Grahamstown, why are our daughters, sisters and mothers silent?
I took part in the countrywide march #TotalShutdown that marked the beginning of Women’s month, but my heart is still heavy. Many of the people that ‘have a voice’ and enjoy active membership within solidarity movements that seek to address issues of social injustices have a higher degree of wealth, education and access to resources.
I was there. Sang and chanted down the main streets of Makhanda (formerly known as Grahamstown). I listened to beautiful women speak about their stories of abuse. I watched some cry. I shed a few tears behind my sunglasses. I held hands with some as we sang in solidarity. But my heart is still heavy. Instead of feeling content about the part I played and how far we have come as women in realising our power and rights I have a heavy heart. I’m sad for the women of my community. I’m weeping for the women of Vukani, Hlalani, Tantyi, Joza, Phumlani and the many Makhanda township communities. I’m mourning for the women of the black townships in South Africa who are not involved in these conversations.
I am privileged to be a Rhodes University student. Other women are privileged to be in workplaces that encourage dialogue. Others are from open families that encourage them to speak up about anything and everything. But many women do not have these privileges. In Makhanda, many of the people that ‘have a voice’ and enjoy active membership within solidarity movements that seek to address issues of social injustices have a higher degree of wealth, education and access to resources. It is also safe to assume that many women who have been on the receiving end of violence and abuse in many sectors are not alone thanks to recent media promotions such as the #MeToo campaign and #RuReferenceList.
This provides women with the realisation that the shame of unacceptable behaviour should be on the perpetrators not on the survivors. But for many who do not have access to such networks of communication and information, it’s a different story.
I have been involved with some civil society organisations in Grahamstown that seek to address many social issues in the communities. Especially the black underprivileged communities. We have had women’s dialogues with organisations such as the Young Women’s Forum, The Unemployed People’s Movement and The Eastern Cape Communication Forum. The initial problem is even to get community members to attend such dialogues. Only once there is motivation and logistical possibility to attend, for instance transport and lunch or other benefits, is there substantial attendance. I wish for more than that.
One of the most obvious challenges when building solidarity between more and less privileged people is that it is difficult to bridge the many divisions that result in others being left marginalised and oppressed. The women of my community have the doors of oppression shut in their faces. Maybe they feel like they can’t get out. I want to get many of them out. I know many individuals and movements want to get them out, but their silence is too loud.
Although the #TotalShutdown march was successful, I want the women in our townships and rural areas to engage more with issues of violence and abuse. I want us to speak up. Violence against us should not be a norm. It should be unacceptable for neighbours to hear us cry every day from being beaten up by our husbands and boyfriends but choose to sleep through the noise because it’s “none of their business”.
We should be able to talk to our friends and sisters and find safe places when we feel victimised and hopeless. But we as women don’t speak up because we do not want to be labelled, we lack allies, we do not want to be blamed or we do not have enough evidence. For many women in impoverished townships, it’s due to being financially ‘dependent’ on the very man that abuses you daily.
A 2016 City Press article stated that 85% of women who leave an abusive relationship return. Their return is attributed to the fact that the abuser often has all of the economic and social standing as well as control over the family finances. Because of this, for many poor women leaving is not even an option.
How do we address these challenges and encourage the ‘silenced’ majority to speak up? The majority is still silenced. I tried to mobilise some women for the #TotalShutdown march but none of them made it because they “did not have black or red clothing”, “had to go to town because it’s the 1st (Sassa grants)” and “it’s cold, what will we get?” I don’t have the answers on how to address these challenges and lack of participation in such important dialogues, but I know I should play my part in the normal daily interactions with friends and neighbours. It’s a possible start that can make a difference to one or two women.