Women’s Day: Overcoming a different apartheid

Date: August 9, 2011
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It is an image that has become the symbol of youth resistance to political oppression. A young man, Mbuyisa Makhubo, runs through the streets of Soweto cradling the limp body of a boy, Hector Pieterson, clad in school uniform, blood oozing from his mouth. The boy’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs along with the pair, her right palm open wide, her face inscribed with the horror of the fate that has befallen her little brother; a fate that befell many other young South Africans that day in 1976.

Today, 35 years later, many young women’s faces register similar fear and desperation. The system might have moved on from political apartheid, but women and young girls all over Africa still experience an alienating form of apartheid because of their sex. I am always reminded of the words of Ethiopian women’s rights activist Bogaletch Gebre, who speaks passionately about how female genital cutting is creating gender apartheid in her country and institutionalising violence against women.

There is not much to celebrate this Women’s Month, in South Africa and beyond.

By 2010, the World Health Organization estimated that in Africa, approximately 92 million girls as young as age 10 had undergone female genital cutting, the hazards of which include excessive bleeding, bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility and increased risk of childbirth complications. Fear and apprehension reminiscent of that displayed by Antoinette Sithole must surely visit the faces of each and every one of these girls as they are forced to spread their legs wide open and surrender their right to privacy and health, and in many instances, their right to life.

Such horror stories are recounted in many areas of African women’s lives through the injustices of rape, gender-based violence, unequal access to basic education and sexual and reproductive health services – all ultimately a product of parochial and patriarchal perspectives of women and girls’ lives and livelihoods.

The findings of recent Gender Links gender-based violence (GBV) indicators research, conducted in South Africa’s Gauteng province between April and July 2010, found that three quarters of men admitted to having perpetrated violence against women at some point in their lifetime.

This is why the recent formation of UN Women, or the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in full, is a welcome development. Working with various country-level stakeholders, UN Women will focus on, among other issues, ending violence against women and girls and accelerating progress towards the rapidly approaching evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

In a speech delivered at the British House of Commons on her first official trip to the UK in May, UN Women Director Michelle Bachelet observed that the challenges ahead were many. Noted Bachelet, UN Women currently operates in just 78 countries, with some nations having just one representative. And as has been critiqued in the past, the entity’s annual budget of USD 500 million is likely to fall well short of its implementation aspirations.

Yet there are some reasons to be hopeful. At the same time these global initiatives to fight the oppression of women and girls are taking off, so too are national and regional efforts. On International Women’s Day in March, Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) launched a new magazine targeting the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) needs of young women and girls in the 15-24 year age group. Titled Young Women First! and seeking to reach Africa’s young women and girls with action-based information and views on gender issues, the bi-annual magazine is being distributed throughout Southern Africa.

“It is time for young women to speak for themselves and to demand to be heard,” notes SAfAIDS Executive Director Lois Chingandu. “Programmers, politicians and religious leaders all have something to say about what young women should and should not do. The results are demonstrated by many years of seemingly responding to their needs. But, somehow, we are still faced with unacceptably high figures of young women dying from unsafe abortions and other procedures that put their health at risk.”

The magazine is compiled by young people from Africa and beyond and makes use of peer-based learning and sharing to build awareness around various SRHR issues. “I think that young women relate better to situations if they discuss them with their peers rather than with people from an older age range,” notes Angelique Gatsinzi, one of the contributors. “By writing about my own experiences as a young woman, and getting feedback about them, I also feel that I am constantly learning new global perspectives about SRHR issues.”

But Chingandu also notes the long road ahead in ensuring the empowerment of Africa’s young women. “Often, people link SRHR with controversial issues like abortion and premarital sex neglecting the broader realm of issues, such as culture and patriarchy, which are not addressed at the expense of the lives of young women.”

South Africa is now 17 years into democracy. One wonders, however, when freedom from gender apartheid will finally come for the world’s women.

This week, as we commemorate the gallant efforts of South Africa’s women to emancipate themselves from oppression, let us continue to fight and speak on behalf of today’s many women and girls for whom suffering and pain is a part of their daily lives; the women whose faces remind us of Antoinette Sithole running scared through the streets of Soweto 35 years ago.

Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean writer and journalist who has lived and worked in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service special series for Women’s Month.



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