Tokens and smokescreens – Why women don’t need more commemorations on Women’s Day

Posted on August 05, 2022

Every year in different parts of the world, a month or a day is dedicated to women. The rationale behind this is to celebrate the contributions by women and to keep up the fight for gender equality. In South Africa, we commemorate women for an entire Women's Month in August of each year. It invokes the memory of the courage and determination of more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest of the extension of pass laws to women during apartheid in South Africa. These pass laws severely limited the movements of people, and particularly of black South Africans, with the intention to segregate the population along racial lines. The protest in 1956 was a peaceful contestation by women who were peacemakers and mediators within an unjust system.

On the 9th of August, we commemorate and appreciate what women have achieved, but these tokens of appreciation are simply tokens. We have still not made substantive practical progress through tangible evidence that we truly believe women are integral to societies. It cannot be that in 2022 we are still raising concerns about gender equity, gender-based violence and gendered discrimination.

When we consider our work at the Centre for Mediation in Africa, we can extend this concern to the limitations of how women in Africa are included in public spaces and peace processes. One of our researchers conducted her PhD studies on women’s political empowerment in Africa. She focused on the insufficiency of the quota system as a measure to ensure greater inclusion of women. A critical component in this research was the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace and Security, which was adopted internationally in 2000. This resolution acts as a guiding document for conflict resolution and women’s empowerment in peace and mediation processes. The UNSCR 1325 is an instrument for women to voice their experiences of war and to be represented, recognised, validated and included in peace processes.

Fast forward to 2022 and it is evident that women are still the majority ‘victims’ of the effects of war rather than agents of peace processes. Women have been included in peace processes minor roles such as secretaries, note takers or nurses but their presence and representation at a decision-making capacity is generally limited. We have also universalised the experiences of women in conflict and in social, political, and economic spaces without paying careful attention to different factors and contexts that influence women’s experiences.

The representation of women seems to become a form of tokenism. Women are often hired, placed, or tolerated in organisations or public offices strictly to prove that those places are not discriminatory. Tokenism is the window-dressing of issues. It inserts women in peace processes but they are not given the agency to substantially contribute to peace at higher levels. The narrative usually is that women are homemakers, and then we find that women are forced into labour intensive work. What we often hear is that women are the first educators of a nation, and then we find boy’s clubs in higher institutions, corporate management and politics. Much of what is said in one breath, is cancelled with the other.

The inclusion of women in peace and mediation processes speaks to their representation.

Which brings us to the question, why is it that ‘including’ women into certain ‘rights’ still needs to happen and why is the category ‘woman’ still being used? After all, it is about how one human being perceives another human being. It should not be that ‘women’ in the big picture are still a lesser category human.  

The recognition of women and the position they hold in every sphere of society, community and the home should be ingrained, understood, and embraced. Women are not out for accolades or trophies but to take up a position that is rightfully theirs.

The topic: ‘Where are the women in peacebuilding?’ will be discussed by practitioners and scholars at a seminar hosted by the Swiss Embassy and the Centre for Mediation in Africa at 10am on 26 August at the Future Africa campus.

Dr Ashleigh Shangare, University of Pretoria, Centre for Mediation in Africa; Dr Quraysha Sooliman, University of Pretoria, Centre for Mediation in Africa; Dr Marlie Holtzhausen, University of Pretoria, Centre for Mediation in Africa.

- Author Dr Ashleigh Shangare, Dr Quraysha Sooliman and Dr Marlie Holtzhausen
Published by Jimmy Masombuka

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