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A Tale of Two Countries: A Closer Look at Gender in Lesotho

03/07/2014 06:38 EST | Updated 05/07/2014 05:59 EDT

There are two Lesotho's. The first Lesotho is a leader in gender equity. This is the Lesotho that has a growing number of women in government. This is the Lesotho that passed the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act in 2006 to ensure that women would not be second class citizens but would be entitled to the same economic rights as their husbands. This is the Lesotho that ranked sixteenth overall on the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report (published by the World Economic Forum). That's a higher ranking than Canada, the USA, and the UK.

And yet, if I had to choose where to be born a woman it would not be here.

There is a second Lesotho. In this Lesotho HIV disproportionally affects women, and girls are kicked out of school for becoming pregnant. Despite the empowerment of a minority of women into positions of political power, this is a Lesotho where patriarchal norms persist and sexual violence is all too often ignored.

There are two stories, which for me depict the reality of this second Lesotho.

"Ahh, But this is Normal Here"

I am on my way home from Out-of-School Youth training in the Thaba-Tseka district. One of the girls from the workshop sits next to me, and I ask her which training module she liked best.

"Oh, decision making," she tells me.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because I realized before I was making passive decisions...I let people decide things for me instead of taking control of my own life."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"My boyfriend told me I had to have sex with him. I said I didn't want to, but he said I didn't have a choice and then he slept with me," she said. "When what happened came out, we had to appear before the village chief. He said that in order to repair damages we must get married, and so we did."

I look at her, stunned. "Are you safe?"

"At first I was terrified of my husband," she says. "Things were not good between us. But this past year things have gotten better. He is kinder to me now."

We drop the young girl off. I turn to my friend, outraged that this young girl was forced to marry the man who raped her.

My friend merely shrugs and says, "Ahh, but this normal here."

"I didn't know it was wrong"

It's the last day of a five day Out-Of-School Youth training. I get a moment alone with one of the young men in the program and so I ask him what he thought about the workshop.

He tells me that the topic of sexual abuse impacted him immensely. He explains that he and his friends used to force multiple girls to have sex with them for fun. "Before today, I didn't know what I was doing was wrong," he says.

"What do you think about all of these things now?" I ask.

"Now I am aware that my violent sexual acts were traumatizing those girls and that this was not good. I will not do this anymore," he promises.

***

These are just two encounters amongst many which indicate (to me) that while the "gender gap" may be decreasing in many areas, gender-based violence, particularly the issue of rape, lags far behind. The girl in the first story struggled to articulate that there was something wrong with what had happened to her. Notably, the word rape was not in her vocabulary. The man in the second story saw nothing wrong with what he was doing. The concept of consent was missing.

There is no other way I can think to describe this troubling phenomenon than with the term Rape Culture. I use this term in its most literal sense; there is a pervasive culture in Lesotho that ignores the reality of rape and moreover, punishes rape victims. I want to be clear that this is not legally enforced. In fact, the actual laws in Lesotho aim to promote gender equality and protect women from harm. However, there is a huge gap between law and social customs and unfortunately, too often, social customs more than laws rule prevailing gender norms.

I believe it is important to briefly note that Canada has also failed rape victims. In Canada there have also been troubling instances of sexual abuse not being treated seriously. Who could forget the infamous chant sung at St. Mary's University (SMU) during frosh week this past September: "SMU boys we like them young ... Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that a**."

However, there is a difference here: SMU's frosh week chant made the news. Many Canadians were outraged. The head of SMU's student union stepped down. I have yet to read a headline in the Lesotho Times that states, "Young Girl forced to Marry Boyfriend who Raped Her. Chief forced to resign."

As I try to reconcile the disparity between the Global Gender Gap Report and what I have witnessed on the ground, yet again, I come to the conclusion that there are two Lesothos. There is the Lesotho that is making leaps and bounds in placing women in positions of authority and power. Yet, there is a huge gap between this Lesotho and the second Lesotho, where issues concerning consent and rape often go unacknowledged.

For me, the reality of this second Lesotho and the reality of Rape Culture in this country is epitomized by the casual remark made by my friend--words, which are still ringing in my ears:

"Ah, but this is normal here."