Women, poverty, and the environment

By Ruth Hopkins

Harriet Ludidi, a 46 year old unemployed mother of five, has found away of cutting costs.  In eMalaheni , an informal settlement inKlipspruit, Soweto, Harriet spends most of her day making coal balls.  She gathers the coal dust that covers practically everything in thearea, due to the vicinity of a coal yard.  Then she digs up clay from the river bank and rolls both substances into balls that dry in the sun.   After a few hours the coal balls are ready to be used to heat her house or to cook food.   She has no access to public services such as electricity or running water.

Harriet’s inventive survival strategy illustrates how poverty can deeply affect a person’s life.  She has to spend such a big chunk of her day foraging for fuel, that it does not allow her any time for job seeking, education or anything else.  She saves money, but simultaneously jeopardises her long-term opportunities.

The insidious legacy of Apartheid has left many communities in South Africa without durable access to basic needs such as liveable housing, electricity, education and health care.  Within these communities women came off worst.  What is commonly referred to as ‘the feminisation of poverty’ might seem a foreign concept at first, because poverty affects both men and women. But, young girls often drop out of school to help earn an income for the family, women are often solely responsible for taking care of the household and massive unemployment has hit the typical women industries (textile, clothing and leather). More women than men are unemployed.

Critics claim the ANC has not managed to set the record straight. It has embraced a neoliberal agenda and has focused on economic growth instead of fulfilling the constitutional promises of gender equality and eradication of poverty.  Add to that, the crisis in the delivery of services in South Africa and the steady increase of the price of food and it’s easy to see that women like Harriet have to make impossible choices between paying for basic services or putting food on the table.

The story about Harriet’s survival tactics, as recorded by the Star on Monday, also point to another topical issue. South Africa is a big consumer and producer of coal, a major polluter. But, as world leaders convene in Durban in a few days to decide on measures at the UN level to stop climate change at COP17,  the position of the world’s poor is not really taken into account. Even though climate change undoubtedly negatively affects her life, it is blatantly clear that Harriet and millions of other women living in poverty worldwide,cannot really afford to worry about the environment.


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