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My research is my lived experience: Presentation by Catherine Makoni
Amanda Atwood,
March 06, 2010

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The International Women's Day commemorations at the National Gallery in Harare on March 6 featured a panel discussion: Moral and/or pleasure? Women, media and the creation of discourse on sexuality. One of the discussants on the panel was Catherine Makoni. Last year, her article Women as vectors of disease: The problem with ill-thought campaigns generated a lot of controversy on the Kubatana blog. One comment challenged her criticism of the PSI "small house" campaign on HIV and AIDS, accusing her of responding based on her feelings, not her analysis. This person claimed her position was based on assumption, not research. But Catherine firmly believes that this campaign violates the principle of "do no harm," and she used her presentation to explain why she believes this so firmly. Some of her thoughts from this presentation are transcribed below.

For me, being a woman, I have certain lived experiences and lived realities. When I was born, coming as the fifth daughter in a family of five daughters and two sons, the sons come after me. So you know the story - my family was looking for boys. The talk then was that we were supposed to grow up to be mahure. I guess that's why I have a strong feeling when it comes to the word hure - whore, prostitute. The pressure on my father was that we should not be educated, because women will grow up to be mahure, so it's a waste of money to educate a female child. I'm talking about stereotypes. But my mother is a strong woman, and my parents made sure that I got educated.

Fast forward a number of years. I'm in Form 6, A level. We are choosing our courses for university. I get a lecture from my teachers because I've chosen Law. They tell me I won't pass English - because I'm black - and so I won't get the points I need to get into Law. But, me being me, I said I want to do Law. A couple of weeks down the line I am still determined to do law, and I get another talking to by a teacher. Law is a very difficult choice, she tells me, for a lot of women. A lot of girls who do Law fail. And, even if you do pass, you won't get married. Girls who do Law are not well perceived, and if you do Law, you're shooting your chances of getting married in the foot.

But I go to University, and I do Law. By the third year of University (Law is four years) there is enormous pressure on me to have a boyfriend. Sure, I'm doing Law, but there is immense pressure on me to get married. In third and fourth year you get a lot of girls falling pregnant, in the hopes of securing someone to marry them. So third year, fourth year you have a lot of pregnancies. Why? Because you need to be sure that before you leave university you have someone to marry you, otherwise you'll be a failure, never mind that you have honours and a first class degree. I'm talking about stereotypes, and gender roles, and expectations, and how these are drummed into us from birth.

I finished university and I was looking for a job. I was young, female, and black and inexperienced - talk about the intersection of gender and age and race. I'm approaching established law firms in Harare, and one senior lawyer says do you know a junior lawyer who's just finished university who's looking for a job? But I don't want a woman, he tells me - they'll just get married and fall pregnant and go on maternity leave.

Fast forward a few years and I start dealing with gender based violence. My friend, who is a lawyer, has not been able to leave her abusive marriage. It's like the prophecy is coming true. We were told not to study law, because you're giving yourself all these airs and what man is going to tolerate you? So she's done everything. She's cut her hair, she's worn long clothes, she's worn oversized dresses, so that she doesn't look too attractive, and make her husband insecure. So 14 years later she's in an abusive relationship, and her husband says "You think you are a lawyer. I'm going to beat you, and I want to see what you do with your law degree." Her mother says "Why don't you give him his proper place. He wants to be head of the family. Give him his proper place. You should know you are a woman. Don't talk about work at home." Listen

At the Magistrate's Court where maintenance cases are dealt with, you have to listen to a man asking a woman: "Madam, does a child eat 2 kgs of sugar in a month? Why are you claiming 5kgs of meat for this 2 year old? You are just after this man's money. You want to spend this man's money with your boyfriend. Look at you. Your hair is nicely done. Where are you getting this money?" 2 kgs of sugar costs a dollar. But you spend an hour arguing with a lawyer and a magistrate trying to convince them that this man should maintain the child. Why? Because of the perception that women are after men's money - that women are mahure, whores, prostitutes.

So I'm confronted with this campaign, which says your small house is after your money. For someone like me, who has had to fight to change the perception that women are after men's money, that women are whores, prostitutes, bitches, to see a campaign that builds on that and validates those stereotypes, I have a problem. So if I feel a bit strongly about this, it is from my lived reality. Listen

So to my friend who asks me what research did I do? My answer is I lived it. I live it on a daily basis. I live it when I see the police attacking and harassing and rounding up women for walking in the Avenues, because they assume that every woman who is out at night ihure, she's a prostitute. What are you doing? A decent woman is with her husband, at home. We're talking about stereotypes. Listen

I remember about 11 years ago, I'd just come out of the salon. It was around 6pm. Some man approaches me and tries to chat me up. I ignored him, and he lays into me. He starts beating me up, opposite the UN building on Union Avenue. I got attacked, and people stood by. There were people looking out of their windows in the UN building while I was being attacked. Eventually this guy got tired and walked off, and someone said to me "What did you do to him?" I said I didn't do anything. The guy was shouting uri hure, and I suppose pretending that I was his girlfriend. The people who heard what he was saying thought, well, she's his girlfriend. She's done something, so this is okay. I asked them why didn't you come to my aid. And they said, well, we thought you were his girlfriend. We have a culture which says it's okay to beat up a woman. If she's your girlfriend, then it's alright to do it - especially if you think ihure, or she's done something. Listen

There are infinitely harmful ways in which these things play out. The imagery of this PSI campaign sticks in our heads. It sticks in the heads of the police, the magistrate, the teachers who teach our daughters, that man who's walking out there, the editors, everyone. What it's saying is yes, you are right to hold these beliefs. You are right to think that women who do not conform to societal expectations of what is right are a problem. Listen

From an HIV perspective, the problem is having sex without protection. The message should be about making sexual interactions safe. But I don't get that message when I see the imagery of this campaign.

Stereotypes are dangerous. If my father had listened to his relatives and the society at the time, I would not be here. If I had listened to my teachers who said you still need to get married after you do your degree, I would not be here. As we do our campaigns, first do no harm. Let's not use the media in a way that entrenches discrimination, on whatever basis - gender, sexuality, race, or age. Listen

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