Women’s bodies are a terrain of struggle
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November 25 marks the 21st anniversary of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. Tracing the origins of this campaign is important, as it developed from campaigns started by women in their immediate communities.
In 1981, the Feminist Encuentro, held in Bogota, Colombia, in July, decided to mark November 25 as the day of no violence against women in honour of the Mirabal sisters – Minerva, Patricia Mercedes and Antonia Maria Teresa.
In 1960 the Dominican Republic sisters were the victims of a violent assassination by the Rafaelo Trujillo dictatorship, whose reign of terror lasted 31 years, from 1930 to 1961.
All four Mirabal sisters were very active in the resistance against Trujillo’s dictatorship. Several imprisonments as well as torture did not deter the strong-willed sisters from their resistance work.
In the end, three of the sisters were killed.
Belgica Adela “Dede” Mirabal survived and continues to tell the story of her sisters’ resistance, their assassination and the fate that befell all those who opposed Trujillo.
That this day has become part of the international calendar of the UN, nation states and many in the women’s and social movements is befitting tribute to the tenacity and commitment of the feminist activists of Latin America and the Caribbean.
It was that single-minded commitment to justice and to not forgetting which made it possible for these women and their allies to take this proposal to the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing 1995, followed by the adoption of the day by the UN General Assembly in 1999.
The proposal resonated, with tens of thousands of women gathering in Beijing. Many of us carried similar baggage from our own histories. We, too, irrespective of the different circumstances and details, had our own versions of the terror that had been visited upon our people.
For South Africans the memory of Victoria Mxenge and many others was still fresh. Mxenge was brutally killed because, together with her husband Griffiths, who suffered the same fate, they dared to fight for justice.
Like Minerva Mirabal, Victoria Mxenge was, among other things, an attorney. She was articled in 1981, the same year the Latin American and Caribbean feminists decided to declare November 25 the day of violence against women.
But, Minerva Mirabal qualified as a lawyer 20 years before Mxenge could practise – and this contributed in no small measure to her death.
Mirabal had the misfortune of attracting unwanted romantic interest from Trujillo. She did not return these feelings.
So Trujillo ordered that she should not be issued a licence. She was not allowed to practise law.
In the mind of the dictator, if the woman did not want his advances, she had no professional future in the country he perceived as his own playground and property.
Nothing new there, many will say. In every corner of the globe, those who hold power believe they are entitled to get what they want. Should they be denied it, they will take it by force or even destroy it, including human life and great talent, because they can. They have the power to do so. As Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, so eloquently put it, “the crime of power is the mother of all crimes”.
The story of the Mirabal sisters, shocking and vile as it was, is familiar to many women across the globe. It is a story with which many women and men in the world can easily identify, because, although the details may be different, the core is the same.
Fifty-one years later, these methods have not completely disappeared from our global political landscape.
During the Fourth World Conference in Beijing, women deliberated much harder than before, I believe, to make connections between the specific conditions in their own countries or regions, and those confronting others elsewhere.
The Beijing Platform of Action also speaks to a strenuous grappling to make visible the connections between all forms of oppression, marginalisation and discrimination suffered by women and the vulnerable.
The contestations during the deliberations in the NGO and the inter-governmental platforms bear witness to this. They also speak of a growing awareness of the political nature of violence against women.
They bear witness to hard work that has been done by women for decades, particularly those campaigns and struggles which pushed the boundaries of definition of what is “political”. However, despite these advances and the final recognition of rape as a war crime, in times of conflict, very little has been achieved in the way of tangible redress. There remain few cases of the trial, let alone conviction, of perpetrators.
Women’s bodies continue to be battlefields everywhere we look. The disturbing images of women in Somalia, their vulnerability and that of their children, are multiplied by those who believe their political and religious convictions are more important than human life.
We have seen women using their last strength as they crawl to the gates of the humanitarian camps to get one small morsel of food or badly needed medical attention, or just a drop of water.
We have seen men wearing military boots and carrying guns as they push them away from the gates, because, according to them, these camps are part of the “western imperialist” agenda. The assumption, of course, is that these women do not have an agency of their own. Many are left dying as they are provided with no alternative care.
It seems the conflict in Syria may break into a full-blown war. As the planes whizz in the skies in that part of the world, we know already that war will be waged on many sites, including women’s bodies. We saw in the war against the Taliban and Iraq, in particular, how prevalent sexual violence was as a weapon of war.
None of us will forget soon the horror of Abu Gharib, where captured Iraqi men were sexually molested. And yet, even as we take note of this violation, we recall that women went through similar experiences. But the response of their families and communities was different. Many returned home after their detention and found their families rejected them. They had been raped, you see, and that meant dishonour to their families. In defence of family honour, these women were sacrificed in “honour” killings.
Honour killings are a common feature of women’s lives in western Asia, north Africa and south Asia. Even in what seemingly are peaceful times, women who have been sexually violated are considered to bring shame to their families.
Africa is marked by the unpleasant and consistently growing epidemic of traumatic fistula resulting from gang rape and the insertion of foreign objects into women’s bodies during times of war. In Rwanda this was a popular method of torture.
The HIV/Aids pandemic has also created new victims and destroyed lives of young women. Girl children are being sacrificed in the interest of continued lineage by those who fear loss of lineage, despite fervent assertions to the opposite.
This year, the theme for the 16 Days of Activism is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in World: Let Us Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women”.
In highlighting political violence and the proliferation of the arms trade, and how these feature in the domestic sphere, and the use of sexual violence during and after conflict, the aim is to look at sexual violence as a public issue which is manifested in different ways and in different arenas.
It is critical that these linkages are drawn, because the structural basis for continued violence against women, children and some men remains very strong. The solutions, therefore, must be political as well as legal. Without a commitment to probe, to seek understanding and to ask difficult questions about the militarisation of our society, we are not going to get far in changing these patterns.
Some of these questions must be directed to the state and the arms trade industry. For decades, the women’s movement has fought the increasing militarisation of our societies. Activists have questioned the big budget spend on the military in face of the great economic challenges that face our societies.
n This piece is an introduction to a series on the complexities of disparate societies. The contributors come from different corners of the globe.
n Margaret Randall and Eduardo Galeano are two of the established voices on the issues in the Americas and the abuse of power and militarism. We have invited them to contribute because there is much to learn from their reflections. Lola Shoneyin comes from Nigeria, a country that has lived under militarism for a long time and where the culture has taken root even in civilian politics.
n Caroline Kihato is a Kenyan whose work and writing confront issues faced by migrant women and the complex spaces they have to navigate.
n Raymond Suttner wrestles with the notion of manhood, heroism and masculinity, especially in the liberation movement.
n Ziad Majed is a Lebanese who works on political issues in the Middle East. He traverses the spaces between “home” and other places where many are forced to reside and explores the violence and “othering” of the people who have been brutalised.
n Gasa is an analyst on gender, politics and culture