Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Consulates and Equality

I promise that there are photos coming that will make this post more interesting; I was not designated photographer of the day so eventually you will benefit from Ardy’s great photography skills.  Also, I apologize in advance for the present/past tense of this and future blog posts.  Despite how it might seem, I was not traveling through time on this trip.  I tried to write each day but on days when the schedule got hectic, I'm filling in memories now that I'm back in the U.S.
Monday, September 10 kicked off early with a trip to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town.  They confiscated our cameras at security so there’s no way to prove that I actually went there, but as a former Foreign Service Wannabe, being in the consulate was a great way to start the day.  We met with the Consul General, Erica Barks-Ruggles, whose resume would never possibly fit on one page.  She was funny and informative and I could have listened to her talk all day instead of one hour.  I took pages of notes from the information she shared…rather than bore you with lists, I’ll work the details into future posts.  I’m here to sit in meetings and learn so you get the honorary Africa 101 degree as well!
The most important concept I learned from our time at the consulate was “born frees.”  This is the term used to refer to those South Africans born after the end of apartheid, those who never experienced the overt racism and hateful treatment at the hands of those driven by incomprehensible convictions.  This term is important because the societal trends could drastically alter as this generation comes into voting age and adulthood.
Another wonderful takeaway (literally!) from the consulate visit was Cynthia Brown, a U.S. foreign service official who had helped set up our meetings throughout Cape Town.  She hopped on our bus and made the trip so much better.  It’s amazing to think of the thousands of people like her who live their lives in one, two, or three-year placements, hopping from country to country to make things work more smoothly for our country around the world and, as we were all painfully reminded by the events last week in Libya, who put their lives at risk to do so.
Heads spinning with information, we rushed to our next destination: the Women’s Legal Center.  The offices are in a multi-storied building squeezed into a busy street in Cape Town, unglamorous despite the marbled lobby that gives off an air of being rather too tired to keep up appearances any longer.  The pretense of the lobby is sharply countered by the rooms of the Center; we were ushered into the catch-all room most offices lovingly call a library: a cozy, comfortable room with more tables than space and enough carefully labeled boxes, books and research notes to fill twice as many shelves.  The ever-present offering of instant coffee sat in one corner, next to a computer that – a sign instructed – was not to be used or moved to another room.  The informal atmosphere was perfect for an enjoyable, though disturbing, conversation with the Center’s director, Jennifer Williams, and two amazing researchers from the University of Cape Town.  The academic researchers specialized in research about the South African judiciary and, in particular, the lack of qualified female judges in the judiciary.  Jennifer was there to discuss the Center's amazing work to help women overcome really horrific situations of abuse and inequality; her comments were even more memorable due to her ability to throw in scathing comments about the idiotic things judges had said about women. Example: the time the judge said the husband shouldn't be punished for dragging his wife behind a car because "her bruises weren't that bad." 

This is not a feminist organization; Jennifer’s fight is just to get basic human rights and freedoms for South African women.  Prosecuting rapists, ensuring that inheritances go to female designees rather than being diverted to distant male relatives, preventing women from being caught in fights between father and abusive, unfaithful husband over whether the bride price, or “lobolo,” after she had the courage to leave the bad marriage.  I’m overwhelmed by the work Jennifer and her team must tackle, but her passion is not deterred by her daunting tasks.  She delved into a new case with a young woman before we had even made it to the door.

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