Stranded women, stronf women

2010-06-03 00:00

THE settlement of France has appeared several times in The Witness in recent months. Sometimes, the news is uplifting as in the opening of the new community centre made possible by the hard work of Reach Out and generous donors such as Liberty Midlands Mall (“Landmark centre opens for orphans in township”, The Witness, April 30).

Other times, the news is brutal and sad as in a story of a woman who was raped in her own home (“France: Two robbers take turns raping woman in her house”, The Witness, April 5).

A large township of 5 000-plus reconstruction and development programme (RDP) houses built on the former farms of Ambleton and Shenston in the nineties, France is the Msunduzi Municipality’s main gesture to the nationwide low-cost housing programme. As such, it shows the contradictory successes and failures of that programme that are evident across the country. Successes — a large number of new houses were given to the poorest citizens, with female-headed households being the largest number of recipients. Failures — the township is on the city periphery, far from jobs and services, a place where the poor and unemployed are socially isolated, with the predictable outcome of high levels of crime, chronic poverty, illness and hopelessness.

Canadian sociologist Professor Allison Goebel, in collaboration with a local non-profit organisation, the Built Environment Support Group, conducted research into female-headed households in three low-income communities within the Msunduzi Municipality, including France, in order to better understand the social and economic dynamics affecting women who are left to fend for themselves and their children.

Earlier work done in collaboration with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (household surveys in seven wards in the Msunduzi Municipality), as well as data from elsewhere in the country, show that female­-headed households are in the majority­ in low-income neighbourhoods. Female-headed households are especially prevalent in new townships such as France. Some of the women are widows, some have been abandoned by boyfriends or husbands recently, or during the time of political upheaval and violence in the late eighties and early nineties. Some are grandmothers looking after children orphaned by HIV/Aids, and some are simply left behind by adult children who could not care for them.

However, the new research conducted in February and March , suggests that most have been independent heads since establishing their own households. While some of the fathers of the women’s children may have paid iNhlawulo (damages for impregnating an unmarried girl or woman), most fathers and the fathers’ extended families have supplied no financial support in such cases. Neither have they provided any emotional or social assistance for their children. This is in a context where female heads face extremely difficult situations alone. Usually they have large families to feed, often with only pap and water as their main daily meal. Additionally, many women have serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or arthritis, and are vulnerable to crime, especially sexual offences. As may be expected, almost all the women who were interviewed had strong views on the wrongdoings of men. As one woman put it: “They are bad and dishonest, even those women who still love their men admit that they are having a lot of problems with men.”

The women said that men are failing in their traditional roles. “They should care for the family, be a breadwinner, not cause any problems, protect the family, teach their children the correct way of living.”

In many cases, the situation is dire and while most share food and other kinds of support with neighbours and friends, these female-headed households remain isolated from the traditional supports of the extended Zulu family, which in other cases may help in times of financial, health and other troubles.

So while President Jacob Zuma, with his large and well-connected family, reminds the nation of culture, we should keep in mind that some aspects of culture may be privileges only of the elite.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, it is often the female heads’ independence from men and patriarchal rural families that provides the greatest source of accomplishment. As one of the interviewees from Peace Valley 2 said: “I trust myself, I am very confident and I love the person I am. You can’t give that to anyone.”

Female heads value their independent income, earned from renting out backyard cottages, social grants and piece work. They value a home of their own to raise their children and grandchildren or give safe haven to orphans­, like Grandmother Thembeni Mzola who was featured in another article on France (“Gogo (86) in RDP house raising countless kids”, The Witness April 5). These women also value their life in the city where they have improved access to services such as water, electricity, schools and health care. As hard as life is, they see urban life as better than where they came from in the rural areas. They value their political freedom and have deep hope that the new South Africa will eventually bring them, but especially their children, a better life, with education and jobs. But they are not waiting around for this. These stranded women are strong women raising the nation in the city around us.

• Professor Allison Goebel is based at Queens University, Canada. Daniel Bailey is a researcher at Built Environment Support Group (Besg) and Nombuso Masinga is a Besg intern.

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