(Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock)
These are the words of the protest song composed in honour of the 1956 Women’s March. As we commemorate Women’s Month this August, we are reminded of the courage and fighting spirit of the more than 20 000 women of all races who marched to the Union Buildings on 9th August 1956 in protest against the Apartheid government’s pass laws. More than six decades later, it is disheartening to acknowledge that women in South Africa continue to face significant obstacles including gender-based violence, discrimination, sexual harassment and unequal pay. Sadly, the marginalisation of women is neither new nor unique to our country. Universally women have been relegated to the side-lines of society, treated as second-class citizens, oppressed, abused, infantilised, exploited, limited in their ability to choose and punished on the very basis of their femaleness.
In South Africa, coupled with the COVID-19 crisis, the scourge of gender-based violence has generated a double pandemic. Fuelled by long-standing gender stereotypes, cultural beliefs, poverty and unemployment, a generation of deeply broken and damaged men have been waging a brutal and relentless war on the bodies and lives of the women of this country. The national lockdown has only exacerbated the crisis and left countless women and children trapped at home with their abusers. The many speeches and statements made by politicians, including President Ramaphosa, serve as mere lip service as the endless flood of gruesome and disturbing reports of the rapes and murders of countless women continue unabated, demonstrating a serious lack of political will to tackle the problem. MEC for Community Safety, Faith Mazibuko, recently revealed that from the 5082 cases of gender-based violence opened in Gauteng police stations during June, 3373 arrests were made but only 204 convictions were achieved.
The statistics also bear out some of the grim economic realities faced by women.
The Global World Report for 2018/9 recorded that women earn 28% less than their male counterparts. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that from a lower to a higher hourly wage, the proportion of women declines, and in some cases, sharply. STATS SA confirmed that unemployment increased from 30.9% in 2008 to 37.2% later that same year and this impact was higher among women, who recorded 30% compared to 25% men in the second quarter. STATS SA also records that unemployment is higher for women than men and that although females exceed males, they on average earn 12.1 percentage points less than their male counterparts.
As a 100% woman-owned business, Progression is passionate about the critical role of women empowerment as a fundamental requirement for transformation. As women in business, we have first-hand experience of the uphill battle faced by women struggling to succeed and be viewed as equals in this male-dominated world. Aside from their traditional roles as mothers, wives and caregivers, it is important to acknowledge that women are more than capable of making valuable contributions to society in many other spheres including business, politics and academia. Albertina Sisulu, one of the most revered anti-apartheid leaders, had this to say about the role of women while she was alive: “Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression. The rent boycott that is happening in Soweto now [in the 1980s] is alive because of the women. It is the women who are on the street committees educating the people to stand up and protect each other”
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the global pandemic has been the realisation that our current social structures (based on the traditionally patriarchal concepts of war, aggression, greed and violence) are no longer sustainable. Deepak Chopra very eloquently suggests, “We find ourselves in a drastic state of imbalance because one entire half of the human psyche, the feminine, has been suppressed, violated, or ignored.” While all human beings, regardless of gender, possess both feminine as well as masculine energies, there can be no doubt that the latter has been dominant in shaping our patriarchal societies for thousands of years and has resulted in the continued repression of women. However, recent developments such as the #Me Too Movement, COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter as well as the looming environmental crisis and climate emergency have made it unquestionably clear that we simply cannot continue on this course.
We have reached a tipping point and the world seems to be awakening to the desperate need for the more feminine qualities of love, peace, nurturing and abundance if we are to survive. Central to this is the creation of a more fair and balanced social order as well as the recognition of the vital role played by women in society.
Let us pay tribute to the strength and courage of those brave women that marched to Pretoria all those years ago in the most fitting way possible – by stepping up, standing together and working towards effecting real change. Let us commit to raising our sons to respect and honour women, instead of objectifying and degrading them. Now is the time to celebrate and reflect on the achievements of those who went before us, to inspire and motivate us to claim our power and make a difference in our families, our communities and our country.
In the words of the iconic poet, Maya Angelou:
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”