Survivors of gender violence lead the march

Date: January 1, 1970
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When residents of Johannesburg march through Hillbrow to Constitution Hill on the first day of the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence this Saturday, women who have decided to break the silence will be at the front of the march.

Over the last month, the women have been documenting their stories in a second edition of the “I” Stories to be launched at the event. Under the banner of the One- in-Nine campaign (so called because research shows that only one in nine rape cases are reported) activists will also present “Sixteen Demands for the Sixteen Days in its Sixteenth Year” to top local, provincial and national representatives who will gather for a rally at Constitution Hill after the march.  
The Sixteen Days of Activism, started by women’s organisations in Latin America in 1990, runs from 25 November, International Day of No Violence Against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day.  Several organisations in Southern Africa have chosen to mark the first day of the campaign with a “Take Back the Night March”, part of a global campaign in which women reclaim spaces that have become no go areas for them. 
For the women at the front of the march, it will be a moment not just to demand the right to safety at all times of the day, but also to reclaim lives that have suffered such torture that it is difficult to imagine that any one of these women could be your neighbour, your work mate, the friend or even the relative you never really knew because they suffered behind closed doors.
A foreword to the series warns that the testimonies “are not for your comfort. Told with the rawness and pain with which they have been experienced, they will shock and upset you… But they will also give you hope. Hope that women in our region are speaking out. Hope that many years too late politicians have recognised that women’s rights are human rights. Hope that our best bet in getting action taken is by breaking the silence.”
Reflecting the fact that gender violence knows no bounds, the twenty women in the series span every occupation, from the unemployed, to a domestic worker, to professional women. They range in age from a teenager to a grandmother.
One story, written by a woman journalist, agonises over the schizophrenia of writing about and advising other women what to do, while she suffered abuse in her own home that took her years to finally come to terms with and free herself from.  
Typically, the stories begin with a fairy tale romance that goes horribly wrong. Love and loathing are like the flipside of the same coin. For a multitude of reasons women find it hard to break free.  Often there are children involved. Sometimes women do not have choices.  For example, a domestic worker who finds herself a sex slave in the backyard of a posh embassy has little recourse.
Three particularly riveting stories tell of the brutality and misogyny experienced by lesbians in the only country in the world in which sexual orientation is protected by the Constitution and the only country in Africa to have legalized same sex unions. All three women have been raped by men to “teach them a lesson.” One of the women, Marco Ndlovu, got severely beaten at the instigation of her mother.  
Formal systems are of little help. “What justice!”  Mamokhothu Santho exclaims.  She has spent over a decade trying to get custody of her children from a man who gave her hell but is deemed by the courts to be more worthy a parent than her.
Proudia Mosupi, 22, describes the agony of trying to get the police to act after she experienced date rape: “The police are still investigating the case. They keep telling me that they cannot find the man. I cannot understand how this is so, since his whereabouts are well known. I know, from the comments they make, that they do not take my case seriously.”
Out of the twenty stories, a staggering six women contracted HIV as a result of sexual abuse. But these are not just stories of despair. Among the most poignant of the “I Stories” is the three part series sub-titled “Three Generations of Courage.”  In this, Rose Tamae tells how she contracted HIV as a result of a gang rape (the third time she had been raped); but has since built a vibrant support network in Orange Farm that staged a vigil every day a woman died from AIDS related causes last August (Women’s Month in South Africa) to get the department of health to provide an ARV centre. The death rate has gone down from thirty to two a month.
Tamae’s daughter Mpho would have loved to be a hairdresser. Instead, her mothers experience persuaded her to become a community health worker. Her nine year old daughter Kgomotso and her friends fundraise for orphans by going to town and dancing in parks, on street corners and at events.  
Is change possible? The series carries a story by a Zimbabwean man who confronted the violence within and is now a local leader of Padare, a men’s group that helps abusive men to change. The foreword to the “I Stories” concludes: “It is said that five in six men are not abusers. We need these men at the front of the march. And we need those who are abusers to be helped to see the light.”
(Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of a special series prepared by the GL Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism).

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