WOMEN’S DAY 09 AUGUST 2020
Every year, in August, our country marks Women’s Month to pay tribute to more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against draconian pass laws and their impact on women. This year, Women’s Month is commemorated under the theme “Generation Equality: Realising women’s rights for an equal future”. The concept of Generation Equality is a global campaign and links South Africa to global efforts to achieve gender equality by 2030. Inequality is a relational phenomenon, at the centre of which is power.[i] Power therefore reproduces inequality. The Generation Equality campaign demands equal pay, as equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end to sexual harassment and all forms of violence against women and the girl child, health-care services that respond to their needs and their equal participation in political life and decision-making in all areas of life.[ii]
We have made a lot of progress as a country to achieve gender equality. We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world which ensures gender equality. The post-apartheid state has also attempted to redress the injustices and inequalities of the past through various programmes, and policies and by passing numerous pieces of legislation. Half of South Africa’s Cabinet ministers are women; And assessing women’s economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, it comes as no surprise therefore that the Global Gender Gap Index ranks South Africa 19th out of 149 countries.[iii] This means that South Africa has undergone a more positive gender-empowerment transformation than many developed nations – including Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even the US![iv]
Despite this progress, real change is slow for the majority of women and girls in our country. According to the UN, not a single country can claim to have achieved gender equality today. As of 2017, gender equality is the fifth of seventeen sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Inequality remains one of South Africa’s most severe socio-economic challenges, and one which has persisted in the three decades of the post-apartheid era. It has the greatest inequality of income in the world[v] and extremely high inequality in wealth.[vi] This means women remain undervalued, they continue to work more, earn less, have fewer choices and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces.
Numerous obstacles remain unchanged in law and in culture. One such obstacle is the scourge of Gender Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF). Despite our democratic gains, the country has among the highest levels of intimate partner violence in the world. Over 52,000 sexual offences and nearly 42,000 rapes were reported to the police in 2019 showing that violence against women is a scourge that is rife in South African communities. Our commemoration this year comes at a time when the country is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March at level 5, 842 cases of GBV were recorded countrywide at the Gender Based Violence Command Centre hotline with the highest number being in Gauteng at 385. This covered the period 27 March to 30 April where there were restrictions in the movement of citizens and alcohol was completely banned. For the period 01 to 31 May, a number of 585 GBV related cases were reported countrywide with Gauteng still topping the list at 261. During this period, the country was moved to level 4 which still restricted movement and continued the alcohol ban. This period shows a significant drop in the statistics compared to the level 5 statistics which could be argued might have resulted from the continued ban of alcohol sales.
For the period 1 June to 06 August, when the country was moved down to lockdown level 3, 1504 GBV cases were reported countrywide with Gauteng being the highest at 634. During this period, the alcohol ban was lifted and one can argue that this could be the reason why the statistics for this period sky rocketed. One can thus argue that the lockdown made women more vulnerable to GBVF. This was also attested to by the twenty-one deaths of women and children who were murdered in a space of a few weeks since the country moved to lockdown level 3 on 1 June which led the president to say that South Africa is fighting two pandemics. While trying to find ways to curb the spread of the novel Corona virus, South African women are in danger and live in fear “Am I next?” A recent study by UN Women found that reports of violence against women, and particularly domestic violence, have increased in several countries as security, health, and financial worries create tensions and strains accentuated by the cramped and confined living conditions of lockdown.[vii]
As we commemorate women’s day, we remember all those women and children who have died brutally in the hands of our fathers, our brothers, our sons and our friends. We also remember those who are missing and their families cannot find closure to what has happened to their daughters and mothers. To achieve gender equality we need to eliminate this harmful practice against women and girls, including femicide, rape, and misogyny & domestic violence and other oppression tactics. We can achieve this by becoming change agents and joining hands as communities in eradicating the gender-based violence and femicide pandemic.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights. “The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic”.[viii] Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. The impact of the pandemic on society therefore has the potential to reverse progress the country has made on women empowerment and eradicating poverty. This was seen in how households were faced with food insecurity during level 4 and 5 of the lockdown. We all became each other’s keepers as we reached out to help one another. We thank government for all the interventions and relief measures put in place to mitigate the expected impact of COVID-19. The lockdown impact is further seen on essential services such as access to sexual and reproductive health services which have been disrupted. This commemoration does not give us room to celebrate as our eyes are filled with tears arising from the devastation caused by the novel corona virus. For all the women who have lost their livelihoods during the lockdown, it is your courage that reminds us what it means to be a woman: “Mme otshwara thipa ka fa bogaleng” which is translated to mean a woman carries the knife on the sharp sides. This means in the midst of challenges a woman does not run away but faces these challenges.
The burden of caring for the sick is also largely borne by women. Studies indicate that men tend to succumb to the corona virus than women. This means women are spending their time taking care of sick members and more women are going to be widowed as a direct result of the pandemic. To all our grandmothers, mothers and sisters who have lost their partners to the pandemic, we say may you find courage in knowing that your loved ones are resting with the Lord. As a country, we look back at the wake of the pandemic and the extent of the damage it has caused in our lives and say to you, you are not alone in your grief. We might not yet understand what the Lord is asking of us through this pandemic but we say, may your will be done. For those women who have succumbed to the virus, Giants have fallen! May their souls rest in peace. We also remember our deceased religious sisters whose lives were cut short by the deadly virus. We thank them for their generous contribution to religious life and for their selfless ministering to the communities they served in and especially for their ministry of prayer. We have gained more ancestors praying for and watching over us. May the Lord be merciful to us and wipe our tears and let this black cloud hanging above our heads disappear and bring an end to this carnage that is ravaging our country. We also pray for more vocations to religious life.
Most health workers in Africa are said to be women. We therefore salute all the women and women religious who are in the fore front as health care workers risking their lives fighting this deadly virus on our behalf. We pray for all those who are infected and are lying in hospital beds or at home unable to breathe that as we take our breaths today we will breathe on their behalf.
The Gospel reading this Sunday (Matthew 14:22-23) which is the story of Jesus walking on water is a reminder to us that we cannot rely on our own resources to calm the storms of our lives but we need God’s intervention. Whatever storms are raging currently in your life as a woman, do not doubt, and do not be afraid to cry out to the Lord to save you like Peter. Women are known to be strong in the midst of adversity: this storm ravaging our country and our families requires us to tap into those reserves. The main reserve being our faith! Biblical women teach us a few things: that the best thing we can do is to trust God in everything. We should trust in the God of Sarah who makes all things possible in His perfect time; that we should be like Hannah and never cease to pray; that we learn from Elizabeth and never doubt what God can do as he is the God of many miracles. We should also be like Mary and remember that we don’t have to be great for God to use us. Most of all, my sisters, my mothers, remember that you are fearfully and wonderfully made!
With all the strides that the government has made to achieve gender equality, the question remains, how far has the church moved to achieve this? Locally, women in the church are treated as second class citizens especially religious sisters. Pope Francis epitomises what it means to put women first by promoting women to be part of important dicastries in his administration. It is reported that he has added to this list by appointing six more women in the most senior roles ever given to women within the Catholic Church’s leadership, to oversee the Vatican’s finances.[ix] We pray that our local church may follow the Pope’s example and walk the talk of promoting gender equality in the church.
Realisation of women’s rights remains an ideal which all countries strive towards. For this to be realised, generation equality starts now! It is up to you and me now to be a part of the generation that ends gender inequality by taking on the bravery of the women who marched to the Union Buildings 64 years ago. An equal world is an enabled world; until all women are free and treated equally and with dignity, you and I cannot be free. Let us be blessings to each other during these unprecedented times. #GenerationEquality! A HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY TO ALL POWERFUL AND AMAZING WOMEN! “IGAMA LA MAKHOSIKAZI MALIBONGWE!”
Sr Nkhensani Shibambu CSA
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[i] Soudien et al. 2019.
[ii] UN Women.org. #GenerationEquality. 23 September 2019.
[iii] World Economic Forum, 2018.
[iv] World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018.
[v] Sulla & Zikhali, 2018.
[vi] Orthofer, 2016.
[viii] UN policy brief published in April 2020.
[ix] Guardian News & Media, 06/08/2020.