age of HIV as they try to apply biblical teachings to their marriages, relationships and lives at a time when hypocrisy has become a prevalent trend in most churches.

Considering that a great proportion of women are Christians, most of them adhering to Christian doctrines, it follows that the impact of HIV on our society must be interrogated within the confines of religious teachings and what church leaders are feeding their flock.

A year ago, the Roman Catholic Church’s Pope Benedict XVI provoked much outrage for re-affirming the papacy’s position on condom use – a position that has been widely accepted by other Christian groupings who all teach that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop AIDS.

Dismissed at the time as being ‘unrealistic and irrelevant’ the Pope’s position however reflects the dominant thinking within the Christian community in Zimbabwe and the response to HIV has been lukewarm, uninspired and in most instances impracticable, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for married women the church prescribes fidelity and yet most married women have non-believing husbands who do not subscribe to the teachings of the church regarding fidelity and moral uprightness. This leaves the Christian women in the lurch as they cannot effectively apply Christian teachings to their personal lives without the cooperation, consent and sanction of their spouses.

Moreover, the Christian woman is not encouraged to assert any rights over her body because Christian teaching insists that she has no autonomy over her body, if it does not belong to the Lord then it belongs to her husband so using condoms is out of the question.

Needless to say, Christian women are not expected to negotiate for safer sex even in instances when they know their spouses have been unfaithful being advised by the well-meaning church leadership and counselors to ‘pray for their errant husband, fast and trust in the Lord’.

Whilst it is admirable for one to demonstrate their faith by praying for divine intervention to ensure that one does not contract HIV from an unfaithful partner with whom they go on to engage in unsafe sex with; how many Christian women find their way to an early grave as a result?

In many instances, pulpit sermons fail to address the specific needs, fears and concerns of congregants, of which women form the majority.

Women are not encouraged to actively take responsibility for protecting themselves from contracting HIV nor are they expected to demonstrate any inclination towards understanding and exercising their sexual reproductive rights.

In some instances, women who are married to dodgy religious leaders are often worse off than their congregants as they have to keep up appearances and often find no support system within the church.

The general assumption is that church leaders are beyond reproach, well they should be, but at times they too, succumb to the pesky desires of the flesh.

For most women, being cheated on is humiliating but for Christian women, the experience also casts aspersions on them as believers because people question where their God was when the hubby was romping around in the arms of another woman.

They blame themselves for not clocking in enough hours in the ‘prayer closet’ or for letting the devil in to their marriage by not fasting enough or some such nonsense failing to realize that they are victims and not the villains.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that Christian teachings often have a fall guy handy every time things go awry – quite simply, the devil takes all the blame and people just don’t take responsibility for their actions.

As a compromise, one may concede that they were ‘tempted’ and then ‘led astray’ none of which conveys any real conscience intent on the part of the individual to do wrong or make unwise and risky sexual choices.

By giving the sexual infraction, known as fornication or adultery in Christian discourses, a spiritual premise, i.e it’s the devil that caused it – the reasonable response for the average Christian woman is a spiritual one, that is, prayer and fasting to counter this spirit of adultery.

The very real threat posed by HIV is not addressed in all this spiritual abstractness.

It is possible that AIDS is one disease that has exposed the limitations of the church in so far as empowering and equipping women is concerned.

Some of the solutions women come up with are not only absurd they are really religious rhetoric emanating from reckless and overzealous pulpit outbursts.

Addressing delegates at a SAFAIDS workshop held to commemorate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence in 2009, an exasperated Edinah Masiyiwa, the Executive Director of the Women’s Action Group (WAG), stated that some Christian doctrines were harming efforts to combat gender violence and curb the spread of HIV.

“We run all these awareness campaigns and yet it appears that things get worse instead of better. You talk of condomizing and then to your surprise you find grown women uttering silly statements like ‘ini handishandise condom nemurume wangu ndinongonamata kuti Mwari ngaave condom rangu’ (I don’t need to wear a condom because I just pray for God’s protection),” charged Miss Masiyiwa.

So while women ‘in the world’ may perceive themselves as being at risk of contracting HIV and take measures to protect themselves, the women in the church are exhorted to pray, fast and “confess the blood of Jesus” over themselves.

Based as much on patriarchal thinking as African culture, what real chance does Christianity have of offering women a refuge other than making them easier and willing victims of abuse as well as other forms of injustice while reminding them how ‘blessed” it is to be “meek”.

Intolerance, a reflection of self

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Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Delta Ndou

Sometimes when a person is confused and they don’t know what they want – I usually say, “Well, if you don’t have an idea what you want, at least tell me what you don’t want.”

The same goes for those facing some kind of inner struggle, identity crisis or such dilemma – I often tell them if they don’t know who they are, at least they ought to know who they don’t want to be.

The things we negate often are a reflection of what we instinctively embrace as our values, extol as virtues and they are indicative of our deeply held convictions.

I believe a scrutiny of our cultural beliefs, of the things we were socialized to reject will always be reflective of what we consider to be normal, acceptable and appropriate.

So our intolerances are a reflection of self – a reflection of who we are essentially.

Bigotry often derives from our revulsion towards that which is inconsistent with our belief system; it is like a knee-jerk reaction to that which contradicts our worldview or our interpretation of the world.

Anything that does not align with our own prejudiced perception is like a smudge marring the lens we use to view our world and we seek to obliterate it so that we may continue to enjoy the same view we are accustomed to – the status quo upheld.

The homophobia that currently informs the discourse on homosexuality in Zimbabwe is a case in point, reflecting the deeply ingrained cultural and social beliefs of what manhood entails – for what repulses many is not lesbianism but rather gays.

For a man to sleep with another man is almost inconceivable to most people and to those who can conceive of it – it is like an abomination.

And as a collective people pride themselves in holding on to these prejudices, tacitly condoning hate speech and other abusive reactions that have been central to the backlash created by the debate on homosexuality.

Of late, the media has been awash with reports of pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church – narratives of how young boys have fallen prey to unscrupulous members of the clergy who fail to curb their ‘appetites’ and resort to feeding off the proverbial flock.

The allegations also point to a systematic cover-up by sections of the church’s leadership to shield the perpetrators, silence the victims and protect the all-important image of the church.

The Pontiff, having been so vocal on the issue of condom use, reinforcing the church’s unyielding anti-contraceptive position has been rather subdued on the subject only recently making a show of weeping with the victims of abuse – a gesture many feel is contrived.

It worries me that these attitudes are prevalent even in our own societies, that perpetrators of child abuse or molesters will find a sympathetic audience in our society – and probably will be regarded as being a lesser ‘evil’ to homosexuals.

The culture of silence is one that is deeply ingrained in families and society insists on sacrificing the individual (especially a child) in order to protect the status, image and standing of the collective (especially the family and clan).

There are many who would abhor homosexuality more than they do child molestation and abuse – it is the nonchalance towards these victims that serves as an indictment to our conscience as a society – we are worse than the monsters we seek to protect through our silence.

For our silence is acquiescence, it trivializes the pain and trauma of the abused, diminishes them and diminishes us as a society.

Whilst it may be argued (as it often is) that it serves “the greater good” to sweep such cases under the carpet and retain confidence in the sanctity of religious institutions and the authority of male figures in families, our culture of silence makes hypocrites of us – for we constantly defend the status quo, refusing to interrogate our long held convictions.

If our intolerances essentially reflect who we are – then the same goes for the things we do tolerate, the things we turn a blind eye to and those heinous deeds we excuse under the guise of protecting the ‘image’ of institutions and persons of authority.

To identify what you believe – it may be necessary to know what you do not believe. I do not believe that there is any institution (religious or otherwise) worth preserving at the cost of the wellbeing, security and preservation of the rights and dignity of children the world over.

In Zimbabwe women are pushed to the margins, pushed to the limit

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Wednesday, April 14th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

When the year began, two women suffered miscarriages after they were beaten up by police in the border town of Beitbridge.

They were suspected of being prostitutes, apprehended and then they were assaulted to the extent of losing the pregnancies they were carrying.

Perhaps they were prostitutes, perhaps they were not but one thing is certain – when we live in a society that insists on pushing some of its members to the margins by discriminating and stigmatizing them – it is inevitable that we increase the vulnerability of such individuals.

Their exclusion and ostracism serves no purpose other than making them easy prey for those in position of power and who would not hesitate to abuse that power.

Yet for the greater part, there is a tacit approval of these violent acts because they affirm the prejudices of our society, they are premised on the moral judgments people make about women who prostitute themselves either through overt means by selling their bodies in return for money or those who covertly prostitute themselves by acquiescing to be the mistresses of married men for economic gain.

Addressing at a two-day regional conference hosted by SAfAIDS on a series “changing the river’s flow examining the HIV/Culture confluence”, Jason Wessenaar the Project Director of Siyazi Counselling and Testing Project made the very astute observation that while culture helps us to make sense of the world around us by giving people a sense of identity and belonging, it also governs human behaviour.

So our intolerances, our prejudices and our bigotry are a reflection of our cultural beliefs and our interpretation of what is appropriate and what is unacceptable conduct.

Remarking on the limitations of culture, he pointed out that, “culture is a tool that can be used to empower or exclude, exploit and control” members of a society.

What we cannot tolerate reflects what our deep-rooted convictions and beliefs are, yet using Wessener’s observation that culture is a lens we use to view the world, as a premise, how do we then know that what we perceive as reality is in fact so and not just a consequence of the lens we are using to view it?

We push women to the margins, increase their vulnerability, ostracize them and give them an “otherness” such that they have no choice but to engage in more risky behaviour – pushed to the limits, their desperation will drive them to the extremes.

Whilst we bemoan the prevalence of small houses, of women engaging in long term relationships with married men, of men having multiple concurrent sexual relations – we need to find out why and how women avail themselves to these relationships.

One lady remarked in response to my column, “No girl grows up dreaming of one day becoming a small house, not one. But I know there are many boys who grow up dreaming of one day having a small house.” So when one would seek to interrogate what happened to that girl, who never dreamed of becoming a small house? How did she get here? What are the circumstances and situations that led her down this path?

The thing with culture is that it makes us not think about our behaviour or attitudes, it makes us not examine our beliefs, we take them for granted, we take for granted that what we think, assume of life and our perceptions of reality is accurate, altruistic and infallible.

“Culture is a lens we use to understand other people we interact with, and this often leads to us judging, imposing, discriminating and labeling,” noted Wessener.

I submit that the girl who never to be a small house, an appendage like the rose on a man’s laurel – grew up and found that she couldn’t clothe her own back, couldn’t fill her stomach, couldn’t afford a roof on her head and had no prospects whatsoever.

So she decided to pawn herself off to any man who so much as asked, married or not – where did society fail her or did she fail herself?

Did all these small houses and prostitutes fail themselves?

I think not.

I think women who are empowered make choices that are not harmful to them or that impinge on their sense of dignity.

I identify lack, as the key reason why small houses exist, why prostituting oneself becomes an option for most women. Something other than payment of lip service needs to be done to empower women, to elevate their status and to work towards addressing the gender imbalances inherent in our culture.

Whatever else society may label these women – the truth is that we as a society are all diminished by their continued humiliation or coercion along sexual lines.

As we continue to push them to the margins, we increase their vulnerability, we increase their desperation and ultimately we push them to the limits and possible over the edge.

The blinding glare of their fake halos

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Friday, March 26th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

I live in a country that legislates morality; a country where the oppression of certain quarters of the society is institutionalized and where the law is used to police the personal choices of its citizenry, used as justification to intrusively enforce morality in the private lives of people.

I live in a country that daily wakes up to read of the most horrendous acts of inhumanity, shaking their heads as they sip their morning coffee and quickly moving away from the unpalatable story of the man who has raped his 3 month old baby to the cartoon section – thinking ‘what has this world come to?’

I live in a country that condones corruption, daily turning a blind eye to the cash exchanging hands between the commuter omnibus and the strategically placed traffic cop who will shrug off the guilt (if any) by reminding him or herself that survival supersedes any other moral code – he has kids to feed.

I live in a country where men and women make personal choices that impact on the lives of defenseless children, pursuing the thrill of illicit affairs, peeling skins off one another with scalding water, shedding blood with knife stabs and as domestic violence escalates, society looks the other way or offers ineffectual sermons on the need to ‘seek counseling from elders, church, relatives or professionals’.

I live in a country where the bulk of the citizenry have the biblical log stubbornly lodged in their eyes and still claim a right to criticize the ‘speck’ in the eyes of the few who are seen as making ‘unnatural’ choices because (to their way of thinking) they have a right to dictate what grown up adult men choose to do behind closed doors.

Gay people in Zimbabwe (and yes they are there) have been victims of the worst social injustice in recent times – likened to animals, their human dignity has been torn to shreds by the vicious machinery of bigoted public opinion.

I am a sucker for social justice and to me, social justice rests firmly on the belief that every human being has a right to life, a right to hold autonomy over their body and a right to dignity (if you can’t respect their choices at least acknowledge that they have a right to their dignity).

So I ask myself, where is this social outrage, anger and vicious dissention when we need it most? Where are these chiefs (would-be enforcers of morality) when rapists prey on the frail grannies who are under their chieftaincy – where is this vehement and boisterous condemnation of such acts?

Why are these enraged defenders of morality silent where it matters most? Do they challenge the man caught in bed with a married woman, do they vilify the married man who’s having an affair with a school child?

Yet it is almost comical (if one can ignore the superciliousness) to hear how our intolerant society is up in arms against the gay community.

Those who still have breath (after denouncing homosexuality by screaming themselves hoarse) often pose the question, ‘what are we going to do about these gays?’

Well, I was thinking – how about we leave them alone?

I’m certain being homosexual is not a contagion so we can all rest assured that there won’t be an ‘outbreak’ of homosexually oriented people. Among the arguments I have heard made against recognizing the rights of gay people is that what they are doing is ‘immoral, unnatural and contrary to God’s plans’.

It is the latter that leaves me in stitches, because this tendency to brandish the bible like some tool of exorcism meant to subdue gay people into sexual conformity is what defeats the whole purpose of the exercise – the bible above all else teaches love, values tolerance and expressly appoints God alone as the judge.

How selective (not to mention hypocritical) of people to use an article of faith like the bible to impose their own beliefs on others and worse still to go on and enact it into legislation.

I think too many people in our society suffer from the fallacious thinking that gay people actually need our permission, consent or approval to exist, to be what they are and to have the sexual preferences that they have.

They don’t.

Gay people have nothing to apologize for; they don’t owe us heterosexuals any explanation and our refusal to recognize their right to privacy and dignity doesn’t change the fact that they have those rights by virtue of having been born human.

So while we can curtail the expression of the rights and liberties of the gay community by criminalizing their sexual orientation, using legislation to bludgeon them into submission and using other social institutions to victimize, terrorize and degrade them – gay people remain human, not animals.

They are gay, so what?

While the idea may repulse many; I think at the end of the day we have no right (moral or otherwise) to dictate the sexual lives of gay people in as much as they have no right to dictate to us heterosexuals.

I live in a country where there are too many loud prejudiced voices, standing piously on the moral high ground, their sanctimonious gospel of intolerance surpassed only by the blinding glare of their fake halos.

What I resent and challenge is the idea that one person or set of people has a right to impose definitions of reality on others.

To paraphrase, Arthur Schopenhauer’s views, they tell us that (homosexuality) is the greatest state of insanity… that (homosexuality) is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

I don’t believe in homosexuality. But I also don’t believe that anyone has a right to take what is an article of faith to their selves and legislate it (or impose it on) to other people.