/ 15 September 2017

Three countries. Three heartbreaks. One week

An MP has threatened that veteran politician
An MP has threatened that veteran politician

More than once, I have had this feeling that I live on a continent that harbours a deep hatred for those of my gender. And if I was lulled for a minute to think otherwise, three incidences last week in three countries I consider home in one way or another reinforced this view.

In Kenya, I was reminded that it does not matter how high up you are, there will always be a man who will decide to put you in your place with threats of violence. Charity Ngilu, veteran politician, former presidential candidate, former Cabinet secretary and one of the first three women to be elected to the office of governor in last month’s elections, is at the receiving end of threats.

A first-term MP for the governing Jubilee Party in the county she now governs, Nimrod Mbai, the MP for Kitui East, threatened: “Charity Ngilu should be raped in her office if she doesn’t drop her hard political stance against Uhuru Kenyatta.”

Anywhere else, this would be considered the sort of offence that would force someone to resign and be prosecuted. Not so in today’s Kenya. The statutory body tasked with the prosecution of hate speech, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, has, at the time of writing, neither pushed for his prosecution nor uttered a word of criticism. For the next five years then, this despicable man is one of the people who will be responsible for voting on Bills that are supposed to protect and safeguard all people in the Kenya.

Back in my father’s land, a mother stabs three men, one of them fatally, for raping her 27-year-old daughter. She gets arrested and is given bail of R500. The fact that this poor woman has had to resort to violence to counter the violence being meted against her daughter is heartbreaking. More so, as reports suggest, these three men are repeat offenders but have previously got away with a “talking to”.

My fear is that, given the way this continent, including the judiciary, seems to harbour such a deep hatred for women, the mother is more likely to get a prison term than the young men who committed the crime of rape. I hope that will not happen but, either way, both the mother and the daughter will need some serious counselling.

And, as South Africans continue to ask hard questions, we seriously have to go beyond questions and find some concrete solutions.

From my mother’s country, Zimbabwe, there is a recording of children as young as nine who are victims of sexual abuse.

The media disturbingly calls them “child prostitutes”. Paid 25c for a single round of sexual abuse and two dollars at most for the whole night, the children recount harrowing tales in voices devoid of emotion.

Nine-year-old Lady B speaks of drinking cough mixture so that she can be drunk enough to have courage. She talks of drinking alcoholic beverages in bars where some of these men meet her and other young girls. Some of the children, who are orphaned and heading households, talk also of looking after their pimps or “permanent boyfriends” — abusers to whom they give all the money in exchange for some form of protection.

Among the abusers are allegedly some councillors of the governing party. When two employees of a nongovernmental organisation who help and counsel some of these young women, the Katswe Sisterhood, said on social media that they would be naming and shaming some of these politicians, they were taken in for “questioning” and then released after several hours. Zimbabwe’s police seem to prefer protecting politicians instead of their most vulnerable members of society.

At nine, growing up in a different Zimbabwe, I used to think the word “bum” was a bad word. I had no idea what sex was. And I cannot even imagine the number of neighbours who would have censured me before reporting me to my parents if I so much as passed near a bar. And yet, in the current Zimbabwe, there are bar owners serving minors, and adults turning a blind eye when they see grown men enter the neighbouring home with a child.

After Zimbabweans made a lot of noise on social media about the recording, the MP went and “rescued” some of the children and placed them in shelters. But the Zimbabwean ministry of social service lacks resources to ensure that these children will be rehabilitated sufficiently not to be thrown back into the system. At most, they will be kept away for six months, considered rehabilitated and end up back in the same places where they were abused.

Meanwhile, this same Zimbabwe has enough funds to ensure the children of the First Family stay in expensive accommodation and partying in places in Johannesburg that even middle-class South Africans can only dream of.

These are just three incidences that the media in these three countries reported on in the past week but we know there are many more. To be a woman in Kenya, South Africa or Zimbabwe means to be in perpetual fear of some form of abuse at the hands of men. There is outrage for a short while until we are lulled into a false sense of safety. Then we will be reminded again when we, someone we know or the media report about some other form of violence against women.

To make it into the media, though, it will need to be worse than what has already been reported before. And we will be outraged briefly before we forget again. And so the cycle continues.

For Kenya, where elections have just ended, it may be too little too late to hold anyone accountable for gender policies. Politicians, as many of us know, only seem to work for us when they want our votes.

But with Zimbabwean elections coming in 2018 and South African elections the year after, perhaps those of us who are citizens of these two countries should ensure that policies and actions on gender-based violence by individuals and parties are a key issue in getting into or being returned to power.

Women do, after all, make up more than half the electorate in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is time we and those who claim to love us exercise some power and demand action on what is hurting us and our societies the most.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African writer who lives in Kenya