Guest Column

Who's really behind conversations about gender equality?

2017-08-15 11:53

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JP Louw

This year on the 20th of June, just after the eight thirty morning news, SAfm took a comment from a caller. It was June, youth month, so understandably the guests in studio were an inspiring team of young people unravelling burdensome truths about being a black South African youth.

What became clear is the known fact that to be black in South Africa is not child’s play. It’s rough! Now just imagine what it means to be black, a woman and a youth in what is unquestionably a patriarchal society.

Year after year, various statistical data affirms the triple arduous realities of a large number of young, black women. For example, Statistic South Africa’s 2016 Demographics and Health Survey  draws a strong link between race, class and wealth which are further matched in regards to prevalence of HIV/Aids in women aged 15 to 24.

This context is important to appreciate as part of the discourse during the month of August, which is commemorated as women’s month. But this column though is about the mentioned caller’s comment and who truly embodies the voice of South African women, young and old. So let’s not digress.

The caller argued that “common” women, unlike your usual activist, academic and politically conscious types, are the least likely to contribute towards significant public discourse, even when offered such opportunities. Instead, women tend to be experts on subjects of reality television like the Kardashians, Our Perfect Wedding and South Africa’s increased number of soapies.

This raises a critical question about whose voice is actually driving South Africa’s gender equality discourse. Can we comfortably conclude that those considered victims in gender inequality dialogues are directing the conversation as opposed to be spoken to and about?

A google search to this question proves unhelpful. Subjects which appear popular include women representation, gender based violence and various topics of health, education, economy and politics.

A disparate number of NGOs, which could be said to pass for some kind of women’s movement, have largely been successful in their efforts as champions in a range of these subjects.  

But still none of these are nationally mass based. They do not demonstrate adequately mandated representation of gender equality efforts that reflect national South African demographics; Meaning a representation which cannot be questioned in terms of elements such as differences in age groups, income levels, rural as opposed to urban constituencies, race, disability or creed.

This probably explains why the organisations also lack the full muscle to take up the fight against patriarchy in any sustained momentous way to all corners and interests of South African society -  including rural areas, corporate as much the public sector and urban centres.

Shireen Hassim, Professor of Political Studies at Wits University who has published widely in the field of gender and politics, captures both the challenge and promising solution quite well. On the downside she argues that “the women’s movement itself, to the extent that it ever existed in coherent form, has also seen several changes in the past two decades with the collapse of the Women’s National Coalition, the ever-increasing distance between the ANC Women’s League and feminists, and the emergence of a much wider range of organisations dealing with issues of violence and sexuality.”

But on the upside she states that “connections are being forged between women’s organisations working at the brutal edge of the economic crisis in families, households and communities, and feminist thinkers.”

Interestingly, around October 2005 the ANC Women’s League, fully cognisant of the need for a mass based, progressive and influential women’s movement, resolved that “it would be ideal if South African women were to formalise a progressive women’s movement in 2006”. 

This was seen as an ideal time as it would mark the 50th anniversary of the 1956 women’s march to Pretoria, the 10th year of a democratic constitution and 30 years since the 1976 June uprising.

Years later with various discussion papers and resolutions that have come and gone, this outcome still remains a pipe dream. And with the ruling party understanding its role to be leader of society, there can be legitimate expectation that its Women’s League should be at the forefront of such an effort.

History also tells us that this is the same place where meaningful mobilisation and push for women’s issues have found its drive.

It appears thinking between the ANC Women’s League and a range of relevant organisations about the nature of this mass based formations are largely resolved. In the words of the organisation, “The Movement must be progressive and diverse. It should be shaped by local struggles and have to acknowledge that women are not a homogenous group.”

In terms of mandate, “the movement should advocate the ethos of transforming South Africa into a non-sexist, non-racial, democratic, united and prosperous South Africa. As well as an understanding of social relationships of class, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.”

With basic foundational issues sorted, all that’s needed now is action!

* Louw is a communications specialist, coach and facilitator as well as presenter on Ubuntu Radio. He writes in personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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Read more on:    gender issues  |  women's month  |  anc women's league

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