South Africa: Is any month a woman’s month?

Date: September 16, 2011
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Every August, some Thabo, Dickson or Harrington asks, “Why do we have Women’s Month? Every month is women’s month.” The likes of Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph would turn in their graves.

Let’s go back to the basics for the sake of Thabo, Dickson and Harrington. Women’s Month exists because on 9 August 1956, South African women, including Ngoyi and Joseph, across the country awoke before dawn to march to the Union Building in Pretoria. That day, 20 000 women delivered petitions with 100 000 signatures protesting against pass laws limiting freedom of movement.

This year, the sisters, aunts, wives, girlfriends and baby mammas of Thabo, Dickson and Harrington also woke up early on 9 August 2011. Instead of gathering in one location like their predecessors, they arrived in hordes at hundreds of Woolworths stores across the country. The Woolworths 50% clearance sale drew these women together, not a protest. This is telling of our time. While the cause of freedom brought thousands of women together in 1956, the call of consumerism beckoned women on the same day, 55 years later.

What does this say about the new South Africa? Is there nothing other than that last size six winter boot on the shelf to wake up for? Is there no other reason to arise or assemble? What, dear women of the nation, are we doing with the freedom that the struggle icons fought for? And is there no meaning in the expression Aluta Continua?

The socioeconomic status of the majority of the population, regardless of their sex, demonstrates that the struggle continues. And if anything, this August proves to Thabo, Dickson and Harrington that not even in Women’s Month are women entirely free of patriarchy. On the first day of August, former Sowetan journalist Eric Miyeni launched a verbal attack on Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press. He implicitly condoned violence against women by stating that Haffajee deserved to be necklaced because of her newspaper’s financial investigation of Julius Malema. Perhaps Miyeni didn’t get the memo that Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo.

Fifty-five years ago, the women at the 1956 march sung Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo – you strike a woman, you strike a rock. In the last week of Women’s Month this year, a staff member of Gender Links (GL) was assaulted at the gate of our workplace in Johannesburg. A municipal worker who sweeps the street next to GL struck her with his broom, splitting it in two, after she refused to entertain his inappropriate advances. This, too, is telling of our times. Hearing the powerful refrain Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo for 55 years does not mean that men will refrain from striking women.

This incident of assault is not an isolated case of gender-based violence (GBV) in the Gauteng province. According to recent research conducted by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council, 51% of women in Gauteng have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Another disturbing statistic from The War at Home: the Gauteng GBV Indicators Project is that 72% of men in Gauteng admit to perpetrating some form of GBV in their lifetime.

If you read these numbers, it is hard not to paint all men with the same brush. It is hard not to hate Thabo, Dickson and Harrington for the trauma that 72% of their sex has caused. But this Women’s Month, I realised that in order to attain gender equality, men must stop being seen solely as the problem behind GBV. Men are integral to its solution. I’m not necessarily referring to male gender activists or male feminists, but the ordinary South African man on the street.

On the morning of the attack against my colleague, three young men were witnesses to the assault. They were disturbed by the violent behaviour of their male counterpart and sat outside Gender Links’ premises until the police arrived and our colleague was safe. One of the witnesses, Thomas Knore, emphasised that “if gender equality means that women want to be 50/50 with men and he still hits a woman – that means it is not improving.” His friend, Elvis Mariridza said, “We see no reason to hit a lady like that.”

I asked the men why they were different. What makes them part of the 28% of men in Gauteng who have never perpetrated violence against women? They told me it begins at home. If you see your father treat a woman like she is nothing, you will think this is normal. They suggested that boys need to attend programmes at school so that even if they witness GBV, a child must know it is wrong. Knore said, “If I was president, I was going to introduce this thing – to have lessons for boys, like counselling. Once they do that in South Africa everything will be alright.”

So, Thabo, Dickson and Harrington – to answer your question, no, not every month is women’s month. Not even in Women’s Month are women free from hate speech, GBV and other manifestations of our deeply patriarchal society. But perhaps we need to move away from binaries and stop putting emphasis on women’s this and women’s that. Women’s Month, women’s empowerment – it won’t make a difference until men are included and involved. Women’s Month won’t mean a thing unless and until both men and women work towards gender equality together; the Woolies sale can wait.

Mona Hakimi is the Gender Links Communications Officer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


0 thoughts on “South Africa: Is any month a woman’s month?”

Mary Coopan says:

I share the author’s views concerning the involvement of men in the processus towards gender equality as I affirm that it is all a question of education; women like us still make preferrences towards their boys and perpetuate the stereotypes in our daily lives;i have two boys and they have been educated to do their own things and help in household chores; thir iron their clothes,they do dishwashing and even serve their companions food at table;these are but some examples but it’s all a question of education and I must also add that my husband shares all responsabilities with me and is a good role model for my sons.

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