Why I fight for all spaces to be safe for women

Why I fight for all spaces to be safe for women

Date: June 12, 2017
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By Colleen Lowe Morna

Gaborone, 12 June: Something happened to me last week that reminded me of why I do the exhausting and often thankless work that I do. It was a simple but not so simple matter that strengthened my resolve to “take back the night” and never apologise for doing so to those who would curtail our freedom of movement as women.

I was in Botswana to work with the Ministry of Sport, Commonwealth Secretariat, and International Working Group (IWG) on Women in Sport on a gender strategy ahead of the seventh global IWG conference be held in in Gaborone in May 2018. We had been talking about the importance of recreational sport for women as a training ground for professional sport, from which women are glaringly absent. We also talked about the immense health benefits of recreational sport.

We debated the extent to which gender violence is a barrier to women in sport in Botswana, with several sports women giving testimonial evidence of sexual harassment. We talked about the recent incident at the taxi rank in Gaborone in which a young woman was stripped because she wore a mini skirt. This has given rise to the #MyClothesMyChoice movement in Botswana: a statement of defiance by women tired of being told what they can and can’t do in a modern but deeply patriarchal society.

Exercise is part of my DNA. I exercise daily, and I prefer to do so in the open air. Last Monday I went out for an early evening walk, and found myself ducking when a group of teenage boys on an open highway started throwing stones at me and shouting “bitch.” Misogyny,  I thought, even in this ever so peaceful, ever so democratic Southern African country. A reminder that patriarchy knows no boundaries, respects no decency.

Undeterred,  last Wednesday I took a walk along Nelson Mandela Drive (the main thoroughfare to the airport), to a garage store, a bit after six pm, in my takkies, a track suit and a waist belt. I walked past two young men on the pavement. Next thing they had turned back and pounced on me, dragging me towards the thick bush on the side of the road.  Instinctively I fought back dragging them towards the light and the road, the simmering anger of years of work on gender violence giving me a physical strength I never knew I had.  A peoples combi came by and shone the light on them. Young men in the taxi got out and ran after the youth who disappeared into the bush. I remembered the two hashtags trending in South Africa – #AllMenAreTrash and #NotInMyName. In that moment, both hashtags rang so true.

I stumbled home (I was staying at the home of the former attorney general, before that a high court judge) blood pouring down my face, torn between being grateful to be alive, and rage at such violation. Why is it that when something like this happens our first instinct is to count our blessings that we are still alive rather than express outrage at the curtailment of our freedom?

My husband said it was a reminder never to take risks, however small. I said short of going to jail, there is no such thing as a risk free existence, and I am not willing to go to jail. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela went to jail for 27 years so that all of us, women and men can be free to enjoy an evening walk. Botswana’s founding father Sir Seretse Khama (watch the film United Kingdom if you have not) sacrificed years of his life for a modern democratic state in which all could be free regardless of race, creed or gender.

We do these towering figures a disservice when we limit our freedom so that criminals and misogynists can rule the highways named after them. There will continue to be no women in paid sport in Botswana (compared to 470 men in paid sport) when women are not free to walk at night, or to try new sports, or to push their limits. Men are encouraged to take risks, a key ingredient of success in business, politics, sports, and scientific endeavour. Remember the saying: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Women cannot venture, and therefore they cannot gain. To cave in on that principle is to condemn oneself into an invisible jail, the kind that eventually suffocates you to death.

On hearing what had happened to me, one of the young women at the IWG Secretariat wrote me an E Mail apologising for the behaviour of her country men. I told her that was not her cross to carry. Rather, it was a reminder of why we had to persist with our Gender and Sports Strategy and join every movement – #TakeBackTheNight, #MyClothesMyChoice and a new one #IwillWalkWhereandWhenIwant.  We can only score a goal for gender equality when all spaces are equally safe for women and men.  We must rise above, “you are a woman, you may not” to “you are a woman, yes you can”. Only then will democracy in all its fullness have been delivered.

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. She writes in her personal capacity.This article is part of the Gender Links News and Blogs service.)

2 thoughts on “Why I fight for all spaces to be safe for women”

Loveness says:

We must soldier on… hence the need to link the work on ending GBV to Women, Peace and Security even though many countries may not be in armed conflict.

Magdeline Madibela says:

Yes we must claim our space because patriarchy will never deliver it to us ! Well done for shouting out loud to condemn violence against women! We demand safe spaces for women to walk and run where they want! #allmenaretrash #notinmyname

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