My Voice is my Purpose, What’s Yours? – #YoungWomenSay

This blog post was originally published by The Torchlight Collective and Say It Forward as part of the #YoungWomenSay campaign.

I believe in introspection, where one digs deep in their heart to search for who they really are and what their purpose is. This introspection isn’t just for personal gain, but to meaningfully improve the lives of those around them. This process led me to realize that girls and young women often suffer in silence. This has motivated me to speak louder and begin my journey of elevating the voices of the voiceless.

I am eager to affect change that will make my community a better place for girls and women.

Menstruation is a natural phenomenon to girls and women; it has no shame. Yet, even today, girls and young women in my community are still using cow dung, leaves, and unhygienic pieces of cloth during their menstruation. Every month, girls miss school because they feel shy to walk the 15 kilometers to school with cow dung or leaves stuck between their legs.

The situation is only worsened during the day because some schools don’t have the facilities the girls need to wash themselves. Teachers are often forced to send these girls home until their periods are over. This is a major blow to a girl’s education because missing a few days of school every month makes it hard for her to keep up with her coursework. The lack of sanitary products is not only striping girls of their right to education, but also of their human dignity.

Many girls in my community never finish high school. This is caused by society’s negligence to award both girls and boys equal educational opportunities. It is this negligence that has created social imbalance where most girls and women are not able to read or write coherently, while boys and men do both with ease.

Gender inequality limits girls’ options, and it is a malicious way of making sure girls and women remain incapacitated.

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a Nigerian novelist and my role model, once said, “culture doesn’t make people, but people make culture.” This is a powerful reminder for me that my community can change. The girls in my community need knowledge. Knowledge will give them the power to fight gender inequality perpetuated by a culture that gives more value to boys than to girls.

This is why I believe that we need a new way of looking into the future, while learning lessons from the past. The past makes the present coherent, and the past will remain horrible for as long as we fail to assess it fairly.

Equipping girls and women with knowledge will serve as a stepping stone and an antidote to gender inequality.

I believe that one day, girls and young women will not be trapped the same way our mothers and grandmothers were. My dream is to encourage girls and young women to live the lives they desire, dream about the life they want, and break the silence!

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Zimbabwe’s Elections: Old Habits Die Hard

Today, 31 July 2018, Zimbabwe will hold elections.

However, women are not fairly represented in these elections – clearly demonstrating that even in Parliament, men continue to dominate. I want to highlight some of the critical issues which I feel act as a bottleneck and prevent women from entering politics, as well as what this means for women and girls in general.

Political parties don’t seem to be doing enough to promote and support women as candidates. In fact, they seem to be actively standing in their way. This is being done through naming and shaming of women who want to run as councillors, members of parliament or presidential candidates. Men use vulgar language and focus on physical appearance to silence women, especially those who try to be vocal. 

Such harassment has caused understandable frustrations and in the past, female candidates have been intimidated and forced to back down – leaving the path clear for male candidates. It disgusts me that even in 2018, these denigrating tactics have been used by male candidates to silence women.

Research carried out by the Department of Political and Adminstrative Studies at the University of Zimbabwe – The Implications of the Quota System in Promoting Gender Equality in Zimbabwean Politics – found that sexual harassment of women is a weapons used to silence women at constituency, party and parliamentary level. This, of course, impacts negatively on the fair representation of all genders in Parliament.

Since 1980, when Zimbabwe attainted it’s independence, the representation of women in Parliament has always been lower than 33%. In this forthcoming election, representation of women in parliament raises a lot of questions regarding the country’s seriousness when it comes to promoting and effectively supporting women as equal citizens.

In my opinion, democracy is non-existent if there is absence of equal participation of men and women in politics. Equal representation in parliament is pivotal as it allows all genders to present their issues. For instance, women’s issues, desires and goals are not identical to those of men. There is need for more women to be in Parliament to advocate meaningfully for girls and women’s rights, including reproductive health and rights, socio-economic independence and political freedom.

The quota system has been helpful in making sure certain percentage of seats in parliament are reserved for women, however, running for office is very costly and women often don’t have the same access to loans to finance their campaigns. For many women, actually making it to parliament remains a pie in the sky dream.

In Zimbabwe, the level of progress towards achieving gender equality is not satisfying. In fact, women are viewing politics as a dirty game which they need not involve themselves in for safety reasons. This is problematic in many ways, and we’re getting further away from closing the gender gap as more and more women continue to shun politics.

The fact that Zimbabwe has a proportion of 16% women in local parliament is pathetic. It shows that very little progress has been made in allowing women political space for representation in parliament, and clearly shows that old habits die hard! Without real change in this year’s elections, women and girls will continue to have to fight hard for their voices to be over the next five years.

I believe that in Zimbabwe, the  representation of women in parliament can improve only if there is financial support. As it stands, running in an election is increasingly costly and women are greatly affected by a shortage of available financing and campaign support. Quota systems have been helpful, but more needs to be done and political parties also should shun the harassment of women as these factors are seriously hindering women’s representation in parliament.

This Silence Must be Broken

“May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new North Star.” – Laura Dern

It is absurd that in the 21st century, a culture of silence leaves women and girls without certain rights. Some call it tradition, but I shall call it by its name – oppression.

I grew up in a conservative community in Zimbabwe where we were not allowed to discuss other people’s lives. Women were butchered in their own homes. They would yell for help, but their neighbors would shut the doors and mind their own business. Girls were forced to leave school and work as domestic helpers, or worse, be married to older men. These violations of rights have been going on for too long, and what upsets me the most is our collective inability to break the silence. People might say it’s ‘culture’, but what they don’t realise is that this is oppression and it has to stop.

I remember vividly the time in high school when I stood up to a boy who had been forcibly taking my food and making jokes about me.  Everyone revered him as a super hero – girls like myself would suffer in silence and allow him to torment them. One day, I chose to be different and shook off the dust of fear. Since that moment, I assured myself that I would use my voice and stand up for justice whenever I could.

I have younger sisters and when I look at them and the society they are growing up in, my heart bleeds. I sometimes wonder if I am influential enough to effect meaningful change, but still I choose to break the silence by raising my voice. As the old adage goes, ‘it always seem impossible until it’s done’. I hope that one day everyone who is being silenced will be able to speak out loudly and freely.

Oppressed people are silenced through being denied a platform to voice their experiences. They may fear being ostracised if they do speak up. Those who experience suffering usually have difficulty in communicating what they are going through, and this is made worse if people exist within a system that does not allow them space to express themselves. Such is the scenario in many parts of my country.

The most common problem in my community is domestic violence. Far too many women are physically abused by their partners on a daily basis. Sadly, only a handful are able to report their cases, reveal the truth and follow the procedure to attain justice. This is mostly due to the fact that many women are not financially independent and so fear being stranded – sometimes with children to care for – if they put their abusive partner behind bars. As an result, women are suffering in silence.

The absence of space for cases of abuse against women and girls to be articulated means that abusers continue to have the upper hand. Recently, in my community, there has been a case of a young girl – aged 15 – who was impregnated by her stepfather’s son. The girl became terrified after being threatened at home, and so she told members of the community who were quizzing her that it was actually her boyfriend who impregnated her. To see such a lack of justice is heartbreaking, and I’m so tired of it.

It is my desire that one day, those who are being silenced will be able to speak up. As it stands, oppressors are benefiting from the fact that victims have no space or support to stand up for themselves. We have to ensure that the oppressed are heard, in Zimbabwe and all over the world.

When will Menstrual Hygiene be Taken Seriously?

For a long time, poor menstrual hygiene in developing countries has been an insufficiently acknowledged problem. I believe that this is triggered by a lack of courage and insufficient political will to acknowledge the problem.

Zimbabwe is not an exception as little or no proper legislation has been put in place, despite considerable efforts made by pressure groups to bring the issue of menstrual hygiene before the House of the Assembly. It’s absurd that the response has always been negative. Politicians, programmers and policy makers remain reluctant to take this matter into consideration.

In 2014, Irene Zindi – Mutasa South Member of Parliament (MP) – brought the issue of menstrual hygiene before the National Assembly as a motion for debate. Speaking of a conversation with a school teacher, she said, “The teacher highlighted that some girls were using cow dung as sanitary wear. We need to think as government how we can alleviate the problems suffered by women through lack of sanitary wear. Just imagine how cow dung looks and create a graphic image of what our girls go through, 34 years into independence.”

Her words drew a lot of criticism from males within the House of Assembly who felt that the menstrual hygiene problem was not a problem at all, and as a result the motion lost momentum and nothing was done. This highlights that stigma is present even at the law making level, which is ironic in an era where issues of gender equality, and standing up against stigma and discrimination, have supposedly become a focus of our day-to-day lives.

In 2017, Harare West Member of Parliament Jessie Majome was also criticised for her ‘radical advocacy’ for women’s reproductive health by men who remain rooted in patriarchal ideologies that continually sideline menstrual hygiene as a trivial issue that is not relevant in Parliament. Afterwards, women took to the streets of Harare with soiled panties and clothes to demand free sanitary wear. However, amid all of this activism, the prices of sanitary products remain high throughout Zimbabwe – leaving women’s menstrual health in a precarious state.

Jessie Majome also critiqued the fact that legislators remain ignorant about the link between menstrual hygiene and the reproduction health rights of women and girls. She said, “the country is flooded with condoms of all shapes and sizes, yet there is failure to provide sanitary wear which is pivotal for reproductive health.” Her argument highlights that the menstrual hygiene problem is not being taken seriously as a problem at all.

The Zimbabwean problem is further aggravated by the fact that there is only one company manufacturing sanitary wear (Farai). This, in my opinion, is scandalous. If the company closes, the country will have to rely on imports and sanitary wear will become unaffordable for many. There is therefore a need for the government to encourage more companies to manufacture sanitary wear through the availing of funds.

More and more people are speaking up on this issue and putting pressure on the government to take action. This year, at the Zimbabwe Women’s Indaba, a school girl presented the Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangangwa with a petition of over 40,000 names calling for the provision of free sanitary wear in public school for the betterment of girls’ education and their well being.

Now women and girls in Zimbabwe are anticipating change regarding the provision of free sanitary wear, but only time will tell whether or not our country’s menstrual hygiene problem will finally be considered a ‘real’ problem!