Silence will not save us

THE news of an intern who was abused by an MP triggered so many unpleasant feelings. Her plight is just but a tip of the iceberg for young women who venture into the newsrooms and become easy prey for colleagues who pimp them off to bigwigs.

-Delta Milayo Ndou

According to media reports, the MP is at the centre of a sexual harassment storm amid accusations that he forcibly fondled the breasts and buttocks of a female journalism intern with the connivance of three senior scribes.

This story triggered some very unpleasant memories and recollections of similar experiences of harassment of my own.

I never thought I would want to remember the events, let alone write about them, but I am mindful of the words of Audre Lorde who said we should write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they are so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.

We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

Some years ago, having gained more recognition from being a newspaper columnist than a reporter, a colleague boasted of “selling” my number to a business executive for $100 while another bragged of the innumerous pints of beer that he got from a High Court judge having promised the judge that he would facilitate a meeting with me.

I blocked the number of the business executive and never heard from him except for those few awkward and cringe-worthy calls.

I also avoided all attempts to meet with said judge — even when he sought me out at my uncle’s funeral in July — I did not acknowledge the condolence message he passed on (with a business card attached) because I remain wary of his motives.

I never filed any complaint, never claimed that the behaviour of my male colleagues — which bordered on “pimping” me out — was as good as harassment.

I took it all in my stride because the personal cost of making a fuss over the issue was too great for me and for those close to me.

In addition, my ego would not allow me to frame these actions as harassment because that would then cast me in the role of a “victim” and victimhood is a lense through which I refuse to filter my life’s experiences — it robs me of agency and is too disempowering.

Because I would much rather make excuses for the behaviour of other people that negatively impacts on my life than own the tag of “victim”, I excused the conduct of my colleagues, took it all as a joke and trivialised it as commonplace mischief.

Prior to the newsroom pranks that my male colleagues pulled, I volunteered for a local non-governmental organisation when I was a 17-year-old high school student where one of the directors tried to kiss me. The memory of it is so faint now and yet the feeling of powerlessness and fear has not abated much in the intervening years.

I remember him offering to drop me off at home since it was along his way and then parking the car along a bushy area before pulling me into a rough embrace and aiming for my mouth. The shock!

The panic!

The clumsy scramble to open the door and the frenzied bobbing and weaving of my head to avoid any contact with his lips — I felt so confused. Why was this man doing this?

What had I done to make him think I wanted his tongue down my throat or on any part of me? Instead of telling anyone, I opted not to go back there. Eventually, they tracked me down after a week or so of avoiding the place like it was a plague and I told them why I had decided not to come back anymore.

They roundly castigated the chap who had attempted to molest my lips (and who knows what other body parts he was aiming for) and set him to rights over his unbecoming conduct and the matter was thus resolved.

I had been believed and that counted for something.

The only power that a victim has is the power to tell. The victim is powerful too because he or she has a voice to speak up, name and shame and demand that their tormentor be brought to justice rather than let them go unscathed.

Silence, I have learned over the years, is a gift that the tormented bequeaths upon their tormentor.

If a victim of rape, sexual harassment or assault does not immediately speak up about their ordeal, there is a tendency to disbelieve them because we always assume that if it “really” happened they would have said something.

More often than not, when it happens there is a cost-benefit analysis that the victim carries out in their mind trying to evaluate the impact that their revelations will make, the likely allies who will believe and trust their version of events and the possible backlash from those who won’t.

Before you tell the world about your ordeal, especially one that involves some form of sexual violation, you put yourself on trial and try to identify what you might have done wrong to provoke such an attack.

You wonder if it’s the clothes you wore, or the smile you gave the person, did you lead them on somehow and why were you with them in the first place?

There is a great personal cost that every victim pays for speaking out.

As one writer said: When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.

But that’s just me and I could be wrong. We can always agree to disagree.

 Delta Milayo Ndou is a journalist, writer, activist and blogger

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