Womens Day, which has just passed, is not just another public holiday, giving the moneyed classes carte blanche to spend a day in the countryside or the mall, and for disadvantaged women a chance to put their feet up in honor of some ubiquitous national “day of rest”.
57 years ago on the 9 August 1956 in one of the largest demonstrations staged in this country’s history, thousands of women of all races marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings, to present a petition against the carrying of passes by black women. This march against the pass laws was organized by the Federation of South African Women who challenged the idea that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’, declaring it instead to be “everywhere”.
This was to be the start of a tradition of strong women’s voices being raised against efforts to silence them, and to “keep them in their place”. Voices like that of Helen Suzman, the anti-apartheid activist who would not be silenced by the government of the day despite being the sole liberal voice in Parliament for many years. Rhoda Kadalie, who has just written a powerful piece on efforts to create chaos in the Western Cape ahead of the 2014 elections, Patricia De Lille, who would not be silenced by the current government in exposing the arms deal, and of course, Helen Zille who exposed the murder of Steve Biko and who heads up the opposition, the Democratic Alliance. Let us also remember those strong women within the ANC, like Albertina Sisulu and Adelaide Tambo, who raised their voices against oppression and abuse, a voice which in recent years seems to have fallen silent in the face of overwhelming male patriarchy in government circles.
These are all women who have made their voices heard in this country and who refused to be silenced and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. And yes, the last 20 years of parliamentary democracy have brought about many legislative changes aimed at improving the lives of women. I wish we could celebrate women’s day in the spirit of joy and moonbeams so beloved of Facebook postings and jolly pictures of women enjoying themselves on this historic day. But the truth is that we cannot.
South Africa is not a safe place for women; domestic violence, rape, and murder are every day events in many womens lives. Unemployment, poverty, substance abuse and exploitation are the realities in many communities, and family members that abuse women financially, emotionally and economically are the norm for many, many women.
Women like Anene Booysen get murdered every day across the country, small children such as the siblings from Ceres lie broken and mutilated in hospitals across the country, and elderly women are raped in rural villages by youths high on drugs and liquor.
Look at the Cape Flats mother who saw what drugs were doing to her son and to her family and desperately tried to get help to no avail. Eventually she was forced into a terrible act before people took notice. And she is not the only one. We all know women like her. Women who are trying to keep their families together in the face of terrible challenges and abuse and who cannot find succor from the very agencies and organizations meant to help and assist.
Everyday women get turned away from courts because they claim they are too busy to give the very assistance they are mandated to give, women face months of delays and postponements when requesting help in getting maintenance, shelters are full, thus not giving women a safe place to go to, yet in a particularly South African flavored irony, many are facing closure due to lack of funding. Police are uninterested and sheriffs could not be bothered to serve the summonses and interdicts that a lucky few women do manage to squeeze out of the system.
And it is not just this that threatens our hard won democratic rights.
The very government which has been instrumental in introducing many women friendly Acts, is systematically rolling back women’s gains in an attempt to gain votes from men in rural areas by removing the threat empowered women present to traditional structures: If the Traditional Courts Bill goes through Parliament it will silence the voices of women who will henceforth be represented by, wait for it, the men in their families and the presiding officer will be a male traditional leader! Given the high rate of abuse faced by women in rural settings, often from the men in their families, this will devastate the voices of rural women. This essentially negates constitutional rights which are guaranteed to all South Africans.
In essence, women are being sent back to the kitchen, and can no longer go “everywhere” as there are very clear attempts to develop spaces where women may not tread. This is not good enough, Women deserve more.
It is clear that it is only when women have successfully become part of the established structure of governance from schools, to courts, from police stations to government, as magistrates, as police, as politicians, as doctors and as strong community leaders, that women’s freedoms will be truly protected. Anything less than that and any gains will always be vulnerable to attempts to erode hard won rights in order to prop up increasingly centralized political elites who only view women voters as a means to an end, and who are, presumably, seen as happy with the current crumbs to salvage an increasingly patriarchal conscience.
It is only when we have truly women friendly state institutions that women can be truly free to go “everywhere” as dreamt of by those strong and brave women who would not be silenced 57 years ago.