In Zimbabwe, sexual harrassment and assault are rife. A group of women filmmakers is responding with a project to give victims a voice. Yandani Mlilo reports.

A friend of mine used to say being born a woman is hard, and being born an African woman is an assigned curse in itself. With time and experience, I now look at the plight of women in my country and I wonder whether her statement was completely accurate.

#PICTURE MY LIFE: a woman in a country where poverty has married unemployment and birthed a shrinking economy and hyper-inflation. Where the streets are filled with women with toddlers, selling goods on the side streets for their daily bread, playing cat and mouse with the authorities just to secure the few dimes they make. When the cat (always a man in power) catches the mouse, he will demand sexual favours from the mouse. If the mouse says no, she will either be forced to pay a bribe or get arrested – for they both know the undesignated trade, and the area the mouse was selling from, are illegal.

Now when we look at this picture let’s take note that this is not only the fate of the women vendors but also of women entrepreneurs, women in media, in the film and arts industry and other social sectors. They are all facing this abuse, complemented by the downturn of the economy.

In this chaotic misery, a breeding ground to abuse and take advantage of women is strategically created. These cases go unreported and ignored as if it’s all a fallacy.

We, a group of women filmmakers of Zimbabwe developed a project that will help to generate conversations about the magnitude of sexual violence perpetrated against women in the public space, with the aim of challenging all forms of sexual harassment. We call these films #PICTUREMYLIFE – ME TOO SPOTS. They are recorded and screened in different places.
There is a need to acknowledge and address the abuse of women rights and how it has been normalized in Zimbabwe. It is heart-wrenching that women and men of all ages still find it difficult to open up and actually start talking about sexual abuse… a depressing reality.

During one of the talks we organised, one woman pointed out that ‘it’s hard to report rape cases because at the police station they will probe you with questions like, what were you wearing, why were you there, are you sure you were raped because you do not look like the type that can be raped, and that in itself causes one to internalise these cases.’

The interrogations are taunting and dehumanising: as if to say that when someone is sexually abused, it’s something they go looking for.
This is what happened to Tabetha, who fell prey to the same perpetrator twice. Only now that her children are grown and only through this project has she found her voice. One wonders how many souls like Tabetha take their trauma to the grave, how many perpetrators walk scot-free. It is about time to build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, in order to create solutions which actually fight sexual violence in their communities and work spaces.

Whilst it’s important to create conversations and disrupt systems that allow for the global proliferation of sexual violence, we must not forget the survivors who are still finding their pathways to healing. Having gotten the stories straight from the horse’s mouth, I can say that it takes so much courage to speak out in such a challenging society. Imagine, having had to carry and suppress pain for a long time, to then have an opportunity present itself, a platform where one just unloads all that’s within. The feeling is therapeutic. Although most are reluctant to retell their story after the first release out of fear of stigma and discrimination, and also in order to avoid the ordeal of re-narrating the story which evokes the trauma all over again, still a profound impact on the victims mental health is evident from finally voicing their ordeal.

As Tarana Burke, the originator of #metoo, stated, ‘On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says, “I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”‘

We have a rather oppressive proverb in African culture which says that a child is to be seen and not to be heard. In Zimbabwe, this also applies to the cases of women: in this patriarchal society women are still equated to children. The sacredness of rape culture is a notion that needs to be shattered. We need to stop beating about the bush and labelling it a female problem. Within our society we have a pride of lions known as the ‘gatekeepers’ who go to extreme lengths to bury the truth under the guise of social preservation. But what preservation is there when an 11-year-old gets raped and the system supposedly protecting her takes ages to deliver justice to her… if ever? What about the psychological scars on her and her mother which have no guarantee of healing? The whispers on every street wall spotlighting her as the ‘child raped in the year xxxx’? These are the walls we are working on breaking down.

We are in the process of creating a ripple effect where as Zimbabwean women our voices echo as one to STOP sexual abuse against women. We might not be at a place of privilege compared to the rest of the women in the world, but we have tolerated being victims long enough. Now I can confidently go back to my friend and say ‘I guess it’s not a bad thing being born an African female because we have the ability to create and influence change around us.’

Yandani Mlilo is an artist, creative writer, feminist and LGBT activist from Zimbabwe. She has published a number of articles of note. She published a short story anthology titled Family Portrait. She also holds a Diploma in Social Work from the Women’s University in Africa (WUA). Her journey has inspired her to form a trust known as VUTIVI (knowledge) initiative Trust which uses art as a human rights advocacy tool.

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