(Un)masking other dangerous pandemics within the Covid-19 lockdown

By Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Silencing ‘disobedient’ voices

On 13 May 2020, some youths from Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, the MDC Alliance, performed a flash demonstration in Warren Park D, in Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital city). They were protesting against the state’s failure to provide care and sustenance for the disadvantaged and vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown. Later on, reports emerged that three women, namely, the Member of Parliament for Harare West, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, who had been part of the demonstration, had been arrested and were in police custody. These women were accused of breaking the rules and regulations of the Covid-19 lockdown. The police, through a government-run and pro-government newspaper, the Herald, confirmed the arrest. In a story published in the Herald, the National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner, Paul Nyathi, confirmed: “the police arrested the three in Harare today in connection with an illegal demonstration, which occurred in Warren Park earlier in the day. They are in our custody and we are still making further investigations into the issue,” (Maphosa 2020). Subsequently, details emerged that the three women could not be traced and the police and government officials denied having ever arrested them. After two days, there were reports that the women had been found dumped on the outskirts of Bindura, some 120km away from Harare, and that they had been beaten up, forced to drink each other’s urine and sexually harassed by state security agents.[1]

Within this story, there are contestations, with state authorities claiming that the abduction was stage-managed to damage the national image of the country[2] while the women were claiming to have been abducted and tortured because they had protested against the government. With the Zimbabwean state having a history of abducting and torturing oppositional voices (Mukoko 2016; Wilkins 2012; Sachikonye 2011), and earlier acknowledgement by the police that the trio had been arrested, the issue remains sensitive and there have been calls for independent investigations into the matter. In the midst of all this, the deputy minister in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Energy Mutodi, posted a very interesting Tweet with regards to how the women found themselves in the troublesome situation. I posit that Mutodi’s Tweet reveals the considerable extent to which masculine authoritarianism and patriarchy remain deeply embedded in the nation of Zimbabwe.

Mutodi’s Tweet: Prototyping the sexualities of woman-public figures

Mutodi’s Tweet read as follows: “Details emerge MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura with their lovers who are artisanal miners. They parked their car at a police station for safety but tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services” (Energy Mutodi Tweet May 20, 2020).[3]

Since stories of abduction are not new, as shown by scholars above, I locate abductions as discourses of state-making in Zimbabwe. Whether real or re/imagined, abductions are part of the ‘everyday’ and are discourses and performances of the Zimbabwean nation that should be problematised. However, rather than focusing on the raging debate about whether this particular abduction was real or stage-managed, in this work, I focus on the above abduction story as a discourse of state-craft. Mutodi’s Tweet can be located discursively within the broader politics of gender, the silencing of women, and the mis/representation of women and women’s images in dominant patriarchal texts of imagining the nation. This discursive analysis exposes that Mutodi’s Tweet re/represents and performs the prevailing and naturalised surveillance of women and women’s bodies that characterises Zimbabwe and other patriarchal societies. The Tweet was meant not only to shame and silence the three women politically, but also to silence the impetus narrative of women abuses in Zimbabwe, to silence women’s political and public participation, as well as to silence women’s sexualities and sexual liberties. Moreover, the Tweet produced the effect of cementing existing and dominant patriarchal narratives pertaining to women and their identities and also their place and space within the nation.

Normalising dominant images of women: “…went out for a romantic night…”

As a public and official figure, deputy Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Mutodi’s Tweet epitomises the position of the state and reveals and drives public opinion. His expression that “MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura” should not be read as misplaced satire, but rather as satire that is re/produced within and is performing particular dominant knowledges and culture. The lack of empathy that the Zimbabwean state has towards women who experience abuses, especially sexual abuses, is revealed in the Tweet. Also revealed is the lack of seriousness and the denials that the state makes on cases of women abuse, especially sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, many cases of women abuse are not reported, while others are not attended to (Mashiri & Mawire 2013; Shamu et al 2013) because of this denial.

Since Mutodi draws attention to the women’s unexpected romantic outing, there is a clear perpetuation of dominant discourses that associate ‘obedient’ women with the home and the private space, thereby shifting the blame on the survivors of abuse for inviting trouble to themselves by venturing into the public space. The glaring patriarchal narrative in the Tweet is clear. Mutodi is simply articulating that the home and the private is the only appropriate space for women, and that public spaces are unsafe, hence women who cross boundaries have themselves to blame if they get into trouble, or if they face the precariousness of the public space. This is a continuation of the Zimbabwean state’s actions where operations that criminalise the ‘unsanctioned’ presence of women in public spaces (like streets, for example) are implemented (Masakure 2016, Mawere 2016; Gaidzanwa 1993). Following Mutodi’s Tweet, and dominant knowledge around images of women, only those women who are defiant, liars, poisonous/evil and with sexual liberties get into trouble (Mawere 2019, 2016; Sathyamurthy 2016; Gaidzanwa 1985).

To destroy the political aspirations and social standing of women, patriarchy turns to the discourse of sexuality, where it banks on the normalised script of women’s sexual purity (Mawere 2019). This is a very strong weapon, considering how female sexuality is a social taboo and how making it public erodes respectable notions of womanhood. In Mutodi’s Tweet, associating the women with an act of the ‘night’ invites the public to view them as sex workers. In a society like Zimbabwe, where sex work is stigmatised, this is a deliberate aim to position the women as social deviants and as poisonous to the nation. With such alleged impurity, the women cannot fit into ideas of archetypal womanhood that comply with Zimbabwe’s expected ‘mothers of the nation’ (Mawere 2019; Chadya 2003; Hunter 2000). This discourse of impurity, often associated with women in politics, those who come into the public arena and those with ‘voices’, associates women with negative images such as those of ‘whores.’ Considering the patriarchal identity that remains central to Zimbabwean nationhood, this robs the three women (and any other woman who dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries) of social and national standing. Associating them with the ‘night’ reduces them to the common media image of ‘ladies of the night’, which is typically associated with transactional sex and the poisoning of national men and nationhood. The same method has been used to shatter the political ambitions of Zimbabwean women like Grace Mugabe, Thokozani Khupe, and Joice Mujuru, who have been delegitimised in the eyes of the Zimbabwean public, primarily because of their perceived transgression of patriarchal rules (Mawere 2019).

The public, official and yet insensitive nature of Minister Mutodi’s sentiments reflects a misogynistic society that has, for years, normalised and typified the identities of women. Mutodi is requesting the society to pass moral, cultural and national judgements on the case at hand. In patriarchal societies, there tend to be strong sentiments that women invite trouble for themselves, owing to their wayward characters and/or failure to conform to expectations. Survivors of rape and gender-based violence are usually blamed for inviting the perpetrator, hence cases of sexual violations have been peripherised. Mutodi’s Tweet confirms the official and societal view that stories of women abuse, sexual violence and other violations are manufactured or part of the package for their deviance. This is a backlash against efforts that are being made to raise awareness of the existence and ugliness of these issues.

(Un)mothering defiant women: “…the lovers are artisanal miners…”

Considering the public and media image of makorokoza (artisanal miners) in Zimbabwe, the association of Joana, Cecilia and Netsai with artisanal miners is used to erase them from the narrative of mothers of the nation. This association confirms the women to be immoral, careless, dirty and pathogenic. This is in the context of the negative images that characterise artisanal miners in Zimbabwe.

Although artisanal miners at times possess large sums of money from their mining activities, they are frequently accused of spending it recklessly on alcohol and commercial sex workers. By and large, makorokoza are associated with social deviance, carelessness, dirt, and diseases, especially sexually-transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. A narrative that links the three women with artisanal miners simultaneously delinks them with the imagined mothers of the nation. The deputy minister’s assertion that the women’s “lovers are artisanal miners” therefore sensualises an imagination of the three women’s contamination.

Mutodi’s Tweet can thus be regarded as a way of presenting Joana, Cecilia, Netsai and all ‘disobedient’ women not only as morally, socially and physically diseased, but also as politically diseased and inadequate to offer anything positive to the nation. This is especially true in the context where Zimbabwean ‘black’ women symbolise “an uncontaminated essence, the custodian of ancestral traditions” that co-exists with them being symbolically coded with land and its ‘purity’” (Lewis, 2004:198). To push Lewis’s idea further, in the Zimbabwean state’s macho nation-building projects that are characterised by the symbolic configuration of womanhood for masculine political projects, such as being ‘mothers of the nation,’ women’s sexual activities that are disassociated with national re/production and focused on satisfying women’s own pleasures are debased. This speaks to cultural taboos and claims that view sexual pleasure and freedom as dangerous and irresponsible for womanhood (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982).

Mutodi was, therefore, deliberately asserting that abuses of women who are dirty and national pollutants do not deserve national attention, and ultimately, that the women do not deserve justice. He was calling for the wider Zimbabwean society to dismiss allegations that the women had been abused. As members of the MDC Alliance, their contaminated nature and inadequacy, which is buttressed by their physical contact with the ‘pathogenic’ artisanal miners, mirrors the contaminated nature and inadequacy of their party, hence inviting citizens to ditch the polluted and polluting party.

Evoking “Karma is a bitch”: “…tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services”

Mutodi buttresses his assertion that the three women are defiled national bodies by locating them within discourses of transactional sex. For him, what befell these women is normal and expected, given the space they had chosen to occupy. In many ways, Mutodi is not only aligning himself with the insensitivity of the state towards commercial sex workers, but is also avowing that sex workers should not have agency and justice in Zimbabwean society, where the sexual purity of women is valued. The intention of this narrative is likely aimed at tainting the three women’s (and all oppositional women’s) social, political and national and images.

In addition, Mutodi’s insensitive patriarchal narration of what befell the three women reveals the ‘common-sense’ discourse of women, which constructs young urban women and particularly women in politics as ‘prostitutes’ (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985) as he identifies them as providers of sexual services. This is very disturbing, especially in the context where the women made claims of sexual harassment and assault. What is apparent in Mutodi’s use of discourse is that the women got into trouble as a consequence of breaking the boundaries and demarcations of national (patriarchal) space. Mutodi’s Tweet is therefore, very significant and instrumental to the socio-economic and political control of all women, as it demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. Controlling women’s bodies and sexualities through public ‘acts’ that other citizens can witness is a very powerful metaphor of cultural surveillance and state control (Mawere 2016). Through the Tweet, the deputy minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services in the Zimbabwean state is simply acting out the control of women and their bodies and warning women and other subjects of the nation that they are under national surveillance.

Conclusion: The common narrative

Dominant patriarchal narratives suppress women’s public participation, female pleasure and female freedoms by constructing female eroticism as unspeakable (Mawere 2019; Birrell 2008; Ranciere 2006; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Following the above therefore, the public space is positioned as unsuitable for women and what befell the three women who had ‘escaped’ from their confinements is a result of the taboo acts of being at wrong places, seeking erotic pleasure and ‘transacting’ their sexual ‘purity’ for money. The women’s participation in oppositional politics is equated to ‘selling out’ their bodies and therefore making them defiled national bodies who deserve punishment and who are not worth any national sympathy or agency.

Mutodi’s and the state’s reason for shaming the three women is to limit the contagious possibilities of their ‘rebellious’ bodies. It is clear that women who break spatial boundaries and occupy public spaces that are dominated by, and seen as the preserve for men, are associated with sexual freedoms and are thus seen as threats to societies since sexual freedoms have been associated with defiance and power. The erotic is a crucial source of power and agency for women and its suppression is instrumental to the reproduction of patriarchal systems (Mawere 2016; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). The close ties between sexuality and power make sexual pleasure and eroticism fields of political significance (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Silencing women by embarrassing them through the exposition of their real or imagined sexual behaviours to the public is characteristic of Zimbabwean politics (Mawere 2019).

In a context where respect and honour for women is tied closely to their ability to keep their sexual lives private, such exposures are meant to undress (discursively and at bodily levels) the women, shame them and take away their agentive power. Mutodi’s attempts to embarrass the three women portray an image where the sexualities of the three women are contaminated. This enables him to naturalise and sensualise the confinement of “serious national women” and “Mothers of the Nation” to private and domestic spaces. This is clearly a surveillance of the three women’s and any woman’s political and public participation. What we witness in Mutodi’s Tweet is ultimately a spectacle of the other dangerous pandemics besides Covid-19 that require urgent questioning and critique. These dangerous pandemics include state repression, gender violence, toxic and patriarchal nation-building projects and many forms of physical, structural and symbolic violence.


Birrell, R. 2008, Jacques Rancière and the (Re) distribution of the sensible: Five lessons in Artistic Research, Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 1-11.

Chadya, J.M. 2003, Mother politics: Anti-colonial nationalism and the woman question in Africa, Journal of Women’s History, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 153-157.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1993, The politics of the body and the politics of control: An analysis of class, gender and cultural issues in student politics at the University of Zimbabwe, Zambezia, vol 2, no. 2, pp 15-33.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1985, Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature. Harare: College Press.

Hunter, E. 2000, Zimbabwean nationalism and motherhood in Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, African Studies, vol. 59, pp. 229-243.

Lewis, D. 2004, Revisioning patriarchal nationalism: Yvonne Vera’s ‘Nehanda’, JCAS Symposium series 20. pp 193-208.

Lorde, A. 1982, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Zami/Sister Outsider/Undersong, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Masakure, C. 2016, ‘We will make sure they are rehabilitated’: Nation-building and social engineering in Operation Clean-up, Zimbabwe, 1983, South African Historical Journal, vol. 68, no.1, pp 91-111.

Mashiri, L & Mawire, P. 2013, Conceptualisation of gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 15, pp 94-103.

Mawere, T. 2019, Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath. Pretoria: CSA&G Press.

Mawere, T. 2016, Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture, PhD Dissertation. Cape Town: University of the Western Cape.

McFadden, P. 2003, Sexual pleasure as feminist choice, Feminist Africa, issue 2, pp. 50-60.

Mukoko, J. 2016, The Abduction and trial of Jestina Mukoko: the fight for human rights in Zimbabwe, Sandton: KMM Review Publishing

Ranciere, J. 2006, The politics of aesthetics, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill, with an afterword by Slavoj Zizek, London: Continuum.

Sachikonye, L.M. 2011, When a state turns on its citizens. Institutionalized violence and political culture, South Africa: Jacana Media.

Sathyamurthy, K. 2016, “Femme Fatale: Tropes of deviant sexuality and empowerment” (Available at https://go.distance.ncsu.edu/gd203/?p=17783 , accessed 20 April 2020).

Shamu, S. et. al. 2013, Opportunities and obstacles to screening pregnant women for intimate partner violence during antenatal care in Zimbabwe, Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, vol. 15, no. 5, pp 511-524.

Maphosa, V.  2020, “MDC-A legislator Mamombe, 2 others arrested” Herald, 14 May 2020 (Available at https://www.herald.co.zw/mdc-a-legislator-mamombe-2-others-arrested/, accessed 20 July 2020).

Wilkins, S. 2012, Ndira’s wake. Politics, memory and mobility among the youth of Mabvuku, Harare, MSc Dissertation, Oxford: University of Oxford.


[1] Abducted MDC Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri speak on the painful ordeal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7VpFpemjkI

[2] Zimbabwe accuses MDC activists of made up state torture claims https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/zimbabwe-accuses-mdc-activists-of-made-up-state-torture-claims

[3]  Energy Mutodi’s Tweet can be found on the following link; https://www.google.com/search?q=mutodi+twitter*joana+mamombe+abduction&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897&sxsrf=ALeKk01n9XLS4NR76J9vP5NYrLn0yPAM8w:1597319230433&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjxosrqjZjrAhXDoXEKHXIdC0wQ_AUoAXoECAwQAw&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=qOaoCGXJFZxxuM

Powerful in Pink: The corporatisation and commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’

By Elize Soer

South Africans commemorate Women’s Month in August to pay tribute to the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women.[1] Various corporations have promptly used the opportunity to advertise everything from shine-boosting shampoo to insurance in the name of ‘celebrating women’.[2] This has not been specific to Women’s Month, but forms part of a broader trend in which aspects of feminism and ‘women’s empowerment’ have been appropriated by corporate advertising campaigns to further capitalist imperatives, primarily boosting sales to increase profit. The following piece will provide a brief contextualisation of Women’s Month and will then provide analyses of various Women’s Month/Day and/or ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns by some of the world’s most famous corporations. The chosen campaigns will be contextualised in relation to the tendency of some corporations to engage in what scholars have referred to as ‘marketplace feminism’ (Zeisler, 2016), ‘postfeminism’ (McRobbie, 2009) and ‘neoliberal feminism’ (Hengeveld, 2015).

The piece will discuss a range of Nike campaigns because they epitomise the trend. Moreover, by historicizing Nike’s campaigns, we can see how the trend evolved and in which ways gendered portrayals changed over time. Thereafter, I will discuss campaigns by various other corporations including Pantene’s ‘Braids of Strength’ (2019), Hyundai’s ‘I_Can’ (2019), Barbie’s ‘Did You Know’ (2018) and Levi’s ‘Shape My World’ (2019). These campaigns were by no means exceptional and there are various other campaigns that reflect and promote the same discourses, for example MacDonald’s International Women’s Day advertisement (2020) and Netflix’s ‘#SheRules: International Women’s Day’ (2019). These campaigns were chosen because they represent the trend, but there were many other campaigns that could have served the same purpose. Summarily, the piece will argue that it is problematic that transnational corporations built on exploitation are appropriating ‘progressive’ ideas while simultaneously (re)producing the same exploitative structures that activists have been critiquing.[3]

Similar to Women’s Month in South Africa (SA), the origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) can be traced back to protests against exploitative and oppressive policies. The Socialist Party of America initiated IWD in order to honour the garment workers’ strike in New York in 1908, which can be situated in a struggle against capitalist economic exploitation. As Catherine Rottenberg noted, this tradition is still evident in many protests for gender justice, which often connect feminist issues with demands for racial, economic and/or climate justice (Rottenberg, 2019). However, these inspiring movements have been paralleled by a more worrisome trend- the increased commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’. Corporations often use images of ‘women’s empowerment’ as a part of ‘brand activism’, which refers to corporate attempts to improve a brand’s reputation “by using some popular and often progressive cause in their PR and advertising campaigns” (Rottenberg, 2019).

As mentioned in the introduction, the commodification of Women’s Month/Day is typified by the fact that various corporations and retailers have linked ‘celebrating women’ to buying effeminate gifts. These gifts include spa treatments, scented lotions, lingerie and perfumes. There are even lists of ‘empowering gifts’ such as wine glasses and bracelets (Murden, 2020). The first problem with these gifts is that they are usually pink and stereotypically feminine. This reinforces a gender dichotomy in which women are associated with ‘self-care’ products typically aimed at ‘improving’ their physical appearance. Ironically, this reinforces precisely the problematic binarised discourses around femininity that most feminists have aimed to oppose.

The notion of ‘empowering’ products has not been limited to Women’s Month. Katy Perry branded her signature fragrance, Killer Queen, as “royal, rebellious, and feminist” (Zeisler, 2016: 9) while various brands such as Dior launched ranges of T-Shirts with slogans like ‘We Should All be Feminists’[4] and ‘The Future is Female’. T-shirts with feminist slogans are not necessarily problematic, but these shirts often undermine the very causes they claim to support (Kvidal-Røvik, 2018: 210).[5] As Catherine Rottenberg noted, “activism and empowerment here is equated with buying an expensive t-shirt with words like ‘You Go Girl’. Women, in other words, are encouraged to express their solidarity not through struggle or protest, but by shopping” (Rottenberg, 2019). She labelled this type of feminism ‘neoliberal feminism’[6] and argued that it is marketable “precisely because it is a non-threatening feminism. It doesn’t address the devastation wrought by neoliberal capitalism, neo-imperialism or systemic misogyny and sexism.”

Andi Zeisler similarly critiqued this form of feminism for being uncritical of capitalist structures and for promoting a “glossy feel-good feminism” that ignores entrenched forms of inequality (Zeisler, 2016: 10). It draws on a vocabulary of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ to promote an individualistic discourse that transposes structural and social problems into individual (in)adequacies (McRobbie, 2009: 1; Cole & Hribar, 1995: 354). The notion of individual empowerment featured strongly in all of the campaigns that will be discussed. This logic suggests that everyone can succeed within capitalism if they are dedicated enough and, from a gendered lens, that every woman can be ‘empowered’ if she chooses to be. It is implied that individuals must not allow prejudices associated with circumstances of class, race, gender, sexuality or physical ability to impede their efforts, “as if transcending these things is simply a matter of will and effort” (Helstein, 2003: 288).

The notion that one must simply work harder to transcend one’s circumstances is a fundamental capitalist mantra. Debra Capon and Michelle Helstein argued that advertisements can be considered to be the myths of contemporary (Western) culture and it is thus not really surprising that they would promote capitalist ideologies (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 40). According to their definition, myths funcion to “naturalize speech, transmuting what is essentially cultural (historical, constructed, and motivated) into something which it materializes as natural (transhistorical, innocent, factual)” (2004: 56). The myth that one must simply work harder to transcend all circumstances was particularly evident in Nike’s campaigns. If we assume that myths function to naturalise ideas that are constructed in specific historical periods, then a short discussion of Nike’s history seems appropriate.

Nike was founded in 1964, but its sharp ascent began during the Reagan era (1981-1989) in the United States (U.S.). Ronald Reagan has become associated with his neoliberal economic doctrine, which demonised state support and favoured privatisation. His ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on AIDS’ also followed a logic that foregrounded free will and located “insufficient free will in the bodies of others” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355). The advertising campaigns of the era promoted free will, the ‘deep self’ and the ‘hard body’ and encouraged consumers to work on their bodies and to consume commodities in order to maintain the body. Working on the body was presented as a means of taking control and displaying one’s self. Concurrently, consumer power was championed as a means of transcendence at a time when political options were narrowing. Summarily, It is not a coincidence that Nike thrived in the decades characterised by cultural emphases on “fitness, health, lifestyle, addiction, and individual responsibility” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355).

During the same period, advertisers began to respond to the heightened awareness of feminist critiques of the images of women in advertising. More and more advertisements started to contain signs associated with so-called ‘positive images of women’. Advertisements that incorporated commodity feminism advanced an image of the ‘new woman’ who was defined by a series of attitudes and signs based on the characteristics of the liberal subject, including individuality, independence and choice. Nike’s advisers informed the company about the potential of the rising ‘women’s market’ in 1979. However, Nike’s executives dismissed the advice because they thought it would harm the company’s image as an “authentic and serious” sport brand, in contrast to Reebok, which did cater to the ‘women’s market’ (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 359).

Nike finally ventured into the ‘women’s market’ in 1987 with a TV campaign featuring the famous triathlete Joanne Ernst. The advertisement concluded with Ernst sitting on a locker room bench and telling the audience that “it wouldn’t hurt if you stopped eating like a pig” (cited in: Hengeveld, 2015). Unsurprisingly, the advertisement was not the breakthrough into the ‘women’s market’ that Nike had hoped for. Nike then hired the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, wich actively drew on feminist critiques of the advertising industry and incorporated these critiques into subsequent Nike campaigns. The first advertising message the agency created for Nike (in 1990) was ‘empowerment’. The campaign encouraged women to reject ‘traditional holds’ and challenged them to become ‘empowered’ through fitness. Nike promoted an image of empowerment that corresponded with the Reaganite malieu. For example, one ad closed with the line “the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be”, reiterating the point that women could take control of their destiny and exert personal agency through buying shoes (Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 11).

It was thus in the early 1990s that Nike began capitalising on calls for gender justice by using critiques of patriarchy as a marketing strategy. However, Nike executives were still adverse to using women with muscular bodies in their ads. The emphasis was not on women as competitors, but on women who were healthy and fit, “but not too fit, always pretty” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 14). Although the depiction of women has changed over time, there has been a continuous emphasis on beauty. Standards changed from voluptuousness to thinness to being ‘toned’, but cultural norms continued to promote the importance of beauty. Beauty also continued to be conceptualised in a narrow (Western) way and images of beauty remained predominantly white and ‘not too masculine’.  For example, Nike launched a range of sports bras in 1999 with the tag-line “After years of exercise, what kind of shape will your breasts be in?” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 22). The bra was thus not advertised by appealing to athletic performance, but to fears that women’s breasts would become ‘deformed’ by athletic training.

Since these first campaigns, Nike has attempted to brand itself as a purveyor of equality and justice for women. This image was somewhat tarnished by multiple sweatshop scandals that “made it crystal clear that Nike profited from, rather than, railed against patriarchy,” (Hengeveld, 2015). Nonetheless, Nike’s advertisements continue to push an emancipatory narrative that focuses on “empowerment embedded in bodily maintenance and the consumption of Nike products” (Helstein, 2003: 282). These ads have been targeted more towards the global north, however, Nike has also had multiple campaigns in the global south. On the one hand, these campaigns take the form of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ programmes.[7] However, for the sake of this piece, I want to focus on one of Nike’s recent campaigns featuring the famous South African athlete Caster Semenya.

Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign was launched in 2019 and featured multiple videos with a range of athletes, including Sam Kerr, Virgil van Dijk and Caster Semenya. In the video centred on Semenya, she shows the audience her home in Soweto, a township in SA. The narrative of the video explains that Semenya overcame her circumstances and rose from poverty to become an Olympic gold medalist, or in Semenya’s words “I moved from rurals to international stage”. Throughout the video, she made multiple comments emphasising that “you dream it and then you do it” and  “even if you are coming from a dusty place like this, you can be whoever you want”. After the inspirational video, Nike’s infamous slogan ‘Just Do It’ appears with the company’s signature swoosh (Nike, 2019).

The advertisement clearly advances the capitalist notion that structural and social problems can be overcome through personal lifestyle choices. Accordingly, success can be achieved through the force of individual will, personal perseverance and self-responsibility (McDonald, 2004: 28). It is important to note that Semenya is an exceptional athlete who has overcome multiple forms of discrimination and that she certainly deserves admiration. However, this is where the conceptualisation of advertisements as modern myths becomes significant. Myths are often not total falsehoods or delusions, but partial truths that “accentuate particular versions of reality and marginalize or omit others” (McKay, 2004: 83). Accordingly, “myths depoliticize social relations by ignoring the vested interests involved in struggles over whose stories become ascendant in a given culture” (McKay, 2004: 83).

The problem with Nike’s campaign is thus not the fact that Semenya got recognition, but the myriad of factors that this ‘just do it’ narrative omits. If succeeding within a capitalist structure is simply a matter of individuals working hard, then the people who fail to succeed have no one to blame but themselves. This ignores institutionalised classism, racism and sexism (McKay, 2004: 88). Just as notions of ‘women’s empowerment’ began to feature in Nike advertising campaigns when the company wanted to reach the ‘women’s market’, Nike has also begun to associate images of freedom, success and opportunity with athletes of colour, while omitting any indication of exploitative practices. This led Jim McKay to argue that contemporary sports advertising discourses “exemplify the capacity of the media to mythologize relations of exploitation, and construct ideologies of enlightened racism and celebrity feminism” (McKay, 2004: 93).

Caster Semenya is not only famous for her athletic capabilities, but also for the (highly publicised) debates about her intersexuality. In the Nike video, she touches on the subject by stating “I know I look like a boy, so what?” (Nike, 2019). A discussion about sexuality and sport as well as the implications of intersexuality for notions of a gender dichotomy falls beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I want to draw attention to the fact that Semenya’s ‘masculine’ traits are presented as acceptable. This is seemingly in contrast to the company’s earlier insistence that the women in their campaigns should not be ‘too fit’ (read ‘too muscular’) since they would no longer be pretty and, assumedly, too threatening.

The first possible explanation for this change over time is the fact that Nike’s advertisers are acutely aware of feminist critiques and they incorporate these critiques into their campaigns. The second possible explanation is that ‘black femininity’ is stereotypically more ‘masculine’ than ‘white femininity’ because black women in the U.S. were expected to do manual labour (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 53). Both of these explanations are supported by gendered representations in another Nike campaign featuring Serena Williams. Williams is one of Nike’s primary spokespeople and she is often presented as strong and powerful. In the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign she stated: “I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated for motherhood. But I am proving time and time again, there is no wrong way to be a woman” (Nike, 2018). In the text there is a clear incorporation of feminist critiques. However, as we shall see, there is also a variance between Nike’s presentation of black and white women.

Nike’s 2019 ‘Dream Crazier’ campaign starts with an image of a crying white woman, although the advertisement also features a feminist-inspired narration by Williams (Nike, 2019). Nike’s preceding ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign in 2018 (narrated by  Colin Kaepernick) included a snippet with Alicia Woollcott, an American teenager who played linebacker and was named homecoming queen during her high school senior year. The advertisement asserted: “Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker, do both” (Nike, 2018). This advertisement seems to validate a critique Barbara Lippert wrote of Nike ads in 2001. Lippert took issue with the “general, red-blooded, upbeat, you-go-girl message, synthesizing every post-empowerment female idea about combining strength and emotions and humanity, karate kicks and mascara” (Lippert, 2001). Significantly, black female athletes are portrayed as purely athletic, while white female athletes are portrayed as both athletic and feminine. We are told that Woollcott was a linebacker, but we are reminded that she was not ‘butch’ since she was also the homecoming queen. During the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign discussed in the previous paragraph, Williams mentioned motherhood, which could be read as a reminder that she could be both an excellent athlete and a mother and thus ‘have it all’. However, this is a relatively new addition and there is a general tendency to emphasise the pure strength of black women while white women are portrayed as strong, but still feminine.

Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz identified a similar gendered ideology in Nike campaigns and argued that women are now encouraged to “both ‘like pink’ and yet ‘still sweat” (2004: 75). Accordingly, “the dual consumption of hyperfemininity and tomboy-athleticism is no longer diametrically opposed; the New Age female athlete á la Nike is both ‘girly girl’ and ‘athletic’” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 75). As demonstrated by the discussion of Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign, not all of their campaigns conform to this ideology. In addition to the racial element, this could possibly be due to the fact that Nike still wants to protect its ‘serious sports’ image. However, other ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns do conform to this ideology. The general themes of these campaigns are a ‘you go girl!’ ethos with examples of women who ‘have it all’. In this instance, women who ‘have it all’ are depicted “carrying babies, modeling clothing, scoring baskets, and kicking goals, all the while displaying conservative, feminine, and attractive qualities and characteristics” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 63).

Pantene’s 2019 Women’s Day campaign, ‘Braids of Strength’, presents an apt example of this ideology. The first ad in the campaign starts with the statement “By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports (at) twice the rate of boys”. The ad then follows Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, an artistic gymnast. Although the ad does comment on her strength, she is also feminine and skilfully make-uped and there are multiple shots of her hair being braided. Finally, the ad declares “stay strong, stay beautiful and stay in sports”. The emphasis is thus on the fact that women can compete in sport and stay beautiful, if they buy Pantene shampoo of course (Pantene, 2019).

The second ad in the campaign featured Nur Suryani, the Malysian shooter who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games while being 8 months pregnant. At the launch of the campaign Suryani stated: “Embracing our womanhood through sports is at times challenging, but ultimately rewarding” (cited in: Angie, 2019). Both ads thus emphasise the fact that women can stay in sport and be feminine. Suryani did not have to choose between being a mother and competing in the Olympics, she could do both. Significantly, Suryani’s athleticism did not challenge her role as a woman, but she could ‘embrace her womanhood through sports’.

While Pantene’s Women’s Day campaign at least promotes a form of empowerment and comments on women’s strength, Hyundai’s ‘campaign’ is simply an advertisement. The advertisement shows a woman’s hands being hennaed while the narration states “this is the moment I was waiting for. I can’t wait to experience this new life. Every girl dreams of this day, now it’s coming true” (Hyundai, 2019). The advertisement thus encourages the audience to believe that the woman is speaking about her wedding day. Then a Hyundai car key is placed in her hands and the audience realises that the day she has been waiting for, is the day she would receive the car. The ad is then hashtagged ‘I_Can’. The hashtag therefore follows the individualised ‘you go girl’ notion of ‘women’s empowerment’ while the advertisement suggests that this is achievable through buying a new car. The advertisement also evokes the ‘traditional’ idea that women are supposed to dream of marriage and suggests that ‘empowered women’ rather dream of participating in consumer economies.

Even Barbie (a subsidiary of the American toy company Mattel Inc.) launched an ‘empowerment’ campaign, ‘Did You Know’ #Barbie #MoreRoleModels. The brand has  encountered widespread feminist criticism because of its representation of notions of beauty, body image and race, amongst other issues. In response, Barbie has been trying to reinvent its image and has been presenting its princesses as more independent than their Disney counterparts. The brand has released 14 feature-length films since 2001 in which Barbie refuses to marry a prince and prefers studying science to attending balls (Orr, 2009: 10). In concurrence with this theme, Barbie’s 2018 campaign shows a range of young, effeminate girls, each saying a phrase of the following: “We really need more female scientists, more coders, more civil engineers. Can you believe most head chefs are men? Seriously?[8]… If girls can’t see women doing these jobs, how will we know we can?” Subsequently, the ad declares

“Because imagining she can is only the beginning. Actually seeing that she can makes all the difference”. Only then do we get to the point, namely that you can inspire a feature scientist, engineer, doctor and so on by buying her a Barbie.

The Barbie campaign captures the theme of all of the campaigns: that women/girls can become empowered through owning the right shoes, shampoo, car or doll. Perhaps Barbie’s presentation of femininity is more problematic than Nike’s, but Nike’s bottom-line is still selling products. As we have seen, if Nike could sell more products by making women feel insecure about their breast shape, then their campaigns would focus on that. I find Nike’s campaigns more worrisome precisely because they appear to be so progressive and are thus more difficult to criticise. If one criticises Nike’s campaigns, it very easily comes across as if you are trying to belittle Semenya or William’s achievements, while the problem is the co-option of progressive ideals to advance capitalist interests.

Nike is not the only company that has followed this strategy. The South African activist Zuleika Patel who challenged Pretoria Girls High School’s hair policy regarding black girls’ hair in 2016, is now part of Levi’s ‘I Shape My World’ campaign.  In the campaign, Patel states that she is standing up “for girls, for women, for my people”. This might be true and Patel’s activism should not be undermined. However, Patel is shown “leading from the ground” in very stylish Levi’s apparel and the company’s ultimate aim is still to boost its sales (Levi’s, 2019). Jim McKay criticised Nike for reinscribing “an act of dissent as a funky fashion statement” (2004: 88), but this seems to be a general trend in the industry. While watching these ads, it is important to keep in mind that the brands behind them profit from racialised and patriarchal structures even if they claim to support ‘women’s empowerment’ and black activism.

Summarily, the first problematic aspect of recent Women’s Month/Day campaigns is that they subject feminism(s) to capitalist structures and motivate women to be successful within capitalism. By focussing on the fact that women can be successful within capitalism, these campaigns emphasise the importance of free will and determination. This then implies that the people who do not become successful (according to the capitalist definition of the term) simply did not work hard enough and that “ anyone who did not succeed did not deserve to succeed” (Helstein, 2003: 282). The ‘Girl Power!’ and ‘You Go Girl!’ narratives also promote self-betterment strategies that conceal economic and political power relations that place people in positions of vulnerability. As  Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz argued, “it is the productive aspect of power circulating such discursive spaces and masking unequal power relations that, while seemingly embracing all things Girl, further contributes to the status quo rather than challenging it” (2004: 71).

This is not to say that women are only victims or that they have no agency. Instead, I am critiquing the narrow definition of ‘empowerment’, which frames it as something that can be achieved through working on the body and consuming lifestyle products. This notion of empowerment seems very far removed from the campaigns that inspired Women’s Day/Month in the first place. These campaigns aimed to challenge exploitative policies and oppressive structures. By highlighting this I am not trying to evoke nostalgia for some golden age of ‘real feminism’. As already noted, there are many contemporary feminist campaigns that challenge power and promote various forms of justice. Nonetheless, we must be weary of the corporatisation and commodification of (some) feminist ideals, which threatens neither patriarchal culture nor capitalist hegemony.


Angie, T. 2019. ‘International Women’s Day 2019: Pantene Inspires Women to Stay in Sports through its Braids of Strength Campaign’. <http://www.pamper.my/news/beauty/hair/international-womens-day-2019-pantene-inspires-women-stay-sports-braids-strength-campaign/> Access: 25 July 2020.

Barbie, 2018 ‘Did you know’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwXwNubKnYc> Access: 14 August 2020.

Capon, D.A. Helstein, M.T. 2004 ‘“Knowing” the hero: The female athlete and myth at work in Nike advertising’, in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S.J. Andrews, D.L. (eds). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon and New York.

Cole, C. L. Hribar, A. 1995. ‘Celebrity Feminism: Nike Style Post-Fordism, Transcendence, and Consumer Power’. Sociology of Sport Journal 12, pp. 347-369.

Frosdick, S. 2019. ‘P&G boss David Taylor reflects on gender equality after Gillette advert – but does he practise what he preaches?’ <https://www.ns-businesshub.com/popular/pg-david-taylor-gillette-advert/> Access: 14 August 2020.

Giardina, M.D. Metz, J.L. 2004. ‘Women’s sport in Nike’s America: Body politics and the corporo-empowerment of “everyday athletes”’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

Gillette, 2019. ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0> Access: 14 August 2020.

Grow, J. Wolburg, J. 2006. ‘Selling Truth: How Nike’s Advertising to Women Claimed a Contested Reality’. Advertising and Society Review 7(2).

Helstein, M.T. 2003. ‘That’s Who I Want to Be: The Politics and Production of Desire Within Nike Advertising to Women’. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 27(3), pp. 276-292.

Hengeveld, M. 2015. ‘How Nike’s Neoliberal Feminism Came to Rule the Global South’. Portside. <https://portside.org/2015-09-21/how-nikes-neoliberal-feminism-came-rule-global-south> Access: 23 July 2020.

Hurst, S. 2017. ‘What’s the Environmental Footprint of a T-Shirt?’ Smithsonian Magazine. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/whats-environmental-footprint-t-shirt-180962885/> Access: 14 August 2020.

Hyundai, 2019. ‘Hyundai – Celebrating International Women’s Day’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2xqJWAvhKk> Access: 25 July 2020.

Kvidal-Røvik, T. 2018. ‘The Meaning of the Feminist T-Shirt: Social Media, Postmodern Aesthetics, and the Potential for Sociopolitical Change’. Media and Communication 6(2), pp. 210-219.

Levi’s, 2019. ‘Levi’s® | I Shape My World 2019 | Zuleika Patel | South Africa’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUgNYlch9H4> Access: 25 July 2020.

Lippert, B. 2001. ‘Barbara Lippert’s Critique’. Adweek. <https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/barbara-lipperts-critique-30569/> Access: 24 July 2020.

McDonald, M. 2004. ‘Model Behaviour? Sporting feminism and consumer culture’, in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

McDonald’s, 2020. ‘McDonald’s: International Women’s Day’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=907Yo-US36o> Access: 14 August 2020.

McKay, J. 2004. ‘Enlightened racism and celebrity feminism in contemporary sports advertising discourse’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.

McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. SAGE Publications, London.

Murden, K. 2020. ‘Celebrate Women’s History Month with these empowering gifts’. CNN. <https://us.cnn.com/2020/03/02/cnn-underscored/feminist-gifts/index.html> Access: 23 July 2020.

Netflix, 2019. ‘#SheRules: International Women’s Day’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOU8ME_tf48> Access: 14 August 2020.

Nike, 2018. ‘Colin Kaepernick Nike Commercial’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lomlpJREDzw> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2018. ‘Serena Williams: Until We All Win’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT1Fy7OuAyY> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2019. ‘Caster Semenya: Birthplace of Dreams’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXYBcigxjpQ> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2019. ‘Nike- Dream Crazier’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqy3qgvDMkY> Access: 24 July 2020.

Orr, L. 2009. ‘”Difference That Is Actually Sameness Mass-Reproduced”: Barbie Joins the Princess Convergence’. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 1(1), pp. 9-30.

Pantene, 2019. ‘Pantene ‘Braids of Strength’ ft Farah Ann #WanitaBesi’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOhvJe-XJ5g> Access: 25 July 2020.

Rottenber, C. 2019. ‘Commodifying Women’s Rights: How corporations make money out of ‘feel-good’ feminism’. Al Jazeera. <https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/commodifying-women-rights-190308092448665.html> Access: 23 July 2020.

Walker, C. 1991. Women and Resistance in South Africa. David Philip Publishers, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Wells, J.C. 1993. We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.

Zeisler, A. 2016. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Girrrl to Covergirl, the buying and selling of a political movement. Public Affairs, New York.


[1] There are multiple sources that provide more in depth discussions of this topic. For example Cherryl Walker’s Women and Resistance in South Africa (1991) and Julia C. Well’s We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa (1993).

[2] Pantene’s 2019 ‘Braids of Strength’ campaign will be discussed as an example later in the piece. However, the company’s 2017 campaign, ‘Labels Against Women’, is another apt example. The advertisement is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luLkfXixBpM.

[3] This piece will focus specifically on ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns because of the context of Women’s Month. However, this can also be situated within a broader trend. Here we only need to think of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign (available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0). The campaign presents an apt example of the individualistic discourse that will be discussed subsequently by insisting that “it is only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”. Moreover, a company that has profited from  promoting images of what ‘real men’ are supposed to look like, has suddenly positioned itself as opposing ‘toxic masculinity’. Gillette is thus associating its brand with the struggle against ‘toxic masculinity’, while the company has a median gender pay gap of 30% (Frosdick, 2019).

[4] This slogan was inspired by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay with the same title. Adichie also presented a TED Talk on the topic, which is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.

[5] Here we only need to think about the gendered sweatshop labour associated with the garment industry and the extensive environmental footprint T-shirt manufacturing (Hurst, 2017).

[6] It is important to note that there are multiple feminisms, which are shaped by particular contexts and are reflective of ingrained social configurations and patterns. ‘Neo-liberal feminism’ is thus related to a specific context within North America and Europe and the companies that promote ‘women’s empowerment’ are advertising their products to upper-middle class (mostly western/white) women.

[7] For a critical discussion of these programmes please consult Maria Hengeveld’s ‘How Nike’s Neoliberal Feminism Came to Rule the Global South’, available at: <https://portside.org/2015-09-21/how-nikes-neoliberal-feminism-came-rule-global-south>

[8] Apparently women are still the ones who belong in the kitchen.

CSA&G Statement on Gender and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

On 24 July the UN’s human rights office, the OHCHR, expressed concern over reports of [Zimbabwean] “police using force to disperse and arrest nurses and health workers”, for breaching lockdown restrictions while trying to protest for better salaries and conditions of work.

It also noted a “pattern of intimidation” surrounding events in May when three female members of the main opposition party were allegedly arrested and detained for taking part in a protest during the Covid-19 lockdown. Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, alleged that after State security officials abducted them from a police station, they were tortured and sexually assaulted. They were then subsequently charged with breaking the lockdown rules and faking their abduction.

If the allegations of abduction, torture and sexual assault are true, such actions are meant to frighten and silence women and present a continuation of a culture of fear and silence that existed before the new dispensation. This is counter to the country’s attempts to give voice to women and girls and to end violence against women. It therefore amounts to a negation of all the efforts for gender sensitivity, gender equality and gender justice being made by different progressive state actors and various organisations in and outside Zimbabwe.

In addition, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and an opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, were detained and charged for calling for citizens to protest. The state authorities have claimed that the two were arrested for calling for citizens to disobey Covid-19 regulations as well as for citizens to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. However, arresting people for encouraging citizens to express themselves on corruption has raised concern. Also, in the case of Hopewell, arresting him soon after exposing corruption by top officials has been viewed as vindictive and linked to silencing citizens. As a result of these events, the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has arisen, to signify regional and global concern for the lives, dignity and rights of all Zimbabwean citizens.

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender would like to express its concern about the above alleged and related developments in Zimbabwe, especially in the context of the hope that many had in the ‘second republic.’ In particular, the alleged use of sexual assault against any citizen detained by the state is very unfortunate and a cause for great concern. Not only is this a violation of international norms and conventions, it goes to the heart of gender oppression, regarding women’s bodies as objects which can be used to express power: male power and the power of the state.

Writing in the Journal of Global Security Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, October 2018, Pages 417–430, Christopher J Einolf states that “Sexual torture and rape employ existing gender hierarchies to intensify dominance of the torturer over the victim and increase the pain, humiliation, and coercion of torture.”

When and where they occur, such sexual assaults have a number of dimensions. First, in some cases they are opportunistic criminal acts, undertaken by security personnel taking advantage of their positions of power. Secondly, some perpetrators used rape and sexual torture as methods of last resort, to force a confession. Third, interrogators use the threat of rape or rape of female relatives as a way to force male relatives to confess.

In all dimensions, such acts, where and when they occur, are an insult to human dignity and decency. While individuals might be targets of such acts, the acts also serve a symbolic purpose where they become examples of what happens to individuals and groups who might be seen as disobeying the state or state actors.

If the state has been abusive, or if state actors have abused their power, we believe the dignity and lives of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova matter. The dignity and lives of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume matter. The dignity and lives of nurses and health workers matter. The dignity and lives of all Zimbabweans matter and should be properly addressed by the authorities so as to build a better Zimbabwe. We believe that the above allegations and issues are very sensitive and that justice should be correctly served so that Zimbabwe is seen as a safe place for all.

In addition to this statement, staff of the CSA&G will be writing about their own personal experiences of violence – whether this be symbolic, normative, physical or by the state. These will be published in a short collection.

A hard life in a hard Lockdown

by Belinda Pakati

Growing up with my friends, we used to play games just to keep ourselves outdoors and enjoy the school holidays.

One of the games we used to play is Statue. One person shouted “statue” and everyone would stand still. No movement was allowed until the very same person who shouted “statue” …. shouted “go” … then everyone could move as they wished.

When the hard Lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africans were prohibited from unnecessary movement to curb the spread of the Corona virus. Many things had to be put on hold, shops became structures just standing still, taxis had to operate at a given time, people had to stand in long queues to enter grocery stores to buy essentials, the was no movement in the streets. I was taken back to those childhood years of playing Statue, but this is not fun, this is not a game, this is reality.

The reality of Lockdown is that we are always moving between “Statue” and “Go”.

This is a country that has child-headed families and orphanages that depend on donations and funding. This is a country that has issues of unemployment; people in my area survive financially by selling tomatoes on street corners and they do piece jobs to put food on the table. But now these people are prohibited from the means to survive, so that they can be safe. They have to stay at home and adhere to the rules of social distancing. For such people life under normal circumstances is difficult, during this unprecedented time they are finding it more difficult to survive.

I found myself in a situation where I had to buy a bag of 10kg Maize Meal, a pack of 5kg chicken feet and a bag of potatoes, because a family that survives by selling vegetables had run out of food and they had to ask for help. I knew the young woman from that family from when I was recruiting people to participate in data collection for research purposes.

“MmaNkati kogae agon adijo le mabone, mabanererobetsikatlala. Mogogoogola next week and Mmamogolo waka yena wa struggler since Lockdown di customer gaditeng,” she said. [“At home we do not have Maize Meal and electricity has run out. Yesterday we had nothing to eat. My grandmother is getting her social grant next week and my aunt is struggling because customers are not available due to Lockdown. Can you please help?”]

As a parent I felt helpless about this. I imagined how it could have been if my children were in a similar situation. My heart pounded with fear. I asked myself how many families out there are going through the same ordeal, who do they turn to in order to get assisted, how many people like me are able to help? This made me feel fearful of how the pandemic has forced people to change the way they survive in life. How am I going to be able to provide for my immediate family, and my extended family and friends who are sometimes dependent on me for some little help, even under normal circumstances?

This brought back memories about how young people who are unemployed (girls in particular) got involved in a lot of different things just so that they could survive a day, a month and a year of their lives. I also wondered how are they now during the lockdown maintaining their needs, how are they able to source money from their Blessers without first satisfying the Blesser’s needs (sex in an exchange for money in this instance) since their everyday lives have been channelled in a way that they do not have much freedom of movement.

Another young woman approached me recently. She was once a participant in an HIV/AIDS workshop I had facilitated back in the day, when HIV was still new to underprivileged communities, where young people were unemployed, where myths and perceptions about that pandemic had to be clarified. She asked questions regarding COVID-19 – she felt it was the same thing as HIV, and wondered if  I would be running a workshop, “because it’s a virus too”.

This made me realize that people aren’t really aware of what COVID-19 is. How do I even help them? Am I even allowed to give out information that might end up being deemed as false, ignorant or not constructive?

People have to learn how to deal with this pandemic, and I realize that I am seeing what I have seen during the years of HIV. People had to learn about it and people who were on ARV’s were given social grants in order to buy healthy food to boost their immune systems. In the time of Corona, people are still learning and still relying on grants.

There are two other things I have seen that are similar. In the early years, people who were HIV positive were isolated just like people who test positive for COVID-19 are separated from others. HIV positive people were placed in separate wards at hospitals and clinics, and some families used to put them in backrooms and hide them from people when they wanted to visit. This was driven by stigma, lack of information, misinformation and uncertainty.

A friend of a friend stopped taking their ARVs because they were tired of taking their medication in secret, so people did not ask questions. This person also said it was hard to explain to a man who was interested in a love affair that they were HIV positive. They feared rejection, they become isolated from the rest of the world, they did not socialise. They become a “statue”.

It’s the same with Covid-19: the infected person starts to panic, fear takes over their lives and they go into self-isolation or get quarantined. Although this is only for a short time, and is necessary, it is still very lonely, and the stigma around Covid is real.

Finally, people don’t always easily stick to the rules. The don’t like to self-isolate, wear masks, sanitise or give up their social lives to prevent COVID-19; and in the same way people don’t like being told about abstinence, sticking to one partner and having safer sex to prevent HIV.

I have learned that people don’t like being turned into “statues”, not then and not now.

REVIEW: A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: Understanding adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability

By Naomi Webster (Human Rights Commission)

Fictional characters come alive, not as words in books but in our imagination as readers. A young girl who, against all odds, triumphs over adversity becomes the story we applaud because we favour a happy ending. For experts like Prof Mzi Nduna, any story of girls and young women (G&YW) must be told by critically, searching for and making visible their lived realities. To tell any story of G&YW’s lived realities is to look at the historical and conceptual context of sexual and reproductive health and to develop interventions that will ensure their full attainment of sexual and reproductive health rights.  Rooted in historical colonial and apartheid national identities, countries like South Africa continue to stunt the human potential of G&YW. Through this practice Africa’s development is hindered.

Prof Nduna’s first monograph, inspired by her life’s work to ensuring the attainment at a macro level of human rights for all G&YW, and at a micro level, dedicated to women and G&YW, is the answer with regards to how we can change the future for G&YW in South Africa and beyond.

The monograph provides an exploratory analysis of existing literature about G&YW’s sexual and reproductive health from researchers within the SADC. Within this body of literature there are notable gaps in understanding the full spectrum of the identities of G&YW. Perceptions of homogeneity lie at the root of blurring G&YW’s identity, denying different sexual orientations, different (dis)abilities, and different cultural beliefs. In addition, models used to understand G&YW’s sexual vulnerability are limited and maybe outdated. G&YW of the twenty-first century have to contend with more decisions and choices about education, social relations, sexual and reproductive health than G&YW born before the HIV/AIDS pandemic or before technology made information readily accessible.

Narratives of G&YW coming of age and emerging into womanhood were common threads in the tapestry of fiction and non-fiction books of the Palesa Book Club, of which Prof Nduna has been a member over the past decade. Fictional characters such as Margaret Cadmore in Bessie Head’s Maru, Kedibone in Pamphilia Hlapa’s A Daughter’s Legacy, Thuli Nhlapo’s mother in Color Me Yellow or Ijeoma in Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees reinforce research findings of G&YW’s vulnerability to sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Questions regarding why most G&YW, particularly those who are Black, experience negative consequences regarding sexual and reproductive health in private and public settings, and what can be done to change this reality, are at the heart of the monograph. The monograph takes these experiences and applies an analysis that answers the questions why and what can be done.

The use of objects such as a comb and a magnifying glass is instructive. Is there a difference, however, in the physical application or use of the objects (combing through and enhancing or making visible)? Prof Nduna suggests a difference. In conceptualising and designing programmatic interventions to bring about the full attainment of human rights (and more specifically, sexual and reproductive health rights), thorough examination and scrutiny is required in terms of programmatic interventions and making visible all recipients of interventions, especially those who are socially excluded because of differences in sexual orientation, class, (dis)abilities, etc. The application of these objects will result in gender -equitable interventions that move from gender-neutral to gender empowerment, and this will enable the happy ending we aspire to for all G&YW. For policy-makers and programme implementers this monograph offers an analysis framework that should be used to tell a story that is inclusive, responsive and empowering for all G&YW to attain their full human potential.