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What could I have done?

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In Zimbabwe I recently traveled in the back of pick-up truck with several other people.  At one point the truck stopped to pick up a man along the route to town.  In his attempt to get onto the truck, he held onto a woman who was seated next to me. She protested; she did not fancy any man besides her husband holding her shoulder.

There was an angry retort from the man, who felt that the situation called for a suspension of what he termed ‘stupid and immature’ moral stands. There was a chorus of condemnation of the woman; with some saying it was the likes of her who pretended to be saintly in public, but were in reality, ‘snakes’. As much as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to rape a woman.

I was not happy with the way the helpless woman’s rights were being violated and I said as much.  It was well within the woman’s rights to choose who held her shoulder and who did not; the circumstances did not matter. She did not want her shoulder held by another man, end of story.

Why should anyone ever say, what could I have done? The doctor asked me to strip me naked, what could I have done? You could have said you are not comfortable and you will not do it. I have heard people say it is backward for a woman to demand that a female nurse examine her. Well, it is within her rights to demand that a male nurse not touch her and that a male doctor not ask her to undress. It is well within her rights to be ‘backward’.

Malaysia recently introduced women only train coaches.  Those women who are not comfortable with harassment from men can travel in peace. Those who are okay with their bottoms being slapped and obscenities shouted at them are free to travel on the regular coaches. That is what I call upholding human rights!

Why should we see abuse of human rights only in the political sense; the burning of buttocks, burning of homes and so on. If someone is made uncomfortable in any way then a human right has been violated, it does not matter how many believe otherwise. Human rights, especially women’s rights, have been trampled upon so much that rape is now considered a small infringement that should be ignored. Young girls cannot move in peace as ‘suitors’ lay ambushes for them. I know of a number of young girls who refuse to be sent to the shops. They would rather face the wrath of their parents than face the vagabonds on the way.

As long as we do not see the violation of human rights as making someone or group of people uncomfortable regardless of their numbers or how trivial we think their case is, then we are a long way off.  No one should ever say, ‘what could have done?’

‘The teacher asked me to come to the storeroom and fondled my breasts, what could I have done?’

‘The doctor inserted his fingers into my vagina, even though I did not understand that my vagina had anything to do with my headache. What could I have done?’

‘The taxi driver asked us to pile into the taxi, women on top of men, what could I have done? The situation demanded it.’

‘The police officers whipped us, despite the fact that it is taboo for a man to lay hands on a woman without her consent. What could I done, he is a police officer.’

‘The human resources manager asked me to hold the desk. What could I have done, I wanted the job desperately?’

No one should ever say, what could I have done? Because there is always a choice, always a decent and dignified way out.  I remember a case when I was growing up of a man who used his wife to pay off his gambling debt. He instructed the guy he owed money to, to go to his place and ‘have’ his wife. The wife ‘consented’. After years of abuse, she could not think of going against her husband’s wishes, but she could have. In narrating her ordeal, the refrain was, ‘What could I have done?’  She could have said no, because she was not comfortable with the whole nonsensical setup. But she did not take the dignified way out.

In our fight for human rights, we should make sure that no one ever says, ‘What could I have done?’ What could I have done is not the dignified way out.

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