#BringBackOurGirls has left SA’s Twittersphere and hit the streets. The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) is leading a campaign to pressure the Nigerian government to act. GREG NICOLSON wishes they’d bring the same vigour to improving the lot of South African girls.
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Over the course of the last year, I’ve received press releases from the Women’s League condemning high profile cases of violence against women and welcoming sentences for the crimes. Notes on Women’s Day and other key dates are as routine as birthday cards. There are obituaries, meeting statements, a march here, outrage there, prayers for Madiba’s health. Plans are underway to start a young women’s desk (maybe they won’t have to wear the drab green and black uniform). Then there’s the mourning for Madiba and a diary of election plans.
13 May. Elections are over. Back to work. “ANCWL PROVIDE A PLATFORM FOR ALL WOMEN NGO’S AND INTERESTED PARTIES TO ASSIST EFFORTS TO BRING BACK NIGERIAN SCHOOL GIRLS,” my inbox blinked. Over a month after Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria’s northeast, solemn outrage reigns. They’re “our” girls and, damn it, if we want them back, who better to lead South Africa’s fight than the women of the League?
Fighter Julius Malema beat them to the punch; in fact, declaring on the day election results were announced that he, man of the revolution and defender of freedom and berets, was ready to go to Nigeria and talk to the radicals who’ve wrought a death toll in numbers resembling cricket scores.
But it was the Women’s League who invited South Africa’s concerned to the Joburg Town Hall on Saturday. Driven by our Constitution, the Freedom Charter and the general values of decency, a declaration was crafted. Girls’ rights are human rights! they said. It’s time we promote education and fight violence against women and human trafficking.
On Monday, the Women’s League elaborated on its plans to show solidarity with the Nigerian people. “Our actions are inspired by our firm conviction that injustice anywhere in the world must never be tolerated. Abuse of women and children anywhere in the world must be confronted with every might at our disposal. We have a duty to work relentlessly towards the total elimination of all forms of women and child abuse,” they said.
They have a petition for those who want to “Bring Back Our Girls” that will be given to the Nigerian government. A delegation of high-ranking women are due to visit Nigeria and give the petition to the country’s first lady, Patience Jonathan, who hasn’t shone during the tragedy. Other organisations will be involved in mini-pickets and marches. On Wednesday, there will be a moment of silence (“let’s suggest time, maybe 12:00” reads the ANCWL press release). Think of the girls in your prayers, on Africa Day and Children’s Day. “Let us spare a thought for these innocent children. We dare not fail them! Surrender to evil forces is not be an option,” declared the Women’s League.
About 40 ANCWL members gathered outside the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria on Monday night to lay a candle out for each of the girls still missing and increase pressure on Nigeria to take action. While waiting on the footpath for the leaders, ANCWL members sang struggle songs while holding a “Gauteng now a better place to live in” party banner. Some members said they were going to Nigeria to save the girls themselves. Imagine an elite force in oversized green shirts, long black skirts and mamaberets (not to be confused with those of the youth).
Education Minister and president of the Women’s League Angie Motshekga arrived and addressed the group with Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana and Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. They plan to take the issue across the country and called on the African Union to show solidarity on the issue.
“It is a threat that we all have to stand up and take quite seriously,” said Motshekga, supporters holding candles and lanterns around her. She said they were supporting a campaign started by women across the world and they would try to use this weekend’s presidential inauguration to pressure foreign heads of state to support the cause. “Thirty days for a child not home is just too long. We don’t know what’s happening to them… We think it’s a very difficult situation but we’re not giving up hope,” she added. “Indeed this is one of the most serious indictments on us as an African continent, but these terrorists are a threat to everybody. You can see the havoc they’re wreaking in Nigeria. We should take this quite seriously as a continent. It’s happening in Nigeria. We don’t know where else they’re going to move now.”
With increasing international focus, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is also gaining popularity in South Africa. On Monday morning students from St John’s College in Johannesburg held a demonstration, with young men holding up placards reading “real men don’t buy girls”. Later, the Young Communist League got in on the action, submitting a memorandum to the Nigerian High Commission on Monday.
Jumping on the bandwagon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. International pressure, fuelled by social media outrage, brought five West African states, including Nigeria, together in Paris this weekend with Western officials to talk about combating Boko Haram. Nigeria’s efforts to combat the group have failed for years and the commitment to share intelligence and increased military cooperation could help. Plus, South Africa needs to play a greater role on the continent.
But the ANCWL risks chasing headlines. The League’s been prominent in the Oscar Pistorius trial. Members regularly attended, supporting the family of Reeva Steenkamp and using the international media attention to speak out on femicide. The statements it issues on violence against women generally relate to the biggest front-page stories. Case in point: On Monday Daily Sun’s front page told of a woman killed by her sugar daddy after he found her with another man. Asked for money to fund the funeral, the man said he’d already spent enough on the girl. The story got no attention from the ANC Women’s League, nor does most of the endless list of rapes and murders committed daily in SA.
The League is proud that the Global Gender Gap 2013 report names South Africa the best performing BRICS member and second best G20 country in closing the gender gap in health, education, politics, and economic equality. It can also claim a win in the passing of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill. Last year, it led a campaign against gender-based violence and the ANCWL is advocating for the return of sexual offenses courts. In 2013, 100 years after Charlotte Maxeke led women to march against the Land Act, it tried to inspire young women with speeches on struggle heroines.
But the discord between women’s rights and reality remains deep. From corrective rape, to discrimination in the workplace, to a lack of female executives, to harassment on the street, to a generally pervasive system of patriarchy, there’s much work to do.
The ANCWL’s comments on Nigeria don’t inspire much confidence that they understand the complexities of the situation. But it’s unlikely many of the #BringBackOurGirls tweeters do either. And yet it’s managed to shed some light on the problems and hopefully help Nigeria deal with its issues. Once it has had its moment in the spotlight, the League should try to confront some of South Africa’s problems with the same vigour. Having to answer to a president once accused of rape and often accused of making conflicting statements on gender equality shouldn’t stop them. DM
Photo: Angie Motshekga greets a young girl as ANCWL supporters gather at the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria to light candles for the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
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