The speech is done. The State has announced its priorities for this year. Women were not highlighted as a core group, other than to be mentioned as victims of crime, and the occasional few mentioned as entrepreneurs.
Before I get to the ‘what now’, I’d like to begin with a story. I hope you’ll take the time to bear with me for this.
I first heard this story in Uganda, surrounded by women just like myself who had come together for the privileged activity of writing. I think at the time we watched it, it was raining outside, the type of persistent and thorough rain that you experience in warm humid climates. The type that doesn’t take the heat or humidity away, just cements it in, closer to your skin.
While it rained outside my new friends and I listened to the story of a fire. Wangari Maathai, leader of the Green Belt Movement, told the story on a youtube clip that we all leaned forward to watch, eager to hear the sound.
The story went along these lines: Many animals of different sizes inhabit the forest, each with its own purpose. There is no animal that is insignificant, and each animal’s actions have an impact on the others. Some might call this the circle of life, or the food change, or simply nature. One day, in the forest of Maathai’s story there is a fire. Many of the animals flee their homes, running away to the edges of the forest away from the fire for safety. They watch as the fire grows and grows, feeling helpless to do anything to stop it. Watching as their beautiful home is slowly destroyed.
One animal chooses not to watch. It is the animal that you least expect, a tiny hummingbird. So small that it seems useless. Whilst the other animals stand and observe, the hummingbird takes tiny droplets of water in her beak, and releases each droplet down onto the fire. Drop, after drop, she doesn’t give up.
The other animals mocked her – and perhaps to them her impact seems insignificant, her effort purposeless against what seemed an obvious destructive force that would not be reckoned with. Eventually, on her return flight to collect water, the animals stopped her with a condescending question: “What do you think you are doing?” Her response? “I am doing the best I can.”
For many of us watching the SONA from home there was a lot to reflect on. It’s possible that from where we are, there seemed to be a fire of magnificent proportions, a fire that is harming many of us whilst we watch from the sidelines feeling powerless. There may have even been the sense that there was nothing to be done, that this blaze would continue around us regardless.
So, what does that mean? What does that mean for the women in your life? How do you go into the weekend, and the weeks that lie ahead knowing that you are not the focus of development plans, and that they will not be focussed on your needs? But, if you feel a sense of your smallness, ask yourself are you doing the best you can?
I have a suggestion. Take your energy and make the country you want to live in.
Vote in the 2016 local government elections. Before you do that, find out who the candidates are and make an effort to meet them. Find out who your representatives are here. Send them a letter/email or make a phonecall and ask them how women are being represented in your area, and how our interests are being taken into account.
Participate in community meetings and forums. Get to know your neighbours. Talk to them about issues in your area. Encourage them to attend the meetings and forums with you.
Send letters and petitions to government and parliament. Comment on laws you don’t agree with, suggest ones you do.
This is not a chance to give up, sit back, and complain.This is a chance to consider that little girl who listened to President Zuma from the audience. Who had tea with him and told him that she wanted to be President one day. Let’s not give up on her dream.
As South Africans it seems that it is impossible to go a day without seeing a news headline of a violent attack in some form. Between 2006 and 2013, more than one million crimes were committed against women. Common assault was the most common contact crime, followed by assault with the intent to commit grievous bodily harm. The Table below provides a breakdown of the SAPS statistics.
But before you get there, statistics of this scale are often hard to process. It’s difficult to imagine what more they represent. So when you see these numbers, I want you to think of the images you know of the 1956 women’s march that changed our history. In that march, there were roughly 20 000 women.
It’s unfortunate that the crime statistics are not reported in a gender-disaggregated way each year that would allow us to track what types of crimes women are reporting. In 2012/13 however, the SAPS did report in this way, as detailed in the table above. In that year, adult females were more likely than adult males and children to be the victim of sexual offences and common assault. In terms of the total number of crimes, sexual offences against adult females represented 45 percent of all sexual offences, and common assault against adult females represented 48 percent of all common assaults.
So it’s clear that women are more likely to report certain types of crimes – namely sexual offences and common assaults. It’s possible to conclude that these common assaults represent some of the domestic violence statistics which, although tracked daily by the SAPS, have never been reported on.
It is important therefore for those listening to SONA to consider what commitments have been made to women in terms of protecting them from crime both outside and within the home. In the 2014 SONA the only commitment made was that the Government would ‘work to reduce levels of crime’. Following the deaths of Anene Booysen, Anni Dewani, and Reeva Steenkamp, a great deal of noise was made by many Government representatives from all parties about the need to address crimes against women. But now that noise has become an almost inaudible murmur.
Two years ago the Government via the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities launched the National Council on Gender Based Violence (NCGBV). This council was formed to address and monitor high levels of violence against women, as well as to consider strategies to prevent further violence. During 2014, after finalising its identity, the Council seemed to disappear. Another commitment made was the development of new sexual offences courts and the refurbishment of existing courts to become sexual offences courts. This is another development which seems to have disappeared from the agenda. There is also an inter-ministerial committee on violence against women. Yet, the relevant departments are not working together to improve the lives of survivors in a way that is evident, efficient or speedy enough. If these commitments are not discussed tonight, why not? If there is not sufficient budget for these important services, where is that money being redirected to?
Of course, as I explained in Part 1 a useful term to understand is intersectionality. That is, the intersection of various forms of oppression on different people. With crime and violence, it is true that certain categories of women are more vulnerable.
Sex workers currently face a number of human rights violations because of the criminalisation of the sale of sex in South Africa. These have been well documented by organisations like the Women’s Legal Centre and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Excellent arguments exist for decriminalising sex work, and ensuring that sex workers are able to perform their work without fear of violence from police, and from perpetrators.
Violence against Lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women is also prevalent, and there has unfortunately been a move away from South Africa’s active championship of LGBTI rights on the continent. The National Task Team on Hate Crimes was formed in 2011, and since then the Department of Justice has made several commitments to introduce new legislation to support LGBTI victims of violence. However, four years later this has not happened. This failure to amend existing legislation to enhance sentences for hate crimes, or to introduce new legislation that will effectively allow for the tracking of these incidents and the prevention thereof, is an indication of a lack of political will to really support the right to be free from discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation. South Africa’s failure to criticise other African states for ‘anti-gay’ laws indicates that we have moved back from the leadership role on these issues. In 2014, a transgender woman undertook a hunger strike after Home Affairs repeatedly failed to assist her in changing the sex status on her ID document.
This is not the time to be inactive or complacent about violence against women. There is a need to identify this as a core issue in tonight’s SONA, and if not, to question how the problem will be addressed in the 2015/16 period.
 South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 770.
Read Part 1 – ‘Where are we’ here, and Part 2 ‘Women and the economy’ here
It seems important that I’m sitting in my living room in the dark during load-shedding trying to finish this portion of the SONA analysis on the environment and energy. It couldn’t be much clearer to me that the decisions that the State makes about how we produce and distribute our energy impact on women, particularly those that are already facing other challenges such as poverty.
What does it mean for women when the lights go out, or to have never been connected to electricity in the first place?
In public, it means dark streets, intersections, public transport routes, and footpaths. Any woman reading this does not need any further detail about the sense that this darkness is inherently dangerous, and limits women’s ability to enjoy their Constitutional right to move freely, and to be free from violence. Part four of this series will deal with crime and human rights, and so I will not belabor the point further in this section.
As noted earlier in this series of posts, the NDP makes clear that access to basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” As already discussed in the section on women and the economy, women’s economic empowerment is critical to the development and well being of the entire family.
Across South Africa, around a third of households do not have access to electricity. When there is load shedding or no electricity, households must use alternative energy sources to prepare food and heat water. As of 2011, according to the census, only 26 percent of households in informal settlements used electricity as their main form of energy for heating, 39 percent used electricity for cooking, and 43 percent used electricity for lighting. In 2011, 57 percent of all households classified as “informal dwellings” (shacks not in backyards) had no access to electricity at all.
According to the 2010 survey of time use, women were twice as likely as men to spend time on food preparation and where electricity is not available, this is likely to take much longer, placing further domestic strain on women. In addition, a Housing Development Agency Report noted that female-headed households in informal settlements are more likely to be overcrowded and house skip generation families, as well as non-family residents, creating an even more extensive burden on these women.
There are multiple risks of using these alternative sources of energy to cook and heat the home. A 2009 World Health Organisation bulletin noted that because paraffin is highly flammable, this can lead to fires either from malfunctioning appliances, placing appliances too close to curtains, or accidents. In addition, the use of paraffin in wooden or cardboard structures, as well as in population dense areas means the risk of fire is further escalated
The energy crisis in South Africa is at the forefront of many of our minds because of the inability to flick a switch and turn on a light. What may seem a more distant issue is the impact of our energy decisions on women in the long term. I think it’s important then to explore what climate change means for women, and how South Africa’s current energy decisions are likely to increase our contribution to climate change and are already affecting the health of many South Africans.
It is well documented that in times of environmental crisis women are often hardest hit. This has been recognized by women’s organisations and institutions for many years: Women and the Environment was one of the 12 areas of critical concern acknowledged in the Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1995. The document states that:
“Awareness of resource depletion, the degradation of natural systems and the dangers of polluting substances has increased markedly in the past decade. These worsening conditions are destroying fragile ecosystems and displacing communities, especially women, from productive activities and are an increasing threat to a safe and healthy environment.”
In South African policy this has also been acknowledged. The NDP notes that climate change will have a negative effect on the health of communities, and that this will disproportionately impact women and children.
It was positive that the 2014 State of the Nation speech called for
” a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.”
And yet, simultaneously there continued to be investment in coal power at the expense of our renewable electricity infrastructure, and at the expense of the health and livelihoods of many South Africans, many of whom are women.
The impact of these decisions on the health of the population is not something that will only happen in the future. It is already happening. The environmental impact is not only a long term, but current. Witbank in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air. In The Poisoned PeopleGreenpeace Africa details the stories of the people who live around coal mines, many of whom who are already suffering from respiratory problems as well as other health conditions.
There continues to be this push for coal despite the fact that it already results in hundreds of deaths per year as a result of air pollution, and this could increase when (if) Medupi comes online. This could be as high a figure as 20 000 premature deaths. Eskom has consistently exceeded air quality limits on pollution, and yet in 2014 applied for the right not to comply with Minimum Emission Standards. There continues to be this push for coal despite it becoming a massive financial burden for the State, and it being well over budget. Eskom continues to get State bail outs that could be invested in renewable energy which is labour intensive, will reduce South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and will not have the same devastating health impact that coal is having. It is important then, to listen to SONA tomorrow to consider whether
The decision to continue to invest in environmentally damaging energy production methods such as fracking, rather than redirect investment towards greener energy will impact on women. Other than the aesthetic destruction of environments, fracking is an incredibly water intense activity. Even if the well-documented risks of groundwater pollution do not happen in South Africa, we are a water scarce country. Where water is not readily available, or in times of drought, again the impact on women’s domestic responsibilities is significant.
In addition, around 16 000 women are involved in the formal agricultural sector[i], and many more are involved in informal agriculture in order to meet the food security needs of their families. Women already face additional obstacles to becoming involved in agriculture (such as access to technology and finance), and climate change will only heighten these challenges. Thus, a drought or an impact on the ground water because of pollution will have a profound impact on women in terms of job losses, and food insecurity. This is already happening in countries bordering and near to South Africa.
Our future energy decisions, proposed and discussed in the State of the Nation, will continue have a profound impact on women. As you listen to the speech tomorrow, consider how the decisions about energy and the environment could impact on women.
If women are not mentioned at all in this regard, as has frequently been the case, it is likely that their interests will not be considered. It is clear that any further decisions about our energy future should be made only with specific consultation with women’s interest groups, in order to ensure that our energy and environmental policies are gender-sensitive, and in line with the Constitution which provides every South African with the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have it protected for future generations to come.
 South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253