Women have always had a profound effect on my thinking, values and actions.
I think back to over a 150 years ago when my great grandmother Angamma made that dramatic journey from a little village in North Arcot in the hinterland of Tamil Nadu, India. She was fleeing the poverty and famine of that region and hoped for a better life as an indentured labourer working for the sugar barons of Natal.
Her life was hard, hours long and wages pitiful. She persevered even though her status was not much better than a slave, and she worked tirelessly to raise her children. She changed my line of ancestry forever.
I remember my mother, a housewife who sacrificed so much and raised seven children on the salary my father earned as a court interpreter. She instilled in us a value system of honesty, integrity and service. She taught us the real meaning of justice and spirituality. “It is not the religious rituals that are important but the humility with which you serve your family, community and society. Stand firm against prejudice whether it is on the basis of religion, culture or gender. Listen carefully to all sides but never be afraid to speak your mind.”
Our house was always full and friends and family whom would drop in unannounced. There was always a meal on the table. It was simple and delicious. She always ate last and often I would see her with a cup of tea and buttered bread. The pot was dry.
The children always came first. Education was preached daily. “You can lose everything material in your life—your home, clothes, jewellery—but always remember, no one can take away the knowledge you have in your head. Education is the ladder from poverty to opportunity.”
Later in life I married Lucie Page, a French Canadian, an accomplished journalist and writer. She had a difficult time adjusting to our notions of gender equality. As a woman in Quebec, a province of Canada, she retains her name after marriage. On countless occasions I had to educate state officials that she had her own name. She was not Mrs Jay Naidoo. I find it an anachronism that a woman has to change her name when she marries. It’s expensive and it implies that a woman has to take her husband’s name to be legitimate in the eyes of the State, faith and society.
In SA we see a creeping, fallacious, traditionalism gathering momentum. A puritanical and fundamentalist storm is poised to crush our victory and rights to gender equality that are enshrined in our Constitution. Based on some absurd notion of conjectured, backward cultural practices, it forges an unholy alliance with predatory and corrupt economic and political elites.
It has begun to argue against the right to choice of women in reproductive rights, mobilising against the right to sexual orientation and fundamental separation of state and religion. It backs an agenda which narrows our ability as citizens to speak out against attempts by the securocrat forces in government that seek to impose a veil of secrecy on our public debate.
We need to resist this dangerous alliance that seeks to cast a web of conservatism and undermine the rights we fiercely fought for in our freedom struggle.
Women’s rights, leadership, equality and incomes are at the forefront of those attacks. One just has to see the lackadaisical attitude we have to the epidemic of sexual abuse of young girls in our communities to know how little we value women. Sexual predators in the guise of some teachers, male pupils and the ‘sugar daddy’ phenomenon are wreaking devastation on young girls in schools. A survey conducted by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency, reported that 25% of boys admitted that “jackrolling”, a slang term for gang rape, was fun.
Teenage pregnancies are at an all-time high, a South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 2008 revealed a staggering 24.4% of girls admitted that they had been pregnant by the age of 19. And the horrific reality that in their lifetime nearly one in three women will be raped, often by someone they know.
According to the MRC, 500,000 incidents of rape are committed annually in South Africa. Another study conducted among men in Gauteng by the Medical Research Foundation found 37% of men admitted committing rape.
So when we celebrate “Women’s Month” let us have less hypocrisy, ribbon cutting and noble intentions from our leaders. There are practical steps we need to take to end genocide of attack on the value and rights of women—our mothers, grandmothers and daughters.
When we commemorate the stance women took in 1956, when they took to the streets of Pretoria and marched to the Union Buildings in protest of apartheid pass laws, let us ask what we have really achieved. Our success should not be measured by the political statements or the middle class conversations and conferences we often have.
Instead we need to address the challenges faced by the vast majority of women, those who do not grace the covers of glossy magazines. The reality is that women in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 60% of total maternal mortality in the world in the period from 1990 to 2008, according to surveys conducted by the UN. Worse yet, this study found that despite our relatively strong economic and political position as the “Gateway to Africa”, South Africa mirrored the trend across the region.
In my life I have had the honour and privilege to work with outstanding women that have taught me so much about human values. There was Ma Emma Mashinini—‘The Mother’ of the modern trade union movement who taught me so much and embraced me with her compassion and wisdom. Ma Albertina Sisulu, who among others, led that historic march to the Union Building with the cry “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! —now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.” It marked the foundation of the modern struggle for gender equality.
The struggle of their generation was one that did not just look inwardly at just their gender rights. It and was contextualised in the struggle politically, economically and culturally.
Our struggle in this day and age is to look at the scores of young girls assaulted daily in our schools; often at the hands of people we have entrusted their safety to; when a bunch of thugs, at a taxi rank, publicly harass and humiliate young women for what they wear; when a woman is beaten to death for refusing the advances of a group men because she chooses to share her affections with another woman; when a 94-year-old great grandmother is raped by a recently released prisoner.
Can we stand up and shout “No more. We have had enough.”? Can we assert today our determination to stop being subjects and become active citizens?
When we celebrate the hard-won rights that women have been afforded within our democracy, we need to simultaneously realise and accept that these rights are not enjoyed by all women in South Africa. We need to address the societal rot at the core of our democracy. This decay relegates our women to be second class citizens, under a new apartheid that lives in the privacy of so many homes even after 1994.
Our sons need to learn to respect women, those unrelated to them, those that become the subjects of their infatuations. When this generation of young men become the husbands and fathers of the future, they will respect their daughters and wives enough to ensure that they are not the subjects of beatings, rape and repression at their hands.
I have a daughter. She is a teenager and will grow into a woman one day. I want her to be respected and acknowledged. I want her to be safe. I want her to have the right to wear a mini skirt if she wants to without some psychotic, macho male believing it’s his right to harass and abuse her. I want her to keep her own name if she chooses a partner. I want her to have equal job opportunity. That’s the constitutional right every girl child has in our democracy. We need to resist any incursion of that right.
The woman and the mother in particular are the foundation of the continuum of human life. From falling pregnant to giving birth to life, from breastfeeding and nurturing our babies as they grow into adulthood, from planting the major part of the food we eat, preparing the meals we eat, to educating and taking care of the health of children, they are the core of our humanity.
Let us accord the respect, rights and dignity to which our mothers, women and the girl child have a fundamental right. DM