Speaking the Unspeakable to Advance Human Rights

At the 2019 Women Deliver Conference, Kate Gilmore, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “the silence with which they would enshroud the story of the unspeakable must be broken.”

And all of a sudden, I think of pink flipflops. I think of a young girl who stared at her pink flipflops as she spoke.

The girl was 13 and forced to marry a man in his 30s. She was suffering from malnutrition. I could have wrapped my pinkie around her wrist. Although poor, they had a farm that produced fresh milk, eggs and vegetables. But she was starving because she was not permitted to eat that nutritious food. She ate only the scraps left on her husband’s plate.

We worked with her on self-esteem, ultimately hoping to empower her to sneak bites of food while she was preparing her husband’s meals. I wanted her to get a divorce and an education. But all I could do was teach her to sneak handfuls of barley.  

This memory became personal. I still can’t let my daughter wear pink flipflops. And I don’t want to tell the story. How can I describe this girl’s physical and psychological torture? What words can I apply to child marriage – a practice that Kate has called “marriage not worthy of the name”?

At Women Deliver 2019, Kate Gilmore confessed that she doesn’t want to tell these stories either.

But, she argued, we must. Because if we do not speak the unspeakable, there will be “no end to slavery, no life-saving drugs for people living with HIV, no exposure of sexual violence at the hands of high priests, culture, church and commerce, no land rights for indigenous peoples, no independence from the colonizer, no marriage equality, no universal suffrage, no protection of rights for women in marriage, no protection of rights for children within the family, no Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

I feel a metaphysical camaraderie with Kate because her emotion and conviction reveal that she too has been there. And so, Kate knows how to muster the impossible when encountering the unspeakable. She can conjure smiles for children whose circumstances sicken her. She can focus on the eyes of mutilated women. She can comfort people there and then, and afterwards, almost miraculously, she can put the unspeakable into words.

I was first touched by Kate through a blog post about an encounter with a 14-year-old girl who, married at age 10 to a man aged 60, developed an obstetric fistula that left her incontinent. The girl’s family abandoned her, as did the husband. When Kate met her at a hospital, she longed for human connection, “just as would any of us who has nowhere to belong, no one to belong to, and nowhere to go.”

I felt this particular story in my bones because it brought up memories of mine. No matter how many times I encounter suffering, the tragedy never becomes normal. Rather than becoming desensitized, each encounter feels more and more personal. Each story feels harder to tell.

Kate, though, pulls it together. For years I’ve thought that there must be something she knows, some trick she has, to make it all bearable. I thought she must somehow be able to recover.

And so at the Women Deliver Conference I asked her to share her secret. She told me:

“I hope that each and every one of us who has had any exposure to those stories never recover until such time that those stories diminish in number, diminish in gravity, diminish in their global presence.”

Back at my hotel that evening I cried over her words. I did nothing to deserve my privilege, just as others did nothing to deserve their suffering. And yet our destinies are interwoven. Their stories are a part of mine.

This is my greatest takeaway from Women Deliver, my greatest learning from Kate Gilmore, and perhaps one of the most important lessons of my life. It is our responsibility to carry pain because without it we couldn’t speak the unspeakable.

Take to the Streets & Demand your Rights

“When women work together, it’s a bond unlike any other.”
– Victoria Principal

At times when change is needed in society, the streets become more important than ever. When our minds are full of fear or worry, and when a problem is right there but no one will look directly at it – action needs to be taken. When it seems no one will raise their voice and insecurity becomes part of daily life, we start to understand the importance of the streets as more than just roads.

For people who agree that public problems are political matters, streets can be the best places to express ideas.

Great movements have been made from the streets. They give space to everyone; a person, two more, and a bunch of groups of people. People pay attention to those brave enough to speak, out loud and in public, for what they believe in.

If everyone stayed at home, sick and tired of discrimination, then nothing would ever get better. But when you find people who share your desire for freedom and equal rights, then nothing can stop you.

Our global history has been shaped by those who have taken to the streets to demand their needs and rights.

The world wouldn’t be the same if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t occupied public space. If women hadn’t gone out to march for their right to vote, society wouldn’t be the same today.

Women have long tried to empower themselves by exposing inequality, even when the system seems almost totally against them. Today, women, and some great men (with hopefully many more to come), are fighting the patriarchal systems that oppress women and restrict men.

Women continue to claim the streets as places to raise our voices and express ourselves.

It is on the streets that we can make the violence, persecution and oppression facing women visible. In public spaces we can demand what we deserve: rights and equal recognition of our role in society. Because women matter.

Peaceful protest is part of our right to free expression. It is a right that hasn’t always been enjoyed by all women around the world, and continues to be denied to many.

If you are able to raise your voice – my advice is to do it! Meet with your friends in public places, speak up about street harassment, open up space where women can feel safe to speak. Go ahead and give feminism what it needs – your voice.

We need to remember the importance of public space for activism.

Our streets hold great power and potential for social organization. Women can achieve monumental changes. And we should keep trying to do so, because the fight of some should be the fight of all.

Equal Education is a Right, not a Privilege

I don’t know where you are as you are reading this.

I want you to think about your workplace, wherever that may be. At an office, a school, university, college, at home. You strive to do your best every day, you work hard, you try to have good grades/performance/stats/work ethic. You go to work (or school, university etc) every day.

Now I want you to imagine having to work under the following circumstances and really think whether you would be able to give a successful performance every day. Would you be able to reach your full potential under any, or all, of these scenarios?

  1. You have no access to electricity
  2. You have no toilets, you have to go in the field/parking lot/wherever you can
  3. You have toilets, but they are pit toilets
  4. You have no access to water

Would you be able to give your best under these circumstances? Do any of these four points make you a bit uncomfortable, or maybe even disgusted? Can you imagine having to work under these circumstances? Many people (including myself) are privileged enough not to have to worry these issues in our workplaces.

Now imagine your children having to go to school under these circumstances. Would you accept it? Would you complain? Would you want to change things?

According to Equal Education, of the 5000 schools in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, 245 have no electricity. 53 schools have no toilets at all, 2127 have pit toilets only, and 197 have no access to water. Read those numbers again.

In South Africa, we are quick to insult the percentage of ‘failed learners’ in poorer communities. But how can we expect young people to work at their best if their basic needs are not being fulfilled? I, for one, would not be able to do my best under any of those circumstances.

We are quick to judge. We are less quick to question how we can help or raise awareness. Again, I include myself.

For those of us who are privileged enough to be unable to even imagine these four scenarios being applicable to our own education, we are too comfortable. We live in accidental, and sometimes intentional, oblivion. We turn a blind eye to things when they don’t affect us.

It’s time we start opening our eyes, South Africa. It’s time we see that what affects one South African affects all of us. There are significant inequalities in our education system.

Many of us cannot afford to help financially – I realise that. But we can all speak up and bring the inequalities in our schools to the attention of those who CAN help financially. We can all make a difference – you can start by sharing the campaigns and publications of movements such as Equal Education.

Let’s start standing up for those who are not seen. Let’s start using our platforms, however small, to bring those who need a platform up there with us. Let us make space for them to speak up, let us help them to be noticed.

Let us no longer be silent on issues that don’t necessarily touch us directly.

Let us use our voices and really live out the Ubuntu philosophy – ‘I am because you are’. We need each other, every South African of every race, culture, religion, gender and beliefs.

If we speak up, I believe we will see change.

We are quick to say that things are unacceptable, that things need to change. Let’s be just as quick to help where we can, to build others up, so we can stand together.

South Africa, together we can make sure that education is equal. 

Zimbabwe is Violating Human Rights

“We are fine. We are safe”.

My brother’s words over the phone, following a government-sanctioned internet shutdown in my home country, sounded like music to my ears.

On Tuesday 15 January, Zimbabwe experienced a complete internet black-out ordered by the government. Millions of Zimbabwean citizens lost contact with the outside world, some relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to share information regarding the situation inside the country.

I was one of many Zimbabweans living outside the country feeling confused and panicked, no longer able to get in touch with family, friends and loved ones. I rushed to Twitter to stay updated on what was occurring back home.

My Twitter feed painted a very sombre picture. On Saturday night – prior to the blackout – Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa held a press conference to announce a 150% increase in the price of fuel. Many Zimbabweans were angered and upset.

Much of the population has been struggling with socio-economic hardships from severe cash shortages, fuel shortages, high unemployment rates and dilapidated infrastructures.

A national strike was called for by several trade unions and activists, such as Pastor Evan Mawarire. Unfortunately, the protest strike on Monday was marred by violence against protestors by police and military forces.

It is believed that incidences of looting and vandalism by protestors led to a crackdown by the forces. This resulted in what is estimated to be 12 deaths, and 100 (possibly more) cases of assault on civilians.

Hundreds were arrested following these events. In addition, there has been reports of home invasions and abductions in Harare. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, an NGO, says they attended to more than 172 patients in the aftermath of last Tuesday afternoon. They also confirmed human rights violations had been committed. At least 844 human rights violations have been recorded by The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.

Businesses, schools and industries have been affected by the internet block, causing a further strain on what was already fragile. However, the biggest impact of the internet shutdown has been the hinderance of the nation’s access to information and ability to express themselves – a direct infringement of their human rights. The United Nations states that internet access is a basic human right that enables individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Internet service and social media access has remained unreliable since then. On Wednesday, I was finally able to talk to my family and close friends to check on their wellbeing. My heart was relieved that all of them were safe, but remaining at home as a precaution.

The pain is not over. Many families have lost children, breadwinners, parents during this period of violence and chaos. Many young people continue to exist with no clear direction of what lies ahead, feeling robbed of a future, uncertain of whether they will be able to work, go to school or make ends meet in 2019.

Mental health and physical health is declining for many as their lives are filled with depression, anxiety and poor access to treatment. Others fear for their safety, no longer feeling safe in their country and living in exile – such as Thandekile Moyo who fled after being vocal against the government.

Most tragic of all is that lives have been taken, like that of Kelvin Tinashe Choto, whose murdered body was pictured lying on a police station reception counter.

It is deeply important to me to share what has been happening in my home country of Zimbabwe. We need the international community to be aware of the human rights violations and unjust incidences taking place.

Our voices need to be heard in this time as we cry for help. 

Note: the author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous, as there are mounting concerns over the safety of those speaking out on the current situation within Zimbabwe.