“Not just another sob storyÀ

Date: November 25, 2010
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What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
– Muriel Rukeyser, 1968

The world is beginning to split open. As you read this, women across southern Africa are telling the truth about their lives to a global audience. Stories are coming in from Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These stories have the potential to destabilise the patriarchal ground upon which we stand. Rukeyser’s quote reminds us that personal moments of truth-telling are profoundly political.

Every year, Gender Links sends out a call for people to submit the truth about their experiences of gender-based violence (GBV). The responses to this call are aptly named “I” Stories. The collection and distribution of “I” Stories is part of the 16 Days Campaign to raise awareness about GBV. It fulfils Gender Links’ commitment to provide spaces for women affected by GBV to speak out at a regional scale. This year, 58 men are joining 71 women in telling their truths about violence in southern Africa.

One of these brave women is Bridget*, from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. She says that the ‘I’ Story format gave her an opportunity to share her story without sharing herself. The anonymity gave her a space in which to write freely and, she says, “I always thought it would help me somehow that I’m not keeping the secret.” For Bridget, this was a different way of writing – a “not feeling sorry for myself form, looking at myself objectively” – that allowed her to analyse what her experience meant. In writing her truth, she consciously did not want to tell “just another sob story”. Bridget chose to be creative in the telling of her truth, so that readers who may otherwise be suffering from “gender fatigue” would lend her their eyes and ears.

Bridget draws readers into her harrowing truth about an experience of intimate violence: a sexual relationship with her father. Bridget’s story is one of many that demonstrate the complexity of gender violence. She says, “Not once have I felt that my father was raping me, but I knew what was happening was wrong and I wished it to stop, but I chose to endure it because I wanted a father in my life.” This forces the reader to pause and think about the blurred boundaries between what it means to rape and be raped.

News items on GBV traditionally draw on generalised facts and numbers to tell a story like Bridget’s. This approach may highlight the extent of violence in the region, but it does not adequately demonstrate its depth and nuances. “I” Stories are important contributors to awareness of GBV because the personal is much more complicated, and therefore more revelatory, than the overtly political. Bridget provides an analysis of GBV in a way that statistics are unable to do.

Susan Smuts, editor of the Sunday Times concurs that “The “I” Stories are a powerful way to communicate the impact of gender-based violence because they are so personal and specific. We recognise and empathise with the person telling the story. We relate to her (and sometimes him) as someone we may know. The “I” Stories take gender-based violence from the realm of grim and numbing statistics and make us realise the high human cost that it entails.” As such, one of the roles that the media could play in the 16 Days of Activism would be to ensure that stories like Bridget’s are adequately heard.

Although Bridget’s story is by a woman and about a woman, it reveals the integral role that men play in halving gender violence by 2015 (the deadline set by the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development). Bridget conceded to a sexual relationship with her father because she was “starved for some fatherly affection”. Should she have had a supportive father figure during her child- and adulthood, there might be one less person who has experienced GBV in the region. This indicates the importance of responsible and supportive men in women’s lives.

Bridget says, “The most powerful message I’ve ever heard on this gender violence issue was that real men don’t rape…that has always resonated with me. I think if men could espouse that and accept that and other men who are in a position to be able to spread that message – I think that’s pretty powerful. If more men could embrace and live by that philosophy, that a real man doesn’t abuse, doesn’t rape, then they would be doing something.”

By finding their voices, “I” Stories participants speak out about issues that are often left unspoken. In a socio-political climate where women’s voices tend to be unheard or spoken over, “I” Stories give women across the SADC region a space to speak for and about themselves. Yet, their personal stories also have implications beyond the sphere of the self. Each of these stories has the potential to affect other people and to encourage other men and women to speak out.

Bridget’s empowerment through writing her truth is a testament to this possibility. In her “I” Story, she reveals that “My sister’s story saved me.” Paying attention to another woman’s truth caused Bridget to confront her father and find the strength to say “no”. Bridget says, “I found this entire experience very empowering, while writing it I felt strong and while the fear is still there…I’m grateful.” Ideally, Bridget’s courage to tell her truth could have a ripple effect to encourage others to speak out.

I urge you to listen to this year’s “I” Stories. They will split open your world.

*Not her real name.

Mona Hakimi is the communications programme assistant at Gender Links. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za


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