As women’s month comes to an end, I want to share some of my thoughts on the topic and how saying Happy Women’s Day is contradictory. Why? Because in the context of South Africa there is truly nothing to celebrate when women are anything but safe. We cannot continue to paint a pretty picture when things are truly the opposite.
During Women’s Month, the way I have seen women being celebrated makes me question how our society values women. I have seen countless giveaways on social media and specials for women specifically, but as women in South Africa, a giveaway is probably the last thing on our minds. The correct way to celebrate women is to give women equal rights, stop the widespread epidemic of gender-based violence and stop discriminating based on sex once and for all. We need to stand together as a nation and empower women by allowing our women the freedom of speech.
There needs to be a change in attitudes and beliefs. The attitudes that all women are not worthy of education. The belief is that women have no role outside of their homes. The belief that women’s bodies are not really their own, that their minds aren’t worthy, and their voices simply should not be heard. These beliefs have to change!
Gender-based violence; an unwanted constant in our society. Women experience those whistles and catcalls as we innocently walk down the street every day. On top of that, we feel completely unsafe and objectified, amplified by the hyper-epidemic of gender-based violence in this country. In the National Strategic Plan on gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa, our president Cyril Ramaphosa states “South Africa holds the shameful distinction of being one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman.” Women are being abused, assaulted and murdered in South Africa at the hands of men. This is a man’s issue! GBV stems from the patriarchal power structures where male leadership is seen as the norm and men hold the majority power. Patriarchy is a social and political system that treats men as superior to women - where women cannot protect their bodies, meet their basic needs, and participate fully in society, and where men perpetrate violence against women with impunity.
The innocuous leads to the horrific, my fury around this topic has been ignited by a lifetime of men helping themselves to women’s bodies without consent. To the most egregious, violent and horrific situations. The innocuous and the horrific: these two things seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. But the innocuous makes space for the horrific; women have to live with both. Men are so used to helping themselves that they cannot see how one leads to the other. And if you add in the history of race, which is a whole other subject, it becomes even more complicated. When women are manhandled, we start to rationalise, trying to figure out that it might have been our fault. We have been trained to think that we are over-reacting, too sensitive or unreasonable. That fury sits deep inside as we practice our smiles and patience, as apparently women aren’t supposed to be angry. The global collection of women’s experiences cannot be ignored anymore.
As a woman, I take this very personally. I know how it feels to be overlooked and underestimated. Like when a man turns to the woman leading the board meeting to ask for a coffee, he so confidently assumes that she’s in a lower position than the men in the room.
As we celebrated International Women’s Day, industry experts said that we are not doing well in South Africa when it comes to gender equality at the executive level. The question isn’t if a gap exists, but rather how bad it is, and how to close it. There are certainly exemplary women who are heading some progressive South African enterprises (Lillian Barnard the managing director at Microsoft South Africa) but these women are the exceptions rather than the norm. Of all the listed JSE companies, only 13% of their CEOs are women. The problem lies with the assumptions that women's capabilities and importance in society are less than men.
It’s not easy to speak out, society often blames women for taking too long to come forward and speaking up about personal or public experiences. However, we never speak about why it has taken so long. We cannot talk about silence before we talk about the existing structures that cause women to stay silent in the first place. To the marginalised, speaking up about our very existence is a real threat to our livelihood. Our activism comes at a high expense as women.
The lack of respect for our voices translates to the lack of respect for women. The silencing of our voices stems from fear. Fear of what we may be and what we have the power to become. Oppressors are very aware of what we might do if we had the freedom of speech, the glass ceilings which we would break! This is because so much of an oppressor’s identity is rooted in insecurity. It makes them re-evaluate themselves and who they are without oppressing women.
Social media has become a place where marginalised voices can be heard in the face of adversity. It gives room for our voices to be heard. A place where we do not need to ask and plead, but rather where we demand to be heard!
We have to break the silence by fighting against the oppressors who are silencing us. We need to recognise our identity and use it to speak up. We need to work towards a brighter future where our voices are celebrated and heard. We cannot use the same oppressive structures which are in place at the moment and just adapt them to new times. We need to change the platforms which we have and improve them.
Our identity should not determine our ability to be heard.
Men, we call you as allies as we walk together towards change, may you be accountable, self-reflective and compassionate. May you ask how you can support women and be of service to change. And women, we encourage you to acknowledge your fury and share it in safe ways. Women, we are worthy!