International Women’s Day is celebrated around the globe on 8 March. Men have their day on 19 November. In South Africa, we pay tribute to women on 9 August. On this day in 1956, about 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against the Urban Areas Act of 1950. This law restricted freedom of movement for black women and forced black women to carry pass books. It was a peaceful protest with 100 000 signatures placed at the door of an absent prime minister. It was their silence of 30 minutes outside the prime minister’s door that made people pay attention, followed by a specific song, among others, composed especially for the march “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodi!” (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.) But it would be 35 years before such oppressive laws were removed and a whopping 39 years after this historic event that the day was first celebrated as a national holiday.
2020 Politics and Business
We are now more than 25 years on from our first official acknowledgement of the rights of women in South Africa and more than 54 years on from the historic day we celebrate. We’ve seen increases in political representation of 2.7% in parliament pre-1994 to 41% representation in the National Assembly currently. However, with women comprising about 51% of the South African population, they still, on average, are paid 25% less than their male counterparts. The labour market continues to favour men and research has shown that gender representation stills remains below the 50% mark for positions of influence occupied by women. In addition, research has shown that approximately 69% of women face long-term unemployment, more than 7% higher than that of males.
2020 Gender-based violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) must be the most shocking and outrageous evidence of gender inequality in our midst. Statistics have shown that femicide in South Africa is almost five times higher than anywhere else in the world and that GBV affects women and girls disproportionately. Furthermore, research has shown that most men who rape do so for the first time as teenagers and almost all who ever rape do so by their mid-20s. With more than 21 women and children murdered in a two-week period during lockdown alone, ranging in age from 6 years to 89 years, one shudders at the enormity of the threat facing women in our society.
Women’s Day. Women’s month. Is it all lip service and libel?
Women’s Day in South Africa has come to represent the strength and courage of women and, in 2020, the focus is on gender equality. Women are remembered and honoured for their strength and courage. This surely suggests an accepted norm of threat and force. Do we allocate a day and a month to women in order to highlight these social norms and human rights violations? It seems that women continue struggling against all odds for small measures of change. Pertinent it is to note that Women’s Day or even an entire month for women is not in honour of their equality as human beings, their right to live freely, to feel safe and to believe they can reach their potential in a manner that is not dependent on super strength or outstanding bravado. We recall strength and courage, persistence and determination, the fight against all fights. Is Women’s Day merely lip service – an insincere commitment that maintains systemic inequalities; or libel – overt promises that merely conceal perverted defamation of women?
Remove the -men and we are left with Wo-, whoa, woe
Socio-political responses to violations of women’s rights and gender inequality often focus on what women need in response to glaring inequalities and abuse. Mechanisms are put in place to support victims and empower women through information and education. Women’s shelters are erected and education programmes are rolled out in schools about human rights and where to find help if these rights are violated. What of the structural and systemic mechanisms that create the problems in the first place? The silence of men is, often times, rather deafening. Men seem to be both perpetrators and benefactors of ongoing gender inequalities and gender-based violence. Norms that legitimate aggressive and dominant male behaviour perpetuate gender-based violence and gender inequality. It even has its own name – toxic masculinity – and it continues to thrive.
Maybe it requires a focus on the boys
We need to create a society in which we are all equal as human beings. Our boys also need to be educated. They must be encouraged to recognise that equality for women is not oppression of the man and that power is not the domain and right of the male gender. Who is asking about how boys are raised and where their role models are? Do we have role models for boys? What are men saying and doing in society to really honour women as human beings, rather than patronising them as brave and courageous in the face of toxic masculinity, systemic inequality and structural violence?
You strike a woman, you strike a rock.
Indeed. And let’s not forget, rocks take millions of years to form – is this the irony underlying the reason we honour women who are brave and strong? There has been but no other option.
Where to get help:
GBV Command Centre: 000 428 428
Commission for Gender Equality: 0800 007 709
South African Human Rights Commission: 011 877 3600
Domestic Violence Helpline: 0800 150 150
POWA: Lockdown counselling number 076 694 5911, www.powa.co.za
Men, this is for you:
The views expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAFREA.