Women’s Month: An ode to the past and a reflection on the future

Posted on August 14, 2020

“We need to make the gender equality conversation so ubiquitous in society that it is normalised and impossible to ignore.” Dr Nkatha Murungi, Assistant Director of UP’s Centre for Human Rights, reflects on the experiences and aspirations of the women’s movement of 1956 and their present-day relevance.

Women’s Day commemorates the march by about 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 to protest the introduction of regulations on movement, also known as pass laws, by the South African government at the time. The march, which was accompanied by similar protests in other towns and provinces, was the culmination of resistance initiatives by women in the face of state-backed oppression and brutality.

In 2020, we celebrate Women’s Month under extraordinary circumstances. We are in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, which could not have come at a worse time. SA was already grappling with factors such as economic deprivation and inequality, deteriorating infrastructure and service provision, and a sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) pandemic. The convergence of these factors with COVID-19 has precipitated an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair.

Evidently, times are hard for everyone, but more so for women. However, the present-day challenges fade in comparison to the circumstances that the women of the 1956 marches had endured. Reflecting on the experiences, methods and aspirations of the women’s movement at that time is helpful in shaping our perspectives of the circumstances of women in SA today. Their collective intent was succinctly captured in the Women’s Charter of 1954.

The context in which Women’s Month is taking place this year pushes us more to contemplative reflection than celebration. In the midst of a dual health and SGBV pandemic, a debilitating economic crisis for most South Africans, and a disproportionate disadvantage occasioned to women in the current climate, it is indeed easier and expedient to resort to despair, to accept our lot and earn a resilience badge.

Yet to focus exclusively on the misery occasioned by the prevailing circumstances would undercut the recognition of the contributions of millions of women, whose day-to-day actions challenge misogyny and discrimination in their domains, resisting conformity and embracing discomfort to challenge the status quo for the next generation.

Progress… but not enough

There has been some progress towards the ideals that these women fought for, including in the normative recognition of women’s equality as in the Constitution; better representation in the governance, business and professional fields; access to better education; as well as some access to economic opportunities. We duly acknowledge these. However, as has become evident during the pandemic, our equality, including gender, is largely farcical. 

In June 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa characterised the incidence of SGBV in SA as a national pandemic. He described it as a “war being waged against the women and children of this country.” This was politically significant, but it did not need saying. The gory images and reports of women and girls losing their lives at the hands of men are fresh in our memories. Similarly, there is a pervasive, uneasy silence around the abuse of minority women such as lesbian and transgender women, or migrants. It is even more daunting to think of the extent and equally deleterious impact of the psychosocial, emotional and economic dimensions of the violence, and which we largely cannot see. There is also the lurking fear that the very statistics that prick our conscience could also be numbing us and making us complicit in the normalisation and continuation of abuse.

But it would not be fair to make Women’s Month all about SGBV, because that would not do justice to the fullness of women’s experiences in SA in 2020.

Every Women’s Month since 1995, we proclaim the milestones we have reached in terms of gender equality, and equally lament the barriers that remain. We speak of the existence of a wonderful tapestry of laws and policies, and our perpetual problem of non-implementation. This narrative is predictable and ritualistic, leading to a general fatigue of “calling on” government and other stakeholders to seek one another out and “do something”. I hesitate to add to that chorus. I also hesitate to recount the laws, policies and institutions that we have created over time, because clearly these are not the problem.

If women’s equality is to be achieved, it is incumbent upon us to break the bind of this ritual. In recent times, I have listened to notable women leaders emphasising the need for social mobilisation on various platforms. This is indeed a potent strategy. I would add to it the need to take the gender equality dialogue out of books, boardrooms and workshops to the shebeens, churches, mosques and the like; to make the gender equality conversation so ubiquitous in society, that it is normalised and impossible to ignore. That, in my view, would be (to borrow the words of Melinda Gates) “the moment of lift”.

Looking back to look forward

One of the many gifts bequeathed to us by the women’s movement of yore is that we hardly need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, social mobilisation and the ability to seamlessly permeate public-private spheres was the very strength of the movement.

Though different in substance, there are some uncomfortable parallels in the fight that the women of the 1950s led, and the circumstances that women in a democratic SA contend with today. One clear example is the manner in which the policies of the day, even when not intentionally gendered, disproportionately disrupt the ecosystem of women’s existence in the private sphere. By rising against the pass laws, women were essentially demanding that their private afflictions be of public and collective concern. They understood that oppression and violation thrive in invisibility. By bringing their private struggles into the public arena, the cause became more relatable to the majority of women, and broader society.

In similar fashion, the discourse on women’s equality in SA has tended to dwell on the public aspects of their equality, such as equal representation, education and/or labour, while tiptoeing around equality in the personal space. It is therefore no surprise that vices such as SGBV continue to thrive more than 30 years into democracy. The lived experiences of women in their private space hardly count in public policymaking, resulting in reactive responses when systems fail. The latter has, for instance, been evident in the approach to the COVID-19 response where the initial measures taken were arguably gender blind, with the effect that women’s lives and livelihoods were disproportionately affected, as manifested in increased cases of SGBV and loss of livelihoods. 

The personal and the public

The pursuit of equality in the public space is convenient to the state, and elitist. It is convenient because it allows the state to continue recounting numbers on representation, while doing much less to nurture social change, which requires constant and long-term investment, and for which it is harder to prove results. It is elitist because it resonates with, and benefits those with access to the tools of empowerment, and who then become the gatekeepers of the system.

The price of the convenient approach is far too steep. It is the continued disenfranchisement of women, who feel that the scales are perpetually tipped against them because they are far too often expected to conform to parallel sets of gender equality norms in their personal space and in public. Elitism, on the other hand, is quite simply an antithesis to effective social mobilisation.

Public policy often reflects a society’s collective ideas of acceptable norms. This demands that priority be accorded to efforts to cultivate gender equality at the lowest units of society. It is therefore perturbing to see the practice of relegating efforts to combat gender inequality and abuse of women to the realm of “women’s issues”.

Dealing with a similar reality at the height of the resistance, the women’s movement through the Women’s Charter declared the intent to “… teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of discrimination and prejudice as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and practice...”; and that “…freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole as long as we women are kept in bondage”.

This is not to diminish the contribution of men who actively engage with the pursuit of women’s equality. Rather, it is to emphasise the disservice that such a framing does to the goal of challenging the exclusion of women’s issues from the mainstream of a society that is largely male-centric. For as long as women have a dual existence in the parallel worlds of their public and personal lives, the goals of gender equality will remain defeated. Similarly, as long as women on the margins of society – such as sexual minorities, women with disabilities or migrants – remain excluded from equal protection, equality will remain elusive.

Confronting the real inequalities in our society demands that we actively confront the excuses for gender inequality that are embedded in culture and religion, in the spaces where they are cultivated and nurtured. It entails recognising that equality was never given to women as if it were a privilege that can be taken away and for which they ought to be grateful. Women’s equality will continue to be a struggle until gender equality is hegemonic. 

Women’s rights advocates would do well to draw lessons from the resilience and sense of purpose of the stalwarts of the movement. During the 1956 march, women seized a moment of unity on a shared cause, ignoring other factors that otherwise separated them, such as race. In this way, they led the way in demonstrating that there can be no equality when any sub-set of a society remains oppressed.

For years, women’s rights have worn the face and voice of women, specifically cisgender women, making it easy to relegate gender equality issues to the periphery of policymaking and political mobilisation. There is an urgent need to rethink the constituency of gender equality in its entirety: its goals, membership, leadership, cause and methods.

The appeal

It is surreal to see that the appeal of the women of 1956 remains as relevant today. In the words of the Women’s Charter: “We, the women of South Africa, declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population”; and “…appeal to all progressive organisations, to members of the great National Liberatory movements, to the trade unions and working-class organisations, to the churches, educational and welfare organisations, to all progressive men and women who have the interests of the people at heart, to join with us in this great and noble endeavour”.

This appeal cannot be fully actualised by the rhetorical call to government to “do something” about gender inequality. Rather, it begs for collective action from all of us, including a new, younger generation of advocates. It is a call for commitment to meaningful equality, not just in public representation and spaces, but also in our homes. To reclaim our voices without fear or shame. To embrace discomfort in confronting the social foundations of inequality that beguile us with a sense of equality while simultaneously undermining it. 

This is an edited version of an article originally published on the UP Faculty of Law’s website. Read it here.

- Author Dr Nkatha Murungi, Assistant Director in Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law

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