Guest Column

We marched for women, but have we forgotten?

2019-08-08 08:47
Women wave the national flag as they march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Women's Day in 2018.

Women wave the national flag as they march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Women's Day in 2018. (Isabel Venter)

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I remember a young woman near me breaking down in tears, steeped in her own pain. Another woman leaned over and held her tightly. The moment was heavily laden with deep collective pain and I felt it in my core, writes Nontsikelelo Mpulo.

#TheTotalShutdown marches against gender-based violence on August 1, 2018 were a reminder of the ties that bind us across the dividing lines of race, age, location and gender.

Like the Women's march of August 9, 1956, it signified the power of the oppressed to organise and demand a better, safer society for all. A year after the more recent 2018 march, we find that the demands to make our society one in which the women who walked for our freedom, are safe in our streets and broader society have yet to be realised.

The 2018 and 2019 marches were conceptualised by a group of young feminists who wanted to harness the spirit of the 20 000 women for marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 to give life to the continued struggles that women face in our brutal society.

Part of the call on that day was that all women, whether they were marching or not, should stop what they were doing at 13:00 and pay homage to all those who have been raped, murdered, abused, overlooked, unseen and forgotten.

However, because our progress to Union Buildings was so slow, we had not made it to the Union Buildings by 13:00. As a result, at the appointed hour, we stopped on the corners of Madiba and Sisulu Streets where some knelt, some stood but the large majority of us simply sat in silence.  

I remember a young woman near me breaking down in tears, steeped in her own pain. Another woman leaned over and held her tightly. The moment was heavily laden with deep collective pain and I felt it in my core.

It was as though the moment had been ordained. It felt as though the spirits of thousands of women who had suffered and continue to suffer degradation and torment, the spirits of those who had fought for equality, who had railed against a system stacked against women and triumphed, washed over us. It was deeply profound.

When we finally ascended on the Union Buildings lawns the mood became jubilant again, more defiant. There was however, no one from the Office of the President to receive our memorandum of demands as requested by the organisers. 

Eventually people started to drift away. My colleagues and I headed back to Johannesburg but members of #TheTotalShutDown remained stoic in their resolve to wait for the president. He eventually arrived to receive the memorandum around 21:00 that night and promised to accede to the first of the demands, which was to convene a gender summit. After months of negotiations and meetings between civil society organisations, the #TotalShutdown and government, the summit took place on November 1 and 2, 2018.

In the time since the summit, it seems that the momentum has dissipated. There was a signing of the summit declaration in March at the same time as the opening of the Booysens Magistrate's Court, which offers a range of services and is fully equipped to support victims of gender-based violence and femicide. These include a fully-fledged Sexual Offences Court and Family Law services such as maintenance, domestic violence, harassment and children's court matters. But none of the other 24 demands have materialised.

We demanded a national action plan on ending gender-based violence by October 31, 2018; it has yet to materialise.

We demanded a steering committee comprising representatives from civil society to drive the process of the development of the plan; the government has appointed a number of people to a task team without consulting civil society.

We demanded that existing Thuthuzela Centres around the country are adequately resourced and new centres established; instead, we have received reports that these centres are being shut down in various provinces.

In his 2019 State of the Nation Address on February 7, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, "Ending gender-based violence is an urgent national priority that requires the mobilisation of all South Africans and the involvement of all institutions." He made undertakings to increase funding to Thuthuzela and Khusela Centres, among other commitments, but there was no evidence that money had been allocated in Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni's speech just a few days later.

A young survivor who had run away from her husband and sought assistance from a shelter but was victimised at what was supposed to be a place of safety said: "Thina eyethu imimoya isabuhlungu namanje amadoda asasidlengula namanje (our spirits are still in pain, and men still rape us). One year on, media is still using our video clips for their own agendas whilst we are here going through a lot. Umbuzo wami uthi kithi lapha ukhona osoke wasizakala na (My question to those of us here is has there been anyone who has been helped) since the march?"

No doubt, there is work happening on many levels, but the slow pace at which bureaucratic structures function is denying women access to justice. When we came together a year ago, we started something important. We marched, but we forgot.

- Nontsikelelo Mpulo is head of communications at Section27.

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Read more on:    gender based violence  |  women's month  |  women's day
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