OPINION | Delani Majola: Empowering women and the tough journey ahead

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Women in South Africa continue to face many challenges such as  gender discrimination, cruelty and violence against women and children to unequal power relations, writes the author.
Women in South Africa continue to face many challenges such as gender discrimination, cruelty and violence against women and children to unequal power relations, writes the author.

Around the world, women face a multitude of issues. Delani Majola reflects on three generations of women who are etching their own mark and trying to bring about change.


The South African liberation struggle, the building block for our Constitutional democracy, is decorated with examples of women who have radically taken their rightful place in the centre of the revolution. For more than a hundred years, women of different races, religious and economic backgrounds have organised and cemented a collective voice against racial injustice and oppression. 

Powerful images of gallants such as Sophie Williams de Bruyn, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Lilian Ngoyi should be constant reminders of where true power lies - in the hands of people driven by a shared vision of what progressive values and society should look like. 

Around the world, women face several issues, and as we reflect on where we come from, hope comes in the thought that the seed of activism planted by the 1956 generation finds expression in a new breed of women etching their own mark. 

READ | Opinion: Irene Charnley: The importance of women lifting, nurturing and empowering each other

Rightfully so, times have changed. The enemy is no longer apartheid; it manifests itself as a tight, heartless grip on the potential and growth of South African women everywhere from rural to urban communities. From gender discrimination, the cruelty and violence against women and children to unequal power relations, we are evidently not yet uhuru (free).

Structural issues

Three generations of women discuss what needs to be done and by who to rebuild South Africa, where women are not just seen as tokens but for their invaluable contributions.

Award-winning, independent public health practitioner Dr Shakira Choonara, who has led several health and gender-related projects globally, says that structural issues, which have gone unchanged, hinder women from reaching their highest and truest peak.

"The reality is that women and girls often drop out of school due to violence or are even carrying higher disease burdens. This affects life chances, education and ultimately, their prospects of entering and taking up male-dominated spaces.

"There are labour policies in several countries including South Africa which call for gender parity; however, implementation, monitoring and accountability remain weak. Our role is to push for routine and transparent data as well as holding institutions to account on commitments made", said the social justice activist.

"Another issue is that for far too long we have also ignored gender norms such as expectations that women are duty-bound to fulfil household positions. With the Covid-19 pandemic, this burden has increased to the point of many more women having to leave the workforce, thus reducing the space for a breakthrough even further. We require supportive work environments, understandings of breaks in employment, and even provision for practices such as breastfeeding, these are factors, which could improve representation."

Standing tall 

Social justice and anti-racism activist Zulaikha Patel says that South Africans today can stand tall because of the mountains built by the brave women who refused to be looked down upon. The young firebrand, who recently published her first book 'My Coily Crowny Hair' says that the battle is far from over, and those who do get the opportunity need to pay it forward. 

"You must live in a bubble to not realise that a woman's place is at the centre of the revolution. Those mountains that we stand on need to be elevated even higher for the next generation so that their voices are not eroded or silenced by winds that condemn women and girls to fear and discrimination", said Patel.

Speaking about her book, Patel says she hopes to change how African women view and determine their reality. In 2016 at the age of 13, she and fellow learners embarked on a brave act of resistance against her school's policy regarding black girl's hair. The protest paved the way for many others across the country to find their voices and express their frustrations on the slow pace of transformation in different institutions. 

On the importance of representation, Quote This Woman+ (QW+), a non-profit that works to advance the voices of women+ to foster gender transformation within the media landscape, has used its platform to ensure that unheard and under-represented stories get the opportunity to be told. Through an online database of experts who represent several industries, the organisation strives to make sure that women's voices are brought to the fore and form part of critical discussions. 

Founder of QW+, Kathy Magrobi, reminds us that all issues are women's issues. However, she points out that despite significant progress over decades, "a world in which opportunities are not limited by gender has yet to be universally realised". This makes the work of the QW+ organisation all the more relevant in emancipating the voices of women.

"Every time you exercise your right to speak, you join a movement of women who have reclaimed another inch of space in a world that is equally yours. By raising your voice, know that you are contributing to a heritage of resistance," said Magrobi. 

Diversity of challenges 

Vanita Daniels, the Administrative Director at Rise Up Against Gender Based Violence, an organisation providing support to survivors of GBV through preventative programmes also emphasised the multiplicity of challenges women faced. She raises concern at South Africa's stark gender inequality and the impact the structural problem has in undermining women's ability when it comes to reaching their full potential. 

It is extremely unfair that women, more than men are, are expected to fight for spaces, be taken seriously, or be alleviated ahead. Young girls and women should not be knocking down doors and shouting for recognition. We should have those doors open to all, and through merit, women should be invited to participate", said Daniels. 

READ | Opinion: Tawana Kupe: Stereotypes of women are limiting and need to be changed

Gender-based violence, a widespread problem in the country, remains one of our most significant weaknesses. 

"Incidents of exploitation and domestic violence soared during the Covid-19 pandemic showing a clear pattern of women being victimised and brutalised within their own homes. They suffered economic as well as physical abuse. The list continues as the burden of childcare is still placed solely on their shoulders. We need to do better and act differently if we are serious about tackling the violence against women and children and the continued marginalisation they are faced with", concluded Daniels. 

"The ruling party lost its moral compass a long time ago, and unless we have a crop of leaders who can really take the country forward, things are only going to worsen. Leadership needs to do step up, at every level, for the livelihood of its citizens. The recent unrest in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng indicate that our country has not yet healed from the racial divisions and racial inequality entrenched by apartheid. In the last few weeks, we witnessed our beloved country and some of its gains being reduced to violence, blatant acts of racism and lawlessness, which have taken us backwards", said Dr Choonara.

Amplify women's voices

"When crisis hits, it is often women who are found at the forefront, organising communities and implementing solutions. To rebuild and create a culture of inclusivity, we should ensure that the voices of women are amplified just as much as those of men. The media reflects society and when women are excluded when covering stories; it becomes easy for other power bases to overlook them too. This needs to change," emphasised QW+'s Kathy Magrobi. 

The women remain deeply optimistic about the good work done by some of their counterparts to empower and restore communities. From helping in the clean-up of the malls that were vandalised to volunteering in the physical building up of affected businesses, school and communities. They describe these as the real heroes of now with an ability to identify challenges and quick solutions on what needs to be done. These values of selflessness, volunteerism and servant activism are what we need to build on. 

The capacity for women to lead exists already. In the face of the worst pandemic, women have held the sharp end of the knife working in the frontlines to help fight the spread of the pandemic. These are just some of the images that remind us of the strength of a woman, no matter what role she may be in.

Delani Majola is writer with a keen interest in gender and queer rights. He hopes to advance his activism through the different spaces he navigates through.

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