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May 21 elections: call to protect women, girls

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By Yamikani Kawale:

APPEALED FOR RESPECT OF EVERYONE’S RIGHTS—Mec Chairperson, Jane Ansah

On March 19, Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) officially launched the 2019 campaign period which is going to run for 60 days ahead of the May 21 Tripartite Elections.

During the official campaign period, many activities are happening. The nation has seen many campaign activities such as political rallies, meetings, door-to-door campaigns, fundraising dinners, football and netball bonanzas and music shows, all in pursuit of votes.

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During this period, girls and women also become vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children (NSPCC) defines sexual abuse as when someone is forced, pressurised or tricked into taking part in any kind of sexual activity with another person.

Sexual abuse is any undesirable sexual behaviour perpetrated using force or by taking advantage of another. Places where political rallies and meetings are held become hunting ground for women and girls Close to where I live, there are a number of football grounds where different political parties conduct their rallies. As a citizen who wants to be informed, I go and listen to what politicians promise us in order to vote for them.

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Most of the times, I am not only astonished but also saddened by what I hear and see at these rallies. I am more concerned about issues of sexual harassment and abuse towards girls and women. I have once written about sexual harassment and abuse cases that take place in school but go unreported because the victims are afraid that their stories will not be believed. Sometimes, if they report cases of sexual abuse and harassment, nothing is done.

There are agencies, both in the private and public sectors, where sexual abuse happens and the victims are not usually believed. In the worst scenario, they are even blamed for the abuse. Questions like why were you wearing like that? Why did you expose yourself? And more of such nature are directed at the victims to make them look like they were at fault.

I am now thinking of victims of sexual abuse who are not believed in institutions like churches, schools, and workplaces. Would they be believed if they got sexually harassed and abused during political campaign rallies? Will they be trusted if they report such cases to our law enforcers? Or will they be accused of trying to blackmail politicians? These are the questions that are bothering me as a woman.

I have attended a number of political rallies in this country. I have seen how young boys and girls conduct themselves during these events. I have seen girls so drunk and dancing erotically on campaign stages and in lorries that politicians use to ferry their supporters.

Being drunk and forced to dance during the rallies, girls become vulnerable to sexual abuse. I have been asking myself, why do girls and women find themselves in these situations? Is it because they love the parties? Is it because they are looking for new opportunities, but what opportunities? Or is it because they have nothing to do? I am yet to find out.

My friend once told me a story. She was at a salon and overheard some young women discussing how some other political parties have ‘big men’ with full pockets (money). The ladies were discussing success stories on how they get close to these men. All they need to do is taking part in all party activities to get the benefits from ‘big men.’ I ask myself, could this be one of the reasons young women are seen dancing in moving lorries? Are they trying to entice the men with full pockets? Are these young women not making themselves vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment? If this happens, who is at fault?

There are some innocent girls who participate in political activities because they love politics and the parties they support. What if these girls come into contact with men who think girls attend political rallies for material benefit?

Burning questions still linger in my mind. If a girl or woman is sexually harassed or abused at a political rally, can she report the abuse? If she reports, will she be believed by our responsible officers? If she knows the person who harassed her, will the abuser be brought to justice? I can imagine how many questions can come to the mind of a girl sexually abused at a political rally or meeting.

One day, I witnessed men and women boarding lorries to ferry them to a political rally. I heard one man saying “squeeze, squeeze, we only need a space of zero centimetre apart”. He went on to say, “When going to a political rally, we forget that you are a woman or somebody’s wife, zero centimetres apart”.

Women were getting on board happily, not minding what the man was saying because all they wanted was to get into the vehicle. They never minded how their bodies would be rubbing against men’s bodies in that lorry. If the man was happily speaking like he did, do you think he has respect for women?

Sometimes we do not have to wait to be respected, we must respect ourselves first. Girls and women, let us not make ourselves vulnerable to any form of abuse and let us not be taken advantage of. There are monsters in these political arenas, so do not put yourself in situations to be abused or harassed.

The campaign period will only last 60 days. The people you are cheering and dancing for will get their positions and forget about you. Do not be a victim, love your political party but do not compromise your dignity and reputation.

Much as I am trying to remind all women to take cover in this campaign period, I am sure there are some men who are responsible and would not take advantage of girls and women. My appeal to all male politicians is that, as they are busy promoting their parties, they should bear in mind the best interest of all female supporters of their parties and speak out against sexual harassment and abuse.

They should keep our girls and women safe and respect them. They need their votes and they need to make laws that protect their rights. They have a role to play by not deliberately taking advantage of girls and women because they have power and money.

The author is a secondary school teacher and founder of Girls Empowerment and Mentorship. She is writing in her personal capacity.

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