After assault, Theresa Takafuma created a digital petition to end the harassment of women by public transport touts.
“Right there, in broad daylight, I had just been sexually assaulted in front of the police.”
I had been looking forward to my journey from Harare to Bulawayo. I had planned to go by bus, and it would be my first time traveling that route. My friend Addi had told me about the beauty of the Munyati and Kwekwe Rivers I would pass on the way, and I was looking forward to seeing them and snapping a picture or two.
By the time I did pass Kwekwe River, however, I was in tears, shaken from what had happened to me at the bus terminus before boarding, and I do not even remember if I saw Munyati River—my journey had been ruined.
In my country, Zimbabwe, touting public transport is technically illegal. Authorities have gone on record saying they want to eliminate it, but the reality on the ground tells a different story. At all the popular public transport termini across the country, touts—men paid by bus operators to push people to use their services—continue to harass people, women especially. Authorities do not seem to care enough to stop it.
A few weeks ago I went to the “Showground” bus terminus to get a direct bus to Bulawayo, and my sister came with me to see me off. When we arrived we saw that there were a few buses loading passengers to Bulawayo, and I thought I had the choice of which bus to take.
Almost immediately, however, more than five touts came charging at us, attempting to force us to board their bus. We had to lie and say we were not traveling but just waiting for someone.
A few meters away from us, three police officers stood. They were aware we were being harassed by touts, but never raised a finger to help us or even looked our way. They looked like they did not want to be bothered.
The touts temporarily left us alone, and my sister and I stood under a tree together for a while, feeling powerless and defeated. I did not want to board their bus. There were only a few passengers on it, and I was scared of the touts’ aggression.
After about ten minutes, my sister and I gathered enough courage and started walking toward another bus that looked like a better option, silently hoping the police officers would come to our rescue if the touts struck again. Before we knew it, however, the touts were all over us again, grabbing our handbags and threatening us with unspecified action if we refused to take their bus.
I tried standing up to them, but I was no match against these tough-looking men who acted like they would either harm me physically or steal my valuables if I refused to take their bus. Meanwhile, the police officers had walked away in the opposite direction.
The touts shouted obscenities at me and my sister, calling us all sorts of names, whilst trying to grab our bags.
I summoned some more courage and tried to plough my way through the wall of men that had formed around me and my sister. That is when I learned that these men would do anything to shake the very foundations of my courage: one of them grabbed my left breast.
As I tried to wrap my mind around what had just happened, another man slapped my butt, and in that very moment, a third was trying to snatch my handbag, pulling my bra straps with it.
I was shocked. Right there, in broad daylight, I had just been sexually assaulted in front of the police.
I quickly retreated backwards, with my sister as a shield, and as she was protecting me, the men groped her all over her body.
In that moment, I felt so helpless and worthless. When the touts finally saw that they had intimidated us enough to get their message across, they left. I wouldn't say they willingly left us, because by now my sister was screaming and threatening to report them.
That afternoon, I ended up boarding that bus—that bus with operators who sought the services of touts who fearlessly attack women in broad daylight.
From the whole ordeal, what hurt me most was that I had not only been harassed in front of the police, but also sexually assaulted, and all for the purpose of me using a service I did not want to use.
The harassment and assault I experienced has made me fearful and has injured my self-esteem. The fingerprints of one tout are still visible on my blouse, right there on the breast. I have not washed it yet. I still do not have the strength.
I feel so let down by the authorities in my country. I know hate is a strong word, but the experience has left me with nothing but hate for a system that continues to pay lip service to restoring order and putting an end to touting.
This is the first time I have had enough courage to write about what happened to me. That feeling of helplessness that afternoon triggered something in me that is calling for the protection of a sisterhood, and that sisterhood involves all women who may find themselves in a similar situation. I am determined that I will not stop talking and writing about how vulnerable women are at the hands of touts until someone hears me.
I have created an online petition on Change.org to encourage the government of Zimbabwe to act in support of the women of this country. We are tired of being groped by touts in the presence of the police.
I am taking a stance. I am fighting using my voice, my keyboard, and screen.
Will you sign my petition so that the women of Zimbabwe can travel freely and safely on their own? We deserve that freedom. Police must act now.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe every woman has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could receive added visibility, or even be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.