Make 16 Days relevant by taking it personally

Unless parents and adults see and start changing the role they play in creating molesters, no single campaign will amount to anything worthwhile. /Gallo Images
Unless parents and adults see and start changing the role they play in creating molesters, no single campaign will amount to anything worthwhile. /Gallo Images

16 Days, So What?

It's 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children - again!

Growing up, I had a vague knowledge of this campaign, a knowledge as imprecise as one's affinity to a distant uncle who casually surfaces once a year to regale the family with stories of old.

As an adolescent, that is how I would describe my relationship with the annual call to action. It was an awkward homecoming, a nonsensical crossing of paths and a pointless exercise really.

I was aware of its existence but how or why we related remained a mystery to me. Not only was I unsure about the campaign's name, I also struggled to pinpoint its relevance.

You see, I grew up in a township where young, curvaceous, girls were fodder for hungry wolves in police officers', store owners', taxi drivers' and construction workers' clothing. Not a day would go by without unsolicited, unprovoked and unappreciated "hello, my size, baby, Dudlu Ntombazane", and other lewd comments being strewn across the street.

The catcalling did not discriminate, it emanated from young and older men, leaving girls with little reprieve and even less protection.

But this was life for me, nothing unusual. In fact, while the discomfort never dissipated, at some point one ceased to even see it as sinister. I was not the first to be treated in this manner and I would most certainly not be the last. A part of me even considered myself lucky because the snide comments seldom erupted into any physical act of aggression.

No, unlike friends of mine who had been slapped for refusing random declarations of love, I was merely sexually harassed - though I dared not label it as such at that time.

Ukushelwa is what it was called and it was our daily companion as we walked the streets of Soweto. In fact, so normalised was this culture of catcalling that some young girls felt affirmed by it. If you walked to the shop dressed in your best attire and did not move a single boy, man or grandfather to praise you, your existence needed serious review!

The desire for the affection of an absent father left many a township girl starved for any attention from the opposite sex. At this point I am tempted to venture into the realm of sexual grooming of young girls by older men but I digress.

So what was the point of 16 Days if such behaviour persisted unabated? Why should I care about a campaign that could not fix the perpetrators?

Fast forward a couple of years and as an adult who has come face-to-face with the horrors of gender-based violence - either through my work as a journalist or community development worker - I am forced to reconsider my relationship with "16 Days".

I have found that the campaign is not a magic wand that if bandied about, once a year, would suddenly make all transgressions against women and children disappear.

It is also not a campaign for "them" - the pests, serial killers or sexual deviants.

No, it was a wake-up call, a reminder for all of us, even the victims of ukushelwa.

As a mother of boys, its job is to quicken me to start asking myself what I am doing today to ensure I am not raising the next generation of male chauvinists, abusers and rapists.

Lest we forget, rapists are not born, they are made! Rapists are a manifestation of their surroundings. One cannot inspect infants at a maternity ward and separate those who will become upstanding citizens and those who will evolve into rapists. Something happens between the maternity ward and the moment the baby boys grow to violate a woman. It is that very something that we as parents and society must mitigate.

We teach our sons that they are superior to girls when we use the feminine to denote weakness. We tell the boy child: "You run like a girl" when he lacks speed or agility.

We teach our children that personal boundaries are negotiable when we force them to kiss adults on the lips even if it makes them uncomfortable.

It is us parents who do this, not the government or schools.

16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children is a mirror which must make us uncomfortable enough to bring change to our own spheres of influence if needs be. It's a measuring tape to assess personal progress and a catalyst for change.

So, when next it comes around, like that distant relative, why not embrace it with open arms and say, "Malume, remember when you used to carry me on your shoulder? Look how big I've grown", or rather, "16 Days, remember when I used to tell my boys they run like girls? Look how far I've come".

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