Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

A Zambian embarrassment at the Victim Empowerment Conference

I have had the fortune (or misfortune … I’m not quite sure yet) to be at the International Conference on Victim Empowerment this week. We began yesterday with 12 hours of travelling, no food and shower that I had to run circles in to get wet and I had hoped that today would be better. The breakfast was tasty, we were all on our seats on time, ready and waiting to brainstorm solutions to the problems facing the victims of crime in SA, 50 minutes later than expected we began our session with “messages of support” from delegates from SADC.

None of the delegates said anything much about victim empowerment. Most pushed their own publicity for their country of origin. But, the clincher was the delegate from Zambia (who was not on the programme, which is why I don’t know his name, apologies!). He began with some nonsense about his own feelings on nothing in particular. We thought it would be boring, but we didn’t know it would be dangerous.

His speech displayed a breathtaking lack of understanding of women’s rights, and a dangerously patriarchal perspective on sexual violence. Perhaps though, he is not only the poster-man for idiocy, but a scary reflection of the Zambian perspective on women. I hope not, and I assume the former.

He made statements like “victims of crime must analyse why they are victims of sexual violence, and they should stop what they are doing to cause it”. He then proceeded “if you are improperly dressed or rude, then you should stop. A young girl will often tell her mother, not her father, that she has been raped, but she will not tell that it was because she was improperly dressed”. He then gesticulated above his knee to indicate what improperly dressed was. No short shorts for him then.

He went on to say that the way that they have tackled the crime of sex workers, was to teach them how to knit and farm. So they “could contribute to the economy”.

His speech had nothing to do with the empowerment of victims. Its content focussed mainly on his relationship with his mother and the agricultural achievements of Zambia. It could be likened to bad stand-up comedy, which got its laughs more from embarrassment than anything else. How tedious, awkward and embarrassing.

I hope that he was simply the only person available to come today. I hope that he has no power in Zambia, and certainly that he wasn’t the best that Zambia — a signatory of the SADC protocol on gender — could do. Thank goodness that the minster of social development, Edna Molewa, stood up and told him that in South Africa, you are entitled to wear what you want and you should not face violence or harassment for that. If only she wasn’t the only female delegate in the front row of the government reps today. [None of whom re-appeared after lunch.]