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What does security mean to you?

By Everjoice Win

That was the question surrounding this year’s 16 Days of Activism. Militarism, conflict, state-sponsored violence, political violence, were some of the sub-themes we campaigned on. We talked about the big stuff, the big news tickets of the moment. The news coming out of Syria continues to be unbearable. Libya is still on the boil. In the DRC thousands are fleeing across the borders, fearing for their lives as the election results are about to be announced. In Burma Hillary Clinton smiled for the cameras and got pally-pally with the generals, temporarily shorn of their uniforms for better picture quality. In various northern capitals anti-capitalist protestors were carted off the streets, sometimes violently. At COP17, things got ugly and civil society had to be shoved back into its small allotted space. The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan rage on. None of these places are too far away or too foreign. I know women there. I have met them. I know their names. They are my friends. I worry about them. I text. I email. I skype them. Just to make sure they’re OK. Being a global citizen means you curl your toes each time you watch the news.

The so-called “security forces” and law-enforcement agencies continue to frighten me and other women out of our wits. In my home number two, the South African police decided that adopting militarised titles and ranks was the way to … what? Instil discipline? Show seriousness? Give the service more gravitas? Induce fear? Each time I enter Rosebank police station to get my documents certified I’m greeted by a “colonel” and sometimes a “lieutenant” looks over his shoulder. I clutch my bags in fear. I smile feebly and answer their questions with too many words and run out as soon as I can. Thankfully I’ve never had to report a crime or ask to be taken to a place of safety by these “soldiers” because I just don’t know where they would take me! I don’t feel secure with a police officer called “general”, no matter how much he smiles or tries to convince me he’s here for my protection.

In home number one, my state president goes by the grand title of “Comrade Robert Mugabe, the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, the First Secretary of Zanu-PF and commander in chief of the armed forces”. This for a man with seven (well-earned) university degrees! Being told that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces is not meant to make me respect the man. It says “be very afraid, he has guns pointed at your head, one move we don’t like and we pull the trigger”. I know who is in control. And if I forget I am reminded on the hour every hour by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

I curl my toes. I draw my knees together. This is the effect men in uniform have on me. The military industrial complex announces itself, advertises itself and reminds us it is in control of our countries, our lives, our bodies.

But it is not only these visible manifestations of our militarised world that make me insecure. Going to the supermarket makes me frightened. I am scared to see the price of food. I worry about whether there will be enough money left at the end of the month. I am too scared to ask a woman with three children how she lives on a twenty-dollars-a-month wage. Yesterday I took my son to the doctor and she asked for 50 dollars just to write a referral note to the radiographer. In the space of two weeks I have buried two women, both aged 44, both died from diseases that could have been easily managed. I don’t fear death. I fear an undignified and painfully unnecessary death, such as I have seen countless times around me.

Two days ago I met a beautiful young person who identified as transgender. I immediately started worrying about how she was going to get out of the hotel back to her home in the township. What hoops she would have to navigate to ensure her own safety. I keep hearing the hateful sermons preached at funerals: “These ngochani are an abomination! We must cast the devils out of them! If you are a ngochani come forward so we pray for you!” I keep curling my toes and drawing my knees up.

A lot can happen in 16 days. And it did as we came to the end of the 16 Days of Activism campaign. It has been an amazing two decades of organising by women, and a few good men, all over the world. To hear some talk today you would think they invented the campaign and made us women too while they were at it. Well let us not go there. I suppose we should just be happy that what started off as an idea, almost a pipe dream, with only 24 women, has grown to be one of the most well-known global campaigns. Who says the feminist movement is small, insignificant and the changes it has brought can’t be measured. If anybody had asked us on that bright summer day at Rutgers what success will look like? How will you measure it? I don’t think we would have been able to provide an answer, let alone imagine that this is what the 16 days campaign would achieve. Hear yee, monitoring and evaluation zealots, this is what success looks like!

So what does security mean to me? It means uncurling my toes, unclenching my knuckles, free of fear — real or imagined — and living a life of dignity, experiencing sexual and other kinds of pleasure, and having the right to make choices.

Everjoice Win is a Zimbabwean feminist activist based in South Africa.

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