Reluctance to Confront SA’s Misogynist Customs

March 9, 2013

By Z Pallo Jordan via Business Day

THE theme for International Women’s Day on Friday is “Time for Action to End Violence Against Women”. South Africa has witnessed some horrific acts of violence against women in recent weeks. Towards the end of last year, the international community learnt of the shocking gang rape and murder of a woman in India. The most distressing aspect of these events is how universal they are.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), up to 50% of sexual assaults reported worldwide are committed against girls younger than 16. More than 70% of women worldwide report experiences of physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man at some point in their lives. In many countries, domestic violence is not a crime. Violence against women is a plague of terrifying proportions.

According to the same agency, South Africa has since 1994 performed reasonably well in the empowerment of women and has created an environment that promotes gender equality. Last year’s UNDP report indicates that female enrolment at our universities outstrips that of men. South African political institutions — with 43% of MPs being women, against a world average of 19.7% — rank among the high achievers. The ceilings of race and gender were brought down in 1994. The participation of women in South African public life compares favourably with that of some developed countries.

The outward features of South Africa’s apartheid past and its democratic future are depicted in a photograph taken at the Groote Schuur talks: FW de Klerk’s all-male, white, Afrikaner delegation, opposite Nelson Mandela’s racially and gender-diverse delegation. However, our progress since then affects only a fraction of South Africa’s women. Women command less economic power than men, and poverty in South Africa is gendered as well as racialised. African rural women are the worst affected. Recommendations to rectify this were incorporated in the National Development Plan.

International Women’s Day has its origin in the US. From 1857, female workers in New York, protesting against low wages and poor working conditions, came out on strike every on about March 8. By 1908, this demonstration had grown so large that it prompted the Socialist Party of America to proclaim the first International Women’s Day: February 28 1909. European women began to observe it after the Second International adopted the date in 1910. International Women’s Day rallies across Europe drew millions of women and men in 1911. In 1913 and 1914, millions of women across Europe and North America used March 8 as a day of protest against the imminent war. In 1913, after the famous 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike by female textile workers in New England, the Second International declared March 8 to be International Women’s Day.

When the workers at the Putilov armaments plant were locked out on March 7 1917, the women of Petrograd came out onto the streets. On March 8, during a women’s demonstration, instead of dispersing the demonstrators as ordered, soldiers joined them. Within a week, Tsar Nicholas abdicated. The February Revolution (old calendar) was ignited by the women’s demonstrations. The provisional government enfranchised Russian women. In 1975, the United Nations adopted March 8 as International Women’s Day to celebrate the achievements of women.

The Women’s Charter, adopted by the Federation of South African Women shortly after its inauguration, demanded the full franchise for all adult South Africans, equality of opportunity, equal pay for equal work, equal rights to property, equality in marriage, the removal of all laws and customs that denied women equality, paid maternity leave for working mothers and free compulsory education for all children.

The Women’s Charter in large measure has been realised in our constitution. Women of all races with the required skills and motivation have seized these new opportunities. Although the law no longer constrains social mobility, there remain a number of degrading laws, affecting specifically African women, that need to be urgently reviewed.

The fate of Saartjie Baartman captures the systemic abuse of African women under colonialism and apartheid. Her grave site reaffirms the dignity of women, specifically women of formerly oppressed people. Her remains were laid to rest, with full honours, on August 9, South Africa’s Women’s Day, in 2002.

Aggressive masculine behaviour has its roots in powerful patriarchal traditions among all of South Africa’s communities. Our reluctance to confront misogynist practices and customs, for fear of exciting cultural sensibilities, exacts a rather high price in the degradation of half of our population.

To realise the promise of gender equality will require the efforts of men and women. But, it first demands the modification of male behaviour. Democratic South Africa owes its commendable performance in UNDP surveys to the vision and calibre of female leaders and activists who helped to shape it. The quality of life South African women enjoy today should be a vindication of their efforts. Working together, we could make that so.

Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.

Photo: Biphop