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International Women’s Day 2022: Cheap talk, empty promises

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - NOVEMBER 28: South African Women Fight Back held nationwide gatherings during 16 days of activism . About 200 protestors gathered outside parliament to protest against Gender Based Violence on November 28, 2020 in Cape town, South Africa (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

As International Women’s Day 2022 rolls around again, South African women are bracing themselves for the inevitable avalanche of messages trumpeting women’s gains and progress, women’s strength in the face of adversity.

This year we mark International Women’s Day when we are still coming to terms with the devastating effects of Covid-19 on women. 

Feminists working at the intersections of health and social justice are keenly aware of the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic – and the nationwide lockdown – exacerbated existing inequality, as well as the crises of poverty, unemployment and deeply entrenched racial divides.  And that the pandemic would widen existing socioeconomic inequalities and subject those already vulnerable – women, children, people with disabilities, gender-non-conforming individuals – to further victimisation.

Women’s rights activists and others working to end the scourge of violence against women and girls (VAWG), highlighted at the outset of the pandemic that Covid-19 would simply exacerbate the existing pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV) and conditions that existed before March 2020. The pandemic of violence against women and children in South Africa is one of the biggest structural obstacles in the attainment of health and wellbeing for women, children and other vulnerable groups – 13,000 of the 73,000 cases of assault reported between July and September 2021 were domestic-related and the rate of child murders has climbed by nearly a third, compared with the three months before July 2021.

A woman sits in her yard in the 7de Laan shack settlement, a beneficiary of the 9 Miles Project Covid-19 community support programme in Strandfontein, Cape Town on 20 April 2020. The programme is one of the efforts to alleviate growing hunger across the city. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma)

The statistics, released by Police Minister Bheki Cele in November 2021, have vindicated the worst, but not entirely unexpected fears of those of us who work for social justice. Rape and sexual violence have devastating ripple effects on victims’ lives and health. Social justice activists in South Africa understand more than most that “health” is much more than being “the absence of disease”, but the total economic, social and environmental wellbeing of individuals.  

In 2021 there was a 4,7% increase in sexual offences, such as rape, domestic violence and child murder. In three months from July to September 2021, 9,556 people, mostly women, were raped.  

A protest against gender-based violence protest outside Parliament in Cape Town on 30 June 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

Rape in South Africa is overwhelmingly committed within the home – 3,951 of a sample size of 6,144 rape cases were perpetrated within the home of the victim or the home of the rapist.

Recognising the structural nature of violence against women and girls and GBV, the judgment by Acting Judge Tembeka Ngcukaitobi and Judge Nyameko Gqamana, which overturned the rape conviction of Loyiso Coko, was a devastating blow and a significant step backwards for South Africa. (The judgment is here).

The judgment is an egregious violation of women’s rights and an affront to decades of activism by the women’s movement to broaden public understanding of consent. 

Foreplay is not consent. 

Protesters gather outside Parliament in Cape Town following the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana on 5 September 2019. President Cyril Ramaphosa skipped the World Economic Forum to address thousands of Capetonians, saying laws were to be changed with regards to rape and violence against women. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The judgment shows the rot which has set in in the judiciary with respect to women’s human rights. The National Prosecuting Authority showed its callous disregard for women’s rights by missing the deadline to appeal against the Ngcukaitobi judgment. In a country that took rape seriously, this simply would not happen.

The GBV pandemic was fuelled by the devastating economic impact of Covid on women working in the informal sector: hawkers, informal traders, domestic workers, sex workers. And in a country where 60% of households are single-female-headed, these are women who still carry the disproportionate burden of caring for children; a labour that is unseen, unappreciated and unpaid for in society. 

Social relief measures are a lifeline for millions of people, most of them black women with children, the group with the highest reported rates of weekly hunger. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook)

It is these women who still had to figure out how to fend for the children and we have watched silently on the margins as women have been largely left unsupported to figure it out on their own. 

We have not even paused to think of the psychological burden and emotional labour these women carry and what effect these have on their mental wellbeing. We applaud and celebrate “mbokodo-ness”, their right to feel, to be tired and to say enough! 

Lebo Ramafoko. (Photo: Supplied)

We measure their womanness and by extension their humanness by just how much more they can carry. Because if they awoke to the fact that they are carrying a disproportionate burden that is not theirs to carry in the first place, our complicity in their exploitation will be laid bare. We may risk them revolting against a patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist system that thrives on women performing this unpaid labour and not even asking for compensation for the emotional and mental toll it has on them.  

Health and justice are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible human rights. An equitable society is one in which justice has been served – and justice is served when health disparities are not entrenched by structural social advantage or disadvantage.  

Each International Women’s Day in South Africa rings hollower than the one before as South African women face ever-broadening divides between the promise of the Constitution and the reality of their lives. DM/MC

Lebogang Ramafoko is a feminist thinker and opinion maker on issues of social justice. She describes herself as the girl from Munsieville, a small township in the west of Johannesburg, which opened her eyes to social inequity because of the poverty she saw in her neighbourhood that was divided by one street from the neighbouring suburb of Dan Pienaarville. Before she understood what apartheid was, she knew that people from her neighbourhood only worked in Dan Pienaarville but would not live there. Lebo’s feminist thinking was not shaped by theory but by her lived experience. She credits her father a lot for her feminism. Although a patriarchal man of his times, he encouraged her to read, to have an opinion and determine the course of her own life without any societal expectations. It was through her education at a rural primary school run by her aunt, and later at Bethel High School near Ventersdorp, that Lebo understood the intersection between patriarchy and white supremacy before she even understood the words for those concepts. The theory that Lebo studied at Wits University in her undergrad in education and later in her master’s at Harvard, gave expression to her childhood experiences and helped her understand why the world is structured the way that it is. She is known for her role and leadership at the world-renowned Soul City Institute and is currently chief executive at Tekano Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity South Africa.

 

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