I often wonder how I will feel if I have a little girl one day. I want to feel excited she’ll hopefully be growing up in a world that allows her to have any career she wants, and where she can love who she chooses. But I also wonder if I won’t feel scared for her, growing up in a world in which it is clear that, for many people, women’s empowerment is negotiable. Since 1994, the lives of most South African women have in law at least improved substantially. Legislation has been passed that protects freedom of movement, the right to vote, to own property, to divorce, to claim maintenance from absent fathers, to access grants to support children, and to be free from domestic and sexual violence. We’re midway through the African Union (AU) African Women’s Decade, which encourages member states to advance gender equality by accelerating the implementation of the Dakar Framework for Action, Beijing Platform for Action and other AU decisions on gender equality.
On paper, then, it seems as though we are on the right track these pieces of legislation and treaties put the empowerment of women firmly on the agenda. But what will these changes mean for my future daughter? Journalist with Daily Maverick Rebecca Davis is critical of the use of the word empowerment. It often seems to be bandied around vaguely as the key to a glorious future, with little backup as to how, in practical terms, this would be achieved, she says. For her, the word does not do enough to deal with the real structural barriers preventing women from getting ahead. We can’t deny that these barriers are gender-related. The 2013 Institute of Race Relations South African Survey indicates that South African women are more likely than men to be unemployed, HIV-positive, victims of sexual violence, and poor.
(Its 2012-2013 figures made for grim reading: 2 266 women murdered, 29 928 women the victim of sexual offences, and more than one million women the victim of common or serious assault.) Consequently, many women in South Africa do not live in freedom, but in fear. SO HOW CAN THINGS CHANGE? To start effecting change, we need to act in ways that sometimes do not fit the traditional model like putting ourselves first. Radio and TV personality Anele Mdoda believes that South African women need a level playing ground, without being made to feel like they are being handed a favour by being there. Women need to be taught to be selfish, or they will never achieve anything for themselves, she says. Selfishis a word many women are afraid of it is part of our upbringing to deny ourselves; we are socialised to put others first, from our families to our partners and children. It’s also hugely important to overcome fear. It might not come naturally to us, but it is time to start asking, as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg does in her book 2013 Lean In, What would we do if we weren’t afraid?Through working together, great things can be achieved: to wit, the march in 1956 of some 20 000 women who protested the pass laws (commemorated on Women’s Day, 9 August, each year).
For some, though, it seems that we are not working together enough. We are making gains but we could be more united and therefore more effective and efficient in the way we do things and how we leverage resources, believes Rethabile Mashale, founder and programme director of the Thope Foundation, which works to give women and girls equal access to socioeconomic opportunities. Resources, or the lack thereof, have a lot to do with the fatigue that many women activists are feeling. At a forum last year at the University of Cape Town, Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile and former head of UN Women, said, I do not think we need to empower women, because women are powerful. What we really need is to enable all the conditions so that those powerful women can do what they really want to do. So what is it that we do want to do? For some of us, it is to take political office. In February 2014, Malawi, Liberia and Cameroon all had female heads of state at a time when there were only nine female heads of state in the world. Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa are in the top 10 countries in the world in terms of female representation in parliament, according to the Swiss-based Inter- Parliamentary Union, with Rwanda at number one. And the current Executive Director of UN Women is our former deputy-president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Others of us have different aims: the list of successful and inspiring women academics, writers, poets and scientists is long. There are strong voices encouraging women to go further, like those of Kass Naidoo, founder of gsport4girls, an online initiative that aims to raise the profile of women’s sport in South Africa. Or founder of the Rural Women’s Movement, Sizani Ngubani, who raises awareness of rural women’s rights. Humanitarian (and former first lady) Gra§a Machel continues to work towards the upliftment of women.
With these and others as spokespeople, it is likely that our daughters will never have to hear from a man about what it was like to be a woman in this period in history. Mashale poi nt s out that creating spaces for women does not mean that men have to become disenfranchised instead. She feels that feminism is often misunderstood, and Davis agrees. I went to an all-girlshigh school and I do not ever recall hearing the word feminism. Where I think we should be doing more is in the field of education about women’s rights. There’s no single South African (or African) story after all, there are 520 million women in Africa and we all face very different conditions. Yet we are change-makers and leaders; despite the stats and the struggles, this is an exciting time to be a woman. Ours is a society that battles to grasp the meaning of freedom. But we do have a solid and positive Constitution as a point of departure, says Nomboniso Gasa, Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Law and Society in Cape Town. African women are empowered and self-empowered. They make decisions at times in dire situations and act with courage and conviction in their daily lives. We live in a time like no other where our possibilities can feel simultaneously limited and limitless. Women are tirelessly working to ensure that the future is better for other women who they may never meet, or know. A proverb I have grown fond of says that just because we plant a tree does not mean we will be able to sit in its shade in our lifetime. I’m grateful for the shade I sit in today, and I’m grateful for all those planting seeds for a better future for the women of Africa.
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