Growing up, I went to countless major league baseball games. My dad was an avid fan, and it was a wonderful way to spend a warm summer night during the school holidays in the States. I always enjoyed spending time with my family, especially hanging out with my dad. Although I had no idea what was going on with the game most of the time, I just enjoyed being in my dad’s presence as he cheered on his team.
When I was 16 years old, my family attended a baseball game for my dad’s birthday. After we found our seats and started watching the game, my parents went to go use the restroom, and I sat by myself. As soon as they left, I could hear three guys behind me, obviously drunk. At first they just made noise for the sake of it, and I even laughed along with their jokes about how terrible the home team was playing. But then they started speaking about me, leaning in by my face. With their breath smelling of hard liquor, they started calling me every kind of derogatory name in the book. I stayed silent, hoping it would end and they would get up to grab some more drinks. But my silence angered them more, as they shouted louder and louder in my face, just because I was timid, quiet and a girl.
I finally ran away crying, and found my parents. After a police call and seeing my dad the angriest I’ve ever seen him, the situation was taken care of. But it left me with so many questions – Was it what I wore? Or the fact I was quiet? Or just because I was a girl? I felt small and powerless in the situation – no one around us stood up to defend me.
Thankfully I have a father who will do anything to defend and protect me. He has modeled to me what it means to feel loved and valuable. But for the many women and girls out there who don’t have an active father in their lives – what do you end up believing after years and years of angry men speaking hatred into your life?
This is just how things are in my community.
I deserve this.
I am powerless to change the situation.
I am worthless.
This week I had the chance to chat with Sinothando Mhlongo, a university student who lives in KwaDabeka. Sinothando is a long-time volunteer with CAST’s Youth Development Programme, and is passionate about becoming a teacher one day. Recently she started an Anti Gender-Based Violence Campaign at her campus, with the help of the Community Development Association, to address issues of sexual assault on campus. Sinothando’s motivation came from her own experience of being attacked on campus during her first year. She noticed that students were more likely to get expelled for plagiarism than for sexual assault. And like most young, pretty girls in her community, Sinothando deals with guys catcalling her on a daily basis.
As Sinothando explains about gender-based violence, “It’s never the victim’s fault. I think it’s just the way we were raised, and how we interpret the Bible. Our earthly fathers are supposed to love and compliment us. But with my generation, the fathers aren’t around, so who is going to call us beautiful? I believe we are all God’s children. My Heavenly Father is the King. I am the daughter and princess of the King. I have the Kingdom to inherit, so why I am letting guys who don’t know God bring me down?”
We laugh about “those crazy women’s rights people” and make a joke of gender-based violence. But for those like Sinothando who live in this reality every day, the issue cannot be ignored. God has called us to protect the vulnerable in our community.
Isaiah 1:17 calls us to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
How are you defending those who you interact with on a daily basis who are oppressed and vulnerable? It’s in the way we treat our neighbour, domestic worker or friend who may be dealing with gender-based violence. Sinothando has challenged me to speak out about the issue. I think the more we empower and love those around us who are constantly hearing hatred, the less those negative messages will have a stronghold in the lives of the vulnerable.
It’s only then that “I am worthless” turns into
“Call me beautiful.”