GABORONE, Botswana – Earlier this year, Batswana (citizens of Botswana) woke up to a shocking viral video of a young woman being chased and stripped by a group of men at the Gaborone bus rank. Her offence: wearing a skirt deemed too short by the perpetrators. It was the middle of the day, and the bus rank was busy, but nobody stepped forward to help her – some are heard on the video egging on the men, yelling “Give it to her!” and “She is not dressed!” In July, police arrested five suspects on charges of indecent assault.
Although it’s common for women in Botswana to be verbally harassed when they use public transportation (there is an unspoken rule that women shouldn’t wear miniskirts at the bus rank, in particular, to avoid being targeted), the brutality of the assault on the video triggered public outrage. It also gave rise to a new movement that wants to tackle gender-based violence in the country head-on.
Made up mainly of concerned citizens, but also publicly supported by doctors, lawyers, counselors and politicians, the Right to Wear What I Want movement was launched when organizers reported the crime and, using social media, helped the police identify the victim (whose name has been withheld). Through the movement, she was also offered free counseling.
Then the organizers started a nationwide campaign of “miniskirt protest marches” against gender-based violence (GBV). So far, marches have taken place in three cities, including one in Gaborone in June that ended with hundreds of protesters gathering at the bus rank where the victim was assaulted. They are planning marches in two other towns, but haven’t announced dates yet.
“The whole cause was born out of the fact that there was a violation that we believe is a part of the entrenched GBV in our society which goes unattended,” says the spokesman for the movement, Obakeng Matlou. The idea is to spark a dialogue around issues of gender-based violence, he says.
In the latest Botswana Gender-Based Violence Indicators Study, 67 percent of women report having experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. Researchers found that “patriarchal attitudes are a significant underlying factor driving the incidence of GBV in Botswana.”
But while many in Botswana are applauding the protest marches for bringing attention to the problem, many others are taking to social media to condemn the protesters for wearing miniskirts and short shorts in public. Some of the women who take part in the marches are being harassed online.
Tshepo Jamillah Moyo, a 23-year-old gender activist, was attacked on social media when a picture of her at the Gaborone protest march went viral. “I’ve had both positive and negative responses – some extremely violent,” she says.
Moyo says she expected the criticism and that she took part in the march because she feels what happened to the woman at the bus station could have happened to any woman in Botswana.
“I don’t think any black African girl child who has to engage with anyone, particularly men in public, has not had her body or clothes – and therefore her identity – put on trial,” she says. “By the age of 12, I had men hooting at me on the street and eyeing me down. I have had men grope me in clubs and I’ve even been harassed while wearing a long skirt in church. That girl at the bus rank could have been me.”
Moyo says the marches have evoked such strong reactions because this is the first time many in the country have seen women publicly declare autonomy over their own bodies. “It took away [men’s] power over us,” she says. “There’s nothing more dangerous to a patriarchal society than women who own themselves.”
Omphemetse Oneile, program officer for the Gaborone-based charity Men and Boys for Gender Equality, commends the protesters for shining a light on the issue of gender-based violence but warns they might not make much difference.
“Though protest marches help in bringing awareness to issues, they do not necessarily bring about the desired change,” he says. “Protests create two groups: us vs. them. And this particular march had an element of rebellion, which may create a certain [retaliatory] attitude in the perpetrators.”
Oneile says his organization has found the most effective way to address the issue of gender-based violence is to engage with men and boys so that they themselves come up with solutions. To that end, Men and Boys for Gender Equality has started conducting talks and training sessions at the bus rank where the assault took place.
Matlou, the protest movement’s spokesman, also encourages more men to join the fight against gender-based violence.
“Because we are the perpetrators of GBV,” he says. “And it’s important for men to come together to say this must be condemned.”