by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, One Billion Rising for Justice Global Coordinator for Southern Africa
I journeyed to Johannesburg South Africa, with Cecile Lipworth, Managing Director of V-Day and Joliz Cedeno the Campaigns Manager. We were headed to South Africa to meet with activists, media, dancers, philanthropists and other parties who were interested in the One Billion Rising for Justice Campaign, a campaign for justice for the victims of rape and violence that would culminate in huge gatherings of people demonstrating and dancing in various places on February 14, 2014. We wanted to get a sense of what activists in South Africa saw as the key justice issues around which they wanted to build the campaign.
Our first meeting in Johannesburg was with Andy Kawa, who shared her story of being gang raped two years ago and how she had not received justice through the court system. This injustice had spurred Andy into creating an organization aptly named Kwanele-Enuf to fight violence against women in it various forms. Andy’s passion and resolve to fight for justice for herself and for other women who had been let down by the justice system was unforgettable.
A few days later, we convened a meeting to brainstorm with activists in Johannesburg to clarify and prioritize their justice issues and to share stories and experiences. What became very clear in the meeting that day and in meetings that followed, is that the urgency to end violence against women was an urgency we all felt. It was uplifting to realize that everyone who wanted to be involved in the OBR for Justice Campaign was propelled by the desire to finally end this scourge that was fast becoming normalized and that would eventually be the end of us all. The activists articulated that they wanted to address the root causes of violence against women within the context ofintersectionality of issues that impacted it: education, poverty, economic disparities, racism, apartheid legacy, environmental degradation and many more. Meeting with various activists and listening to them identify what part they could play in the campaign was exciting and encouraging. Every meeting yielded another angle or perspective from which Justice could be tackled. From looking at the number of cases reported, to how investigations were carried out and cases prosecuted all the way to how sentencing took place, activists wanted to address all these factors that impacted justice in VAW cases. The media were interested in being engaged, even as they were challenged to look at how they were at times responsible for driving perspectives and the objectification of women and girls that often led to VAW. The energy and the great chemistry amongst activists as they laid out a tentative plan of action for their Rising activities was truly inspiring.
The Cape Town visit was just one big miracle. Zubeida Sheik and all the other activists we met are committed to the pursuit of health and wholeness for their communities. There is a great sense of purpose and cooperation among the activists that left me convinced that we all recognized the urgency of the call to end VAW. The networks that Zubeida has built over years and the beautiful young men and women she mentors through her Youth Ambassador program really filled me with hope that ending violence against women will become a reality. The fact that these young men recognized the critical and essential role men played in ending VAW was cause for a standing ovation. I was moved by their earnestness and their ability to articulate some of the reasons why many men were violent. It was enlightening to hear about the violence that men and boys experienced at the hands of other men and how this affected VAW.
These young men aspired to be role models for other young men who did not have positive male leaders in their lives. I was ecstatic when one 18 year old young man talked about doing away with harmful sexual practices, many of which were directed at women as a way to make them marriageable. We discussed that men were key to ending many of these harmful cultural practices. Using Female Genital Mutilation as an example, we imagined what might happen if men such as themselves educated other men about the physical, emotional and psychological harm caused by FGM. We envisioned what would happen to the practice of FGM if these men, decided en masse that from there on in they would no longer want a woman to be cut as a prerequisite for marriage. We saw how FGM and other harmful practices carried out on women could be eradicated if men became actively involved in outlawing them.
I left Cape Town feeling hopeful that there would be a drastic reduction in VAW if not total eradication in my lifetime. I found myself feeling confident in the probability of a future in which my daughters and all women of their age would be free to be fully themselves, without fear of violence perpetrated by men. I dared to imagine a future in which collective responsibility for our environment, and natural resources and equitable distribution of these resources were the norm rather than the exception. My fierce sister Zubeida, with her dogged determination and her love for community and progress left me in no doubt that Cape Town and its surrounding rural areas would rise and rise huge.
Back in Johannesburg, Joliz and I visited the oldest township in Johannesburg, Alexandra. One of the V-Girls, Mantala, gave us a deluxe tour through crowded potholed streets lined by women selling chicken intestines and gizzards while men sold matches, candles, cigarettes and gum. Alex, as it is called locally, was throbbing with energy and if one listened carefully, beneath the cacophony of sounds, the chaos of life, and the jarring contradictions of the place, one could hear the rhythmic, human heartbeat in this sprawling conglomeration of shacks, matchbox houses and mansions.
Mantala took us through a street where there is a mural with the history of Alexandra. She explained that the mural was painted last year in time for Alexandra’s 100 year anniversary, by an artist and philanthropist in the community.
As she talked animatedly, she paused every so often to greet a friend or to respond to a greeting. As we walk hand in hand, Mantala blurts out “Alex will rise”. Indeed, Alex will rise for justice along with the rest of South Africa.
Our last days in South Africa were full of more surprises and fortuitous encounters with women and men who generously offered their time and expertise on the numerous aspects that are needed in order to mobilize for rising to take place on the 14 of February next year. Our Zimbabwe coordinator, Nyasha Sengayi introduced me to young women from Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi who were all interested in taking the OBR for Justice Campaign to their respective countries. This hunger in women to see an end to rape, violence and oppression saturated every space in which we discussed the OBR campaign for justice.
South Africa is ripe for the One Billion Rising campaign, and the call to action for Justice resonates with everyone we met. There is a sense also that the time has come to make a huge, audacious, effort to end VAW, and from what I experienced, it seems as though all our efforts in South Africa are affirmed and in harmony with everything that is happening globally in this most amazing and absolutely critical call to action: One Billion Rising for Justice, 2014. The global solidarity is real and palpable. My heart tells me that transformation in the hearts and minds of people has already begun and that after the Risings on V-Day’s 16th anniversary, transformation will continue, propelling all of us to view the earth and our place in it differently, and for the good of us all.