This month as we celebrate women in the country, I reminisced about how privileged I was to be part of the South African delegation that attended the annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York last year. As member states converged at the Big Apple to lay bare of the challenges that women face in their respective countries, I asked myself if the women in South Africa were worse off in comparison to women in other parts of the world.
My mission was to attend more different side events of the Commission to learn more from other countries as they grappled with their issues of women empowerment and gender equality. I hopped from one side event to another trying to put a measure and on how far we have come as a nation in as far as advocating for our women is concerned.
What quickly came to mind was the fact that in my country alone I have seen many misogynistic practices that victimised women in all respects. The struggles of South African women are well entrenched in the country’s history, dating back to the heroics of our struggle who staged a march to the Union Buildings on August 09, 1956, to resist the pass laws.
Today, in modern South Africa, women are continuing with the struggle. The struggle that women carry until today manifests in many ways and the struggles have pervaded the socio-fabric of our society.
Women face hardships every day, either at work, at home, in business, in taxis and even in clubs. They struggle everywhere. Conforming to undesirable traditional norms like the adage that says the place of a woman is in the kitchen further exacerbates the disempowerment of women. These insipid statements have created too much obfuscation and subterfuge that have undermined the aspirations of women to go beyond the kitchen.
On farms, for instance, women face challenges as far as their security of tenure is concerned. Security of tenure for women on farms goes as far as the contractual lifespan between farm owners and their spouses. When their spouses die or get dismissed, they often face arbitrary eviction. This is atrocious because their livelihoods are also threatened. At work, women face lugubrious challenges that are posed by sexual harassment, gender based bias manifesting in all forms of gender wage gaps and the less said about ego tantrums that men throw at women at work, the better.
At the Commission in the UN, women from Austria yearned for their country’s political will to engender gender responsive budgeting, eradication of cultural malpractices of female genital mutilation and child marriages was a call from the Kenyan women at one side event. The dismantling of social misnomers resulting from gender-based violence was a plan by South African women at the Commission, stopping economic exclusion caused by the subordination of women which result in their exclusion from the market sphere and their limited access to, and control over resources was a preoccupation of Ukrainian women and a stance by American women that called for the inclusion of rural women and girls to the technological advancements in the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution were a plethora of concerns put forward by the women.
As the days went by in New York, from my own observation I had seen that, many if not all, the challenges women face all over the world are manmade and to a large extend perpetuated by political, religious, cultural, social, economic and technological bias that for me is superficial. These challenges are created by men and manifest in emotional, physical, sexual and other forms of abuse. As I listened all the challenges women face, it made me realise that the tentacles of patriarchy are still too long and have somewhat wreaked havoc around the world ever since mankind; and to solve these universal outcries, men need to stand up and help create a conducive environment for women to prosper. Government must also follow suit.
These women as they deliberated about their predicaments, they also put on the agenda milestones that each country had achieved in advancing the plight of their women. They also sat down to fashion modalities towards finding collective solutions that are aimed at improving the plight of women, the world over.
As part of the agenda that was put forward by us, the South African delegation, many milestones that we have seen as South Africans were put forward for the world to see. South African government institutions, NGO’s and other civil society formations who were in New York made an impression by tabling gender biased programmes that have been institutionalized in the country to assist women.
For example, the implementation of the Rural Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Programme by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development contributes towards reshaping the knowledge economy of rural South Africans. The programme has opened up more opportunities for rural communities particularly women and girls, in bridging the digital divide in rural areas.
Through the programme, rural communities are integrated to form part of the broader computer literate information society. The Rural ICT programme in a form of Schools Programme and Community ICT centers provide access to educational technologies, government services, learning material, employment opportunities and communication (email, skype etc) to rural communities. The Rural ICT Programme is a step in the right direction in educating and empowering rural women. The programme assisted rural women to gain access to multiple resources like books, calculators, research options, cameras and videos.
Second, another programme, the National Rural Youth Service Corps is regarded as a flagship skills development initiative which forms part of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development’s job creation model. The initiative recruits unemployed youth on a 50/50 gender pairing basis and equips them with business and entrepreneurial skills.
Another women based programme is Mzansi Arts and Craft Cooperative Financial Institution (CFI) which is made up of women beneficiaries who run arts and craft cooperatives in various provinces. This CFI encourages savings by cooperatives and it is quickly transforming the country’s financial sector by allowing communities to bank through lightly regulated community driven financial institutions. This Mzansi Arts and Craft CFI secured its loan granting and deposit taking licence from the Cooperative Development Bank Agency in May 2016. After earning its CFI status, the institution is now setting its sights to becoming a corporative bank that will be 100% women owned.
The principles underpinning the land reform programme seek to deracialise the rural economy by democratising land allocations. This is done by equitably allocating land across gender, race, class and strict production discipline which impact positively on national food security. Through the Recapitalisation and Development Programme, redistributed land becomes productive and profitable because it provides mechanised irrigation and inputs as well as farmer support. Though these programmes have accelerated the gains in women empowerment a lot needs to be done and for me it will be prudent to always forge forward with gender-based budgeting initiatives to liberate women because if we empower our women, we empower the nation. Happy women’s month!
Themba Mzula Hleko is a Communication Graduate at the University of South Africa and Assistant Director Communication at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and he is writing in his personal capacity.