Commemorating more than a century in the pursuit of gender equality and International Women’s Day

01/08/2018. Scores of women march to the Union Buildings to hand over a memorandum against children and women abuse. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

On the global community calendar, 8 March is marked as the day on which we commemorate International Women’s Day, which evolved as a result of women’s pursuit of equality in the workplace and the associated human rights, civic citizenship, and dignity in the private and public spheres while calling for gender equality.

It is an annual celebration of women’s diverse contributions and accomplishments in the socio-political, economic, environmental, and other spheres.  It emerged from the context where women did not have the right to vote, to participate in elections, and in many societies to own property.  This meant, among others, that women could not shape their lives as they wanted or envisaged, due to the institutionalisation of patriarchy, which is understood as the authority of men over women, and exploitative economic-system arrangements and associated policies. Equally important is that, while the quest for liberty, equality, and human rights were seen as important for democratic societies, it was not seen as important to extend it to women. It was in this context of agitating for equality and the recognition of women as fully human and to therefore be endowed with the cognitive aptitude and abilities to frame their lives, that women organised and protested against these inhibitions.

It is therefore fitting that today, 8 March 2019, we are commemorating International Women’s Day with the celebration of 25 years of democratic dispensation in South Africa, where equality, women’s rights, and full participation in political, economic, social, and other rights are generally available, yet still remains contested. It is equally important that we should ask in this year, when the UFS is celebrating 115 years of transforming lives and inspiring excellence through knowledge construction, intellectual formation and dissemination, what we have done or are doing to ensure that gender equality is affirmed in our institution and in our society. How do we promote women’s rights and gender equality at the UFS and in South Africa and what are the challenges we face? 

Do we allow gender equality and women’s talents, knowledge, and voice in all spheres to support the Academic Project in our universities? What are the challenges in transforming systems or exclusion and marginalisation within our own structuring and how do we plan to overcome these? It seems to me that while women’s rights, talents, dignity, and agency are now acknowledged in many of our communities and our society in general, there are still many challenges to transform and fully overcome so that women can constructively contribute knowledge locally, regionally, and globally. How do we create conditions that will enable women and gender-non-conforming people to perform optimally in the core Academic Project, namely teaching and learning, engaged scholarship and research, and to hence thrive as academics or professionals and administrative staff within our universities on the African continent and the global community? What measures do we put in place to facilitate women’s productive outputs and celebrate them through recognition in a world that often negate these contributions?

It may be surprising to the reader that I pose so many questions instead of describing what International Women’s Day is, but it is important to ponder on what systems, institutions, policies, and praxes our societies will need to affirm the dignity of women.

As the UFS community and the broader society, engaging these questions are an important academic and social exercise.  I need to assert that there are many initiatives which the UFS are putting in place to support women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice within the institution. We have recognised the imperative for creating an enabling academic and professional environment that facilitates access and excellence for all staff and students, taking cognisance of the importance of gender equality. We have also recognised that gender equality does not only frame the equality between men and women, but also takes cognisance of the rights of gender-non-conforming individuals as well as individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, asexual, etc.

Equally, we have emphasised universal access and support for staff and students living with disabilities in order to ensure that they have access and succeed in their pursuit of education, notwithstanding the continuing requirements to improve our systems and policies in this regard. The portfolio on Institutional Change, Student Affairs, and Engaged Scholarship, for instance, has started to put measures in place that facilitate institutional policy frameworks, advance gender equality, and address impediments to their success, which is often limited by challenges such as sexual harassment.

In 2018, for instance, Council approved the policies on Sexual Harassment and Anti-discrimination, which promotes gender equality and discourages all conduct to denigrate or violate women and men in our context. A high-impact and agile resolution process and team referred to as SART, operates within the implementation framework of the Sexual Harassment and Anti-Discrimination policies. It is an immediate mechanism to address complaints, queries, and submissions on gender-based violence in ways that are attentive to the many calls which women locally and internationally have asserted as important in facilitating gender equality for all staff, students, and stakeholders of the UFS.  We have also decided to provide the University Council with a Social Cohesion and Social Justice Report, which will enable us to evaluate all efforts to promote social justice, social capital, and excellence through co-curricular work in the university.

I must state that these efforts are in line with some of the aspirations and commitments of the International Women’s Day commemorations. It seems to me that the roles of women become important and productive when the environment within which they exercise their voice, dreams, talents, and knowledge, is supportive. I wish all the women of the UFS and in our society a wonderful International Women’s Day. I hope it will inspire all of us in our different work responsibilities to be and do the best we were created for. I further hope that all institutional efforts to facilitate gender equality will come to fruition.

Professor Puleng LenkaBula is the Vice-Rector for Institutional Change, Student Affairs, and Community Engagement at the University of the Free State.