The 16 days of activism really got me thinking this year. I mean really thinking. I remember marching for women and children at Rhodes (it was around the time of the Zuma rape trial) and thinking of all those terrible things that happened to women and children out there in the terrible world (and probably to several of my varsity acquaintances that I will never know about, considering the statistics). But this year I am in the working world, and not a working world made up of mainly middle-class university graduates; the working world of high school drop-outs, jacks of all trades, people of high and yet non-book-learning intelligence (is there a name for that? I would love to know because a lot of people have it and I would like to recognise it properly). In this working world, I see women that these days are in honour of.
Some of them are people I see in passing. There is an old, frail Indian lady to whom my heart goes out because she is balding. Women are proud of their hair, whether it is straightened religiously every morning into long, immaculate waves or shorn and artistically and carelessly unbrushed. This lady obviously can't afford a doctor or treatment to help, so she sits quietly by herself in the corner of the bus to and fro from work every day, uncomplaining.
Jody is also on the bus with me and we work in the same mall. She always has a complete supply of clothing for all weathers: a headscarf for when it is windy or rainy for her neat, short hair and a rain jacket and umbrella for when it rains. She is a manager at Checkers and is on her feet all day. There is a problem with her foot that flares up if she stands for too long and her foot swells almost out of her shoe. Last night she was at Checkers from 7.30 am until 8 pm because the national manager was coming to look today and they had to get the store looking perfect. In the end, he never arrived. He will (probably) come on Friday. She said she wanted to be a nurse, but growing up in Mooi River, the nearest coloured school was in Estcourt, so she had to catch a train to school every day at 4am. Her parents couldn't afford schooling past Standard eight, so that was it.
The lady behind me on the queue for the bus this morning (she's slim with fine cheekbones and a warm smile and has a coloured scarf wound gracefully around her head) says she wakes up at 2am every morning to make vetkoek to sell. The lady next to her had asked how she managed to stay so thin, and her answer had been that she has no time to be fat. Often stories about the industrious poor make people feel guilty or even de-motivated. This lady had so much joyful spirit and a shining inner strength that I felt inspired to do more just by looking at her.
After she got on the bus with her sealed, white bucket, the smell of sweet dough infused the air within minutes.
But this is the same bus I've been taking for years, and a constant person in all these trips has been Rachael. Rachael is an older Indian lady with shoulder-length curly hair surrounding a wide and thoughtful face. Her smile is genuine and a gold tooth glints from it. She always sits with her hands folded in her lap over her bag and looking out of the window, thinking. In the middle of our conversation yesterday, she broke off and answered her phone, pressing it to her ear and turning away from me. The engine is extremely loud, particularly when it is chugging up a hill, so I wasn't surprised. When she had finished, she turned to me and told me it was her daughter and I smiled, suddenly remembering what she had told me about her son years ago. He was good at science, and worked at the toll booths to make money whilst he was still at school.
Her voice suddenly became so soft that I could only see her lips moving and I wondered if she was telling me a secret. She told me her daughter had left home without telling her and her husband she was going. They came home and found her room empty and her work uniform laid neatly on the bed.
I glanced at her eyes to see if she was unable to control her voice because she is crying, but her eyes were dry but slightly wider than usual, like she was staring into her own oncoming headlights. She said she and her husband tried calling her daughter, but she didn't pick up her 'phone. They cried together, and then prayed that their daughter was safe.
When her daughter called, she called for the first time as I was sitting across from her. She said she was fine, she had a job and she was in another town, but that she was coming for Christmas. She didn't say where she was. I asked Rachael how old she was, and Rachael told me she is only twenty.
It is a moving and equally painful story, even more so because it raises more questions than it answers about why the girl was so desperate to move, why she felt she couldn't tell her parents and who helped her to move and why.
The last woman I want to write about is one I have never met or seen, but her story makes me realise why the 16 days of activism is so close to World Aids Day. My sister worked at a Boston College as a training advisor and it was a tricky working situation for several reasons that aren't important here. It became even more stressful because one of her colleagues - a young man - died of AIDS two weeks ago. Every now and again, people would still come and ask for him, and two days ago was no different. A young woman entered the office and asked for the man. As her English was almost non-existent, a young Zulu student - someone my sister and I knew at school - explained to her that he had died. The woman sat down in a chair and began to cry. She explained that her sister had had a baby by him and had been trying to call him.
Women are most at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS. As they are often seen as equally mystical and beautiful and interchangeable receptacles of pleasure for the man about town, there are more receptacles of the virus that will then be passed on to any offspring (unless they manage to get tested at a clinic soon enough to save their children). I hope more and more women can feel empowered to ensure their safety and health, and more and more men learn to respect them and their decisions (for the real story on how disrespecting women impacts our world see http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sheryl_wudunn_our_century_s_greatest_injustice.html for absolute brilliance. Better yet, buy the book, "Half the Sky". Some of you may recognise her from an Oprah show on SABC3).
So tonight I do think of all those women and millions in the world like them to who - in my heart of hearts - I dedicate the sixteen days. And to all those affected by HIV and AIDS: may you find peace in your hearts, love from those close to you and understanding from your community.