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Women’s Month must have real meaning

As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month, it’s about time we stopped paying lip service to the empowerment of women, writes Benedicta Dube

Year in, year out during August, South Africans celebrate Women’s Month. At this time various high society events are held to honour women and their role in society. Awards are given, gala dinners are held, but most of all, women gather to celebrate their achievements since the August 9, 1956 women’s march where brave women like Lilian Ngoyi, Sophie De Bruyn, Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba led thousands of women as they marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand that Prime Minister JG Strijdom abolish the use of passes for African women.

Back then, black South African women were treated as objects. They cleaned houses, took care of and raised white children – while their own children languished without food or education in the countryside.

That was 1956, fast forward to 2014. 58 years later, South Africa is a democracy, but the plight of the South African woman remains a disgrace to our nation. Many struggle as single mothers, others continue to eke out a living as domestic workers cleaning other people’s homes…it’s a laborious daily struggle to raise children and put food on the table. At a corporate level, while there has been marginal progress, women continue to be co-opted into positions mainly to meet quotas. Women constitute the majority in South Africa, but remain the minority of people who have power, money and influence.

Malibongwe Igama lamakhosikazi: 1956 Women's March
Malibongwe Igama lamakhosikazi: 1956 Women’s March

The 2011 Businesswoman’s Association’s Leadership Census found that only 4.4 per cent of women held Chief Executive positions in South African companies and a mere 35 per cent held senior managerial positions within the public service. A 2013 Grant Thornton International Business Report notes that women constitute only a quarter of decision makers in the country. Even more worrying is the fact that the upward mobility of women has stagnated over the past five years. 21 per cent of businesses surveyed in 2013 had no women in senior management positions. Yet the government had promised a 50/50 ratio of representation in both the public and private sectors by 2013.

At another level, the struggle for the ordinary woman in South Africa today has become more complex. Gender based violence continues to torment society. It won’t stop during Women’s month. Recent statistics released by the South African Police Service suggest that just over 64,500 sexual offences occurred between April 2011 and March 2012. That’s an estimated 176 cases per day. And those are the reported cases. Police estimate that only 1 in 25 cases of rape are reported. Many go undocumented for fear of reprisals. Statistics have a tendency of being tedious. Women’s advocacy groups claim that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa, the police service says it’s only every 36 seconds. In reality, it matters not. What’s troubling is that the perpetrators are amongst us. They could be your husband, brother, uncle, friend…someone’s father. And that’s unlikely to change, unless occasions like Women’s Day and Women’s Month start having real meaning in the psyche of ordinary South Africans.

Each December, South Africans participate in what is called the 16 days of activism against women and child abuse. It is yet to be proven that such events and occasions have changed patriarchal attitudes towards women.

For the rest of August, politicians and corporates will host fancy dinner parties and promise to continue striving for women empowerment. We can only hope that someday such lip service will turn into reality for the ordinary South African woman who continues to battle raising children and is subject to gender-based violence at every turn. At some point, South Africans need to stop and ask themselves, what’s the real meaning of Women’s Day and Women’s Month, until then, it remains a platform for posturing politicians and corporates.

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