It starts at the top

2013-08-11 06:00

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Ultimately, if South African society is to successfully rid itself of the scourge of violence and abuse against women, it requires our leadership to send a clear and positive message that women are to be treated with respect and that their rights to live their lives without fear of abuse are protected, writes Chichi Maponya.

This month, as we celebrate National Women’s Day and the milestone of a centenary of working together towards achieving sustainable women empowerment and gender equality, South Africa’s citizens unite in their remembrance of those women who bravely made a stand against discrimination and inequality 57 years ago.

Each year August 9 is celebrated as a public holiday to commemorate and honour the brave women who took part in the 1956 Women’s March to petition against legislation that required African women to carry special identification documents, also known as the “pass”, which was intended to curtail their freedom of movement during the apartheid era.

The infamous “pass laws” required Africans to carry an identity document on their person at all times to “prove” that they were allowed to enter “white areas”.

The Women’s March is regarded as an act of quiet yet determined defiance, in which over 20 000 women of all races and ages from all corners of South Africa were inspired to take a united stand against discrimination by marching together towards the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The event was coordinated by the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) and led by four courageous and inspirational women: Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophy Williams and Lilian Ngoyi. Another anti-apartheid activist, Albertina Sisulu, also participated in the March.

Another 100 000 women throughout the country were inspired to voice their anger by signing petitions against having their freedom of movement restricted.

When the women who led the march delivered their signed petitions to Prime Minister JG Strijdom’s office at the Union Buildings, they were made to wait outside in the cold for more than 30 minutes, which they did silently.

This event represents a turning point in history, both for the country and for the advancement of women in society in general.

This month, as we all reflect on the bravery and determination of these women who risked arrest, detention and banning, in order to try to effect lasting social change in South Africa, it is pertinent to also reflect on the continuing challenges faced by women today.

Despite strides being made in terms of female empowerment and gender equality to date, there is still much to be done.

For example, corporate South Africa still has many boardrooms and senior management tiers in business and industry where women are under-represented.

Many businesses and industry sectors remain male-dominated, despite the growing numbers of highly qualified female graduates.

Young women today, who are tomorrow’s leaders, continue to take inspiration not only from these women of yesteryear, but also from other women today who are making their mark.

One only has to look at our national government structures, which have a large number of highly experienced women ministers who are driving efforts to address the most pressing socioeconomic challenges that face our country.

March 8 is United Nations International Women’s Day.

This year the focus was on the Gender Agenda: gaining momentum, the continuing struggle for equality and the rights of women in society and in the workplace with special focus on violence, abuse and sexism against women.

It is incredible that in today’s society, according to department of justice estimates, one out four South African women are survivors of domestic violence. In a country with over 50 million people, this figure shows that a vast number of women are suffering.

These statistics are a stark reminder of the culture of male domination, violence against women and sexism that is pervasive in our society.

As we focus our attention on National Women’s Month, we must renew our efforts to address a chronic problem that threatens to undermine the continuing development of South African women and erodes the fabric of our society as a whole.

It all starts at the top, with our leaders in the political arena, in our respective communities and in our workplaces leading by example.

For example, the Domestic Violence Act introduced in 1988 was formulated to offer women protection from domestic violence by creating obligations on law enforcement bodies to protect victims of abuse.

The act is quite clear in identifying behaviours that constitute domestic violence, including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, stalking, intimidation, harassment, malicious damage to property, and unauthorised access to property, as well as other forms of controlling behaviour which may cause harm to the safety, health or wellbeing of women.

Ultimately, if South African society is to successfully rid itself of the scourge of violence and abuse against women, it requires our leadership to send a clear and positive message that women are to be treated with respect and that their rights to live their lives without fear of abuse are protected.

In my own organisation, Brand SA, we recognise the need for leadership to both inspire and find solutions to many of the challenges still facing women in the workplace.

We celebrate those women in all spheres of business, government, education and society in general who are leading the way for change, while at the same time recognising that we have a unique role to play in inspiring positive change in terms of attitudes.

Our “Play your Part” campaign, launched earlier this year, continues to raise awareness of the devastating consequences of gender-based violence, and provides the necessary support mechanisms for those women who are suffering intolerable abuse in their homes, communities or in the workplace.

As we commemorate National Women’s Month, let us all, as proud South African citizens, play our part in creating a fully inclusive society that nurtures and provides a positive environment where women can thrive and are able to make meaningful contribution to the country’s goals.

» Maponya is chair of Brand SA

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