Who am I, a poor, rural, Zulu woman who did not have an opportunity to get formal education but made it her responsibility to educate herself, to be receiving such an honour and speaking to such prominent and very powerful women?
I guess the answer is that, in spite of what appears to be our differences, I am you…and you are me. And each of us, in our own way, in our respective countries, has been fighting for the same thing: the inalienable rights of women and girls living in the rural areas, of indigenous girls and women and gender equality.
And I think I can say one thing for sure: We have all been silenced too often, been rejected too often, been ignored too often, cried too much, witnessed too much, and suffered too much. Do you agree?
Some even accuse us of working too hard, loving too much and giving too much. Yet few know that we also receive too much. With every step we take on the journey towards gender equality, no matter how small, we receive an immeasurable amount of joy.
And as different as we may seem, we are intimately and forever bound together because, like Oprah and Viola and Ruth and Liz and Malala and Maya and Rosa..and Eve (who is now here in NY), and you and you and you…… and so many more, each one of us,… in spite of being shut up, in spite of being warned, in spite of being mentally, emotionally, and often sexually and physically abused, and as in my case, in spite of being crippled, and over and over again threatened with death, we have…PERSISTED.
And we will continue to persist, insist and RESIST,
Like countless nameless women in my village,… like Nonkululeko Zulu who tried to resist…but 3 men were too many. Nonkululeko was orphaned at 4, beaten and raped at 14, and forced to marry the old man who was one of the 3 who beat and raped her in exchange for 8 cows, given, of course to her uncle, since women could not own property.
I visited Nonkululeko often and shaking with fear, she would tell me that being with “her husband” made her relive that terrible night over and over again. She confided in me that she was working extra hard to be able to buy the 8 cows and give them to this man in order to run away with her two children. But before she could, she was pregnant again with her third child.
In 2015 Nonkuleko committed suicide and left 3 beautiful children behind. I stand here today with her, and millions of other indigenous wotmen who are by my side and in my heart, saying ………. NAMI FUTHI meaning #MeToo in isiZulu.
I am aware that here in the United States you are doing the same, with the #MeToo movement.
As in most African nations, we have been saying nathi futhi – ……actually ‘WeToo’…. for over fifty years.. We too, NATHI FUTHI, deserve to have the right to land, inheritance and property, which in most situations is solely given to men. Although it is estimated that between 75-80% of the African Continent is cultivated by women, we only own about 2% of the continent’s land.
We too, nathi futhi, need to be protected by the constitutions of the world, and not silenced by corrupt male community, traditional leaders and national parliamentarians. We too, NATHI FUTHI, must have water…….. and not to have to wake up at 1o’clock in the early morning to dig holes in sand on the side of the rivers and often wait for at least seven hours to get a 20-25 – litre bucket of water.
We,too must be heard and protected against rape, torture, killings, forced marriages and sex trafficking and not be silenced with violence nor threatened because we are poor and have nothing. We,too demand food to nurture ourselves and our children, and have access to health care and medicine and hospitals. We,too must be able to defend ourselves against gender based violence perpetrated against us mainly by our spouses and our boyfriends and ALL men, who are more than happy to give us HIV for their sexual satisfaction. We too have a voice and it’s our turn!! And we invite all honorable men to join us. SEKUYITHUBA LETHU meaning IT’S OUR TURN.
But permit me to go back in time. My journey, my #MeToo, as a human rights activist began 64 years ago when I was 8. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
It was 3:00 a.m. since I had to get up early to get my siblings dressed for school. I started taking care of when I was 6. Our school was a two and a half hour walk away. I was shaking, huddled underneath my mum’s bed, completely hidden by two blue and yellow scratchy blankets. Tightly pressed to my ears was a little radio, for fear I would be arrested for listening to the forbidden Radio Freedom…….of former Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe and Radio of former which is now Mozambique. The muffled voice of the radio announcer warned: “Smith (referring to the state president, Mr. Ian Smith) is killing innocent people every day at 7p.m. by butchering them”. Those were people who were perceived to not respect the 7:00 p.m. curfew. I remember crying and once it was safe to creep out from under the bed, declaring my resolution to my mum, which by the way has never changed, “This is horrible. I must travel to all the African nations and learn from women how to defend ourselves from this kind of oppression.” My mum must have thought at best that I was cute, or at worst, that I was crazy when she told me and impatiently cried that we barely had enough to eat…and besides no one from our community had ever dared leave.
At that time indigenous women were not allowed to own property or even speak in community meetings where men were present. Women were often beaten up by their spouses (who were usually migrant workers only coming home in December for the holidays.) Some young girls were kidnapped, tortured, raped and drugged, in the name of ukuthwala and forced into abusive marriages to much older men in exchange for between four and eleven cows.
But that was the past and although much is still to be done, we are here to celebrate the present and the ongoing accomplishments of our powerful and courageous Zulu sisters and daughters , who now number 50,000 and make up RWM, The Rural Women’s Movement, which stands for our right and power to evoke change, that a single voice has the ability to declare an iniquity, and that each time a woman or a girl stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.
I began by recruiting 4 indigenous young women. Zulu indigenous women and girls started having workshops where proud women, who suffered in silence, could openly acknowledge and share their hardships. Awareness was the first step in fighting back. The second step was to influence the policy making processes so women would know their constitutional rights.
We have continued to hold workshops on leadership skills, self-respect and basic agriculture. I don’t consider myself a leader, but a facilitator, a guide. Since each village and each situation is different and has different needs, we RWM create leaders who are empowered to solve their own unique challenges. We worked with women to recognize their power…to believe in it, to trust it, honor it, and then take action. We still have a lot to do, but I am proud to tell you…. As a direct result of the RWM’S interventions:
Ukuthwala, the abduction, torture, rape and forced marriages of girls as young as 13 years of age, has been eradicated in two indigenous communities. We are currently celebrating seven years and nine months of Zero tolerance for forced marriages.
Sexually transmitted diseases have decreased by approximately 15%, teenage pregnancy has decreased by approximately 10%, children no longer die in childbirth, the number of school drop-outs has decreased from 20% to approximately 2%. Parents, including fathers and uncles are now prioritizing school for their daughters rather than trading them off for marriage in exchange for between 4 to 8 cows.
RWM has currently worked with 450 women who increased their income and 750 rural women have become “better organized and mobilized to effectively lobby against and tackle legislation policies and practices that discriminate against women’s socio-economic and cultural well-being.”
Women are now effectively participating in the policy-making processes, as they partner with other women who are not members of RWM, by sharing their own experiences and knowledge.
The RWM was instrumental in declaring the Communal Land Rights Act11 of 2004 unconstitutional and enshrined in gender bias. We also tirelessly fought against the Traditional Courts Bill of 2008 and the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003. The latter bill would have created a separate legal system for the 18 million women living in the former Bantustans, making them second class citizens. In the two communities RWM eradicated ukuthwala. No longer can men throw women off the land they have worked and toiled for decades, if their spouses or fathers die. Thanks to our work, men no longer confiscate and make their own what is rightfully owned by indigenous women and girls.
Yesterday, girls like Nonkululeko had no hope, today, like I previously mentioned, we have eradicated ukuthwala.
Yesterday, girls, couldn’t study because it was assumed that they will take their families’ wealth to their spouses’ families or they had to bring up their siblings and fetch water, look after members of the families who are bed-ridden.
Today education is prioritized for girls, even by their fathers and uncles. Yesterday girls did not know how babies came into the world, today they know about biology and how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies. Never, never and never will any young woman or girl be abducted tortured, raped and forced into marriage in these two communities.
So for Nonkululeko who will always be in my heart, and for all the innocent girls and women who have and continue to suffer, I dedicate today. And like Oprah recently proclaimed A NEW DAY IS UPON US. We know changes take time and they don’t come about by one person, but a community of sisters willing to stand up for what is right. And since we are talking about a NEW DAY and Oprah, she highlighted the magnificent men who have joined the #MeToo movement. Today, as I stand before you, I too thank those magnificent men and pray for a paradigm shift in my country and world, where hand in hand, men and women, boys and girls, can walk towards the light. (As ….said…it is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb.)
So, we have come full circle. What would I say to that little frightened but determined little girl, who had no formal education or mentors and who made such an absurd declaration to her Mama 66 years ago?
This is what I would tell her, beautiful innocent child, “Never forget that above all out are WORTHY. You are limitless. All that matters is that you know your purpose and you keep going never give up.
Your journey would not be easy and it will have many detours…but that doesn’t matter.
Your journey will often be arduous and painful, but that doesn’t matter either.
Your journey will test who you are
At times, it will feel like you want to give up and no one is listening. Not even that matters.
You will make mistakes – and stumble, but that’s how you will learn.
Its OK to be imperfect and NECCESSARY to be humble and vulnerable. Look the nay sayers in the eyes and tell them you don’t care about their opinion. If you do what you know is right, if you stand up to the oppressors and for the vulnerable, that is all you can do. Be aware of all your feelings, even the scary ones. Have compassion for others…..AND OURSELVES
Ask for help when you need it and know we cannot achieve our dreams by ourselves. We need a community. We need to have someone who will listen to us when we think we are so tired we can’t move. We need to have someone who will take care if us when we have been emotionally….. and yes, physically beaten up.
And above all, we need to love ourselves and trust that somehow, one day we WILL achieve our goals. KNOW THIS IS YOUR SACRED JOURNEY and the spirit of all the women who came before you and with you.”
To My DEAREST MAMA – Nomaswazi Ngubane who raised me and supported me in my work until she passed on in 2014. I would like to say to her spirit and that of my GRANDMOTHER – Mabuso Khanyeza:
“You remember Mama, Gogo what I talked about when I was 6.? I am here!!! At the NGO CSW62 in New York City, And it’s the beginning of a new day when an indigenous, poor little girl from iMbubu Community of KwaZulu Natal…..is speaking to 1000 women from different countries and they are LISTENING ……Dear Mama, I didn’t let you down….. and it’s just the beginning.”
I thank you all for your attention.
To the International Alliance of Women. Mine is to say I do not have a word to thank you for nominating me for this prestigious award. Joanna……. when I received your email message informing me that the IAW would like to nominate me for this award I wanted to say please do not nominate me because I didn’t think I could become a winner for such an award. But I ended up saying to myself I don’t want to disappoint them because there is no harm in nominating me even if I don’t make it to the top of the list – would still be something important for my history to be nominated by an international women’s organization.
Surprise, surprise – I was browsing the students’ internet for news and I came across an article – Sizani Ngubane is the winner of the NGO CSW62 Woman of Distinction Award and could not believe my eyes.
Thanks once more. With much love.