Eliminating sexism is an ongoing fight

2013-08-09 00:00

JOHANNESBURG, August 8: I remember a conversation I had with a woman last week who recounted the harrowing story of the manager of a local restaurant, who recently slit the throat of one of the waitresses.

Though I was not surprised, her comment riled me: “But he is a white man”.

I butt in saying that although one’s race and class certainly intersects with their gender, perpetrators of violence are misogynists who come in all colours, shapes and sizes. We cannot confine gender inequality and violence against women to any class, race, culture or country.

Moreover, women’s experiences of violence are primarily interpersonal. I added that the many forms of violence I have experienced, thus far, were all at the hands of white men, some of whom share my blood.

In Women’s Month, it is not only important to celebrate the achievements and progress towards gender equality, but also to take stock of an ongoing and seemingly timeless struggle.

Simone de Beauvoir remarks in her book The Second Sex that certain historical developments led to the “othering” and oppression of different groups of people. However, no historical event or social change marks the beginning of women’s oppression.

“Proletarians have not always existed, whereas there have always been women. They are women by virtue of their anatomy and physiology. Throughout history they have always been subordinated to men … their dependency is not the result of a historical event.”

Although we cannot mark the origin of our oppression, the social change towards our desired emancipation is certainly trace­able, with August 9, 1956, being one of many moments. We can also attribute some of these recent changes to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol, which contains 28 targets to achieve gender equality within the SADC region by 2015. Out of 15 countries, 13 have signed and 12 have ratified the protocol.

South Africa’s Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill is now before cabinet, and this week the Department of Justice said that at least 22 sexual offences courts would open this year, in a bid to ensure perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice.

Most SADC constitutions enshrine non-discrimination based on sex. Twelve countries in the region have domestic violence legislation in place. Ten countries have undertaken constitutional reforms that have a bearing on gender. Twelve countries now have affirmative action provisions for women in their constitutions.

Although these are very significant paper trails towards gender equality, they are in response to, and do not necessarily signify a change in societies’ prejudiced attitudes.

This is glaringly obvious, considering that despite relatively strong gender-based violence legal frameworks in the region, the prevalence of all forms of violence against women continues to be disturbingly high.

One in three women experience some form of violence in their lifetime. In an attempt to track the change of attitudes towards women and gender equality, Gender Links and the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, recently conducted a survey to measure the SADC regions’ degree of gender awareness.

In the survey, gender awareness is narrowly defined. There are 20 multiple-choice questions framed within the institution of marriage and within the nuclear family. Furthermore, these questions are answered in situations isolated from the realities within which gender stereotypes, sexism and violence are articulated and perpetrated.

Despite these limitations, this survey does give some indication of where our attitudes towards women and gender equality sit within the SADC. Thus far, nearly 50 000 citizens, 54% women and 46% men, from across the SADC have participated in the survey. Scores between 75% and 100% means people either hold subtle stereotypes, or are gender aware and progressive. Scores below 50% demonstrate blatant stereotypes and gender blindness. Overall, the region scored 65%, meaning the SADC on average holds subtle stereotypes towards women.

Far too many people believe gender-based violence is acceptable, that women are not equal to men and that sex is governed by men. Despite our successes in changing our households, communities and governments, our Gender Progress Score is dismal.

Although it may be a consolation that the region falls within the margins of only subtle gender blindness, for me, there are no acceptable degrees. Sexism is sexism, no matter how subtle.

— Gender Links.

• Katherine Robinson is the editor and communications manager at Gender Links.

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