Outside the conference halls, women are waiting

Outside the conference halls, women are waiting

Date: January 1, 1970
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Thousands of women gathered earlier this month in the Ethiopian capital for the African Review in preparing for Bejing+10. Women from all countries, of all ages, ethnicities and class groups thronged meeting halls after meeting halls to reflect on?well, their day to day lives

Thousands of women gathered earlier this month in the Ethiopian capital for the African Review in preparing for Bejing+10. Women from all countries, of all ages, ethnicities and class groups thronged meeting halls after meeting halls to reflect on…well, their day to day lives.

Women from poorer communities also get to attend these meetings – often their first travel away from the problems they confront daily back at home. Listening to the thoughts of the woman below, should remind us that beyond the meeting rooms for the Beijing’s +5, +10, +20 and so forth, women are watching and waiting to see if these gatherings really change the realities most women call home…

I am happy to be here but I can’t stop thinking about poverty. The toilet here in the hotel is heaven; but I can’t use it without remembering the stinking hole at home we call our latrine. It is a hole that eats at our pride until all the pride is worn away.

I am grateful for this exposure. I look at the conference room and am mesmerised. Then I reflect on the shack I call my house and despair. Can one sit in this luxury and remember us? You should see the children’s bed; it is made of old sacks and all the rags I could find. You should see the insects and other crawling creatures that we fight every night. I see them trying to enter the children’s nose, eyes and mouths when they are sleeping. It breaks my heart. This is the reality that I bring to this conference. If the fifth African women’s conference can help, why not for the sisters?

I have been bleeding since I had my last baby who is now two years old. Bleeding without any sanitary towels. One is forced to use the old blankets! Here in the hotel, there is so much toilet paper. I wish I could take some to use during my periods. I went to the local clinic, but was referred to the big city in Harare. I have no bus fare. Even if I had, who would take care of me in Harare? How would I afford the medical fee? How would I afford the medicine? Who would look after the children?

I also fear leaving my daughter alone, I don’t know if you have heard about virginity testing for young women. In my absence she will be grabbed and tested. Yes, I appreciate this rest. However, I wish that you had given me money; I would have gone to see a doctor. I would have bought sanitary towels.

I have been treated well by all of you despite with my cracked hands. If I appear withdrawn, it is because I am ashamed that I have no lotion. I am ashamed of my rotten teeth. I fear that you will see the stitches on my underwear, the underwear I have washed for years without soap. There are many towels in this hotel. Wish I could be given some to make under wear for my daughters and me.

Water is not a problem here, but at home water is a luxury. We walk 10 kilometers to fetch water. It is always dirty water as we share it with animals. In our village children die all the time. We sit and watch gnats and flies devour them as they cry. Our children are forever with running noses. We want rain, wait for it, but we dread it too. It is difficult to get wood fire during the rainy season. Cooking becomes difficult. Don’t misunderstand me, we like rain, but it comes with its own hardships.

We have a welfare office at the district headquarters. You hesitate before going there. The gatekeeper has no regard for the poor though he is poor himself. The young men who work there dehumanise you. You are treated like dirt. You are made to tell the story to different people again and again. You are asked to fill one form after another. After filling one form you are told it was not the right form after all. Every time you are told to wait as if hunger can wait, as if death can wait. Do the people who work in the offices know about the Beijing Platform for Action, which you have been talking about? Why don’t you invite them to these meetings? Maybe they would treat us right.

Our families are becoming more and more fragmented, with young people leaving for the city. Many of these children end up living in the streets, living a hand to mouth existence, with their health and well being in grave danger. It is false to imagine that children in the streets have been abandoned or that we have given up on them. The children are worried about us, but feel too ashamed to return home. As mothers we have hope and ideas for bringing our children home. We are only limited by lack of resources.

When you live the way we do, you are left with no pride, no dignity. Poverty is a chisel that chips on dignity, on pride, on self-esteem, on anything that defines a human being. Poverty has killed our dreams. It has robbed us of our youth. Some of you have been calling me grandmother, but I am only 30 years old, younger than most of you. Poverty makes one age.

But we still dream. We dream of the day when the 1985 Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies will be realised in our lives, when the Beijing Platform of Action will be a lived reality. We dream of sending our children to decent schools, of having access to medicine, adequate soap, lotions, decent accommodation and decent bedding. We dream of the day when we shall have money, not too much, but enough to ensure we survive without begging. We dream of a time when we shall have rights; we dream of a time when we shall visit offices without having to talk about our poverty again and again.

So if you want to know, I actually do not support some of these meetings. We need to think practically and to remember that meetings do not make much of a difference to some of us. The money used to fly me here for instance – I have just been calculating the total costs and this could easily have dug a borehole for my village. The question is who really gets value out of these international gatherings? Are they worth the effort, the trouble you go through and the money that they cost?

My reality is the reality of most of my village mates. We don’t come from another planet, another place, and another time. There are many like me all around you. I am not sharing my story so that you sympathise. It is meant to fan the fire under your belly. You and us tend to operate in separate cocoons. Gender equality and women’s rights rhetoric hardly spreads beyond the conference rooms. I must stop here, after thanking you again for making me a part of the community of this wonderful world and this wonderful hotel. I appreciate this opportunity tremendously.

Hope Chigudu is an independent consultant and feminist activist.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information.


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