Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 13 February 2013

Why women are asking for R10 billion – and why they must get it

This week, as we head into the State of the Nation Address, South African women are demanding a serious cash injection of R10 billion to fight sexual violence. Predictably, there have been questions about whether this amount is realistic. It would be tempting to dismiss the call for this level of investment by suggesting that it is simply asking too much. But that would be a mistake.

A little bit of perspective may be helpful here.  Last year, SAA got a R5 billion guarantee from National Treasury and this past financial year the Department of Defence received a budget of close to R40 billion. 

This is the way of the world: for all sorts of reasons it is hard for women to negotiate about money.  And while Beyonce may proclaim that girls run the world, the reality is that when it comes to policy and budget discussions, men are firmly in the driver’s seat.   

A few years ago, Lois Frankel published “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers.”  She looked at the phenomenon that sees women persistently not raising the subject of how much they will be paid as new employees.

At the end of last year, a study that took Frankel’s research further came out. The  researchers found that “when there is no explicit statement that wages are negotiable, men are more likely to negotiate than women. However, when we explicitly mention the possibility that wages are negotiable, this difference disappears, and even tends to reverse.”

The authors also suggested that in many instances, men actually sought out jobs “where the ‘rules of wage determination’ are ambiguous.”  In other words, men love the challenge of being told something is non-negotiable, whereas women feel fine negotiating but only once the prospective employer signals that its okay to do so. 

The study covers the US job market, but its findings have resonance here.  If you extrapolate, and look at what this means on a macro level, the implications are profound.  They demonstrate the extent to which women still do not feel competent to broach the subject of resources, even when it is in their personal interests to do so. 

Even as the public has responded to the gang rape and mutilation of Anene Booysens, and the spate of rapes and murders that have been reported on in the week since she died, the latest in a series of important women’s rights organisations has gone public with its funding woes.  Rape Crisis faces a serious funding crunch, and in spite of the fact that the services it offers are more vital than ever, it may be forced to shut down. 

Indeed, in the last decade, many women’s rights groups have either been forced to close shop, or have been operating on such dramatically reduced budgets that they haven’t had the capacity to do the crucial work they were set up to undertake. 

It is abundantly clear that in order to seriously address violence against women, we need to invest in changing the dynamics in communities.  This is a long-term project that requires neighbours who check in on kids and parents and caregivers to read to their children, and affirm them by looking in their eyes. It requires health officials and farmers to work together to ensure that we are no longer the fetal alcohol syndrome capital of the world. 

And all of these efforts require money.  The dirty secret of South Africa’s young democracy is that despite the vibrancy of the women’s sector in the early years, and its visible successes, there have been many, many less visible losses.  The rape and murder statistics bear silent witness to this, but so do the closures of too many good organisations and the in-fighting by those that continue to run on small budgets with tiny staff complements. 

Clawing back from this state of affairs and reclaiming the space will require women’s rights organisations to be unabashed in their demands for the money they need.  Reclaiming the space means making sure that girls and boys live with real-life role models and that they are treated with affection and respect both by people that they love and by strangers. 

The signal from the women’s rights sector this week is that they are ready to make this change. With a call for a Commission of Inquiry backed by the ANC Women’s League, which civil society wants to ensure has powers to subpoena senior politicians and officials and ask tough questions about private sector conduct as well (as we know, many mining houses have either turned a blind eye to living conditions in the accommodation that they offer to their staff, including sexual and physical abuse) the sector is set for some progress (mea culpa – I am heavily involved in this campaign). 

At the same time, the call for a R10-billion fund demonstrates that the time has come for a more serious conversation about what it will take to break the cycle of violence. 

While R10 billion may sound steep, the question is not whether this amount of money is too much; the question is what will it cost us to continue to ignore sexual violence.  Finally women’s associations and community groups are putting a price on their efforts and refusing to belittle their labour.

For the families that have lost their children to rape and murder in the past decade, and to the civil society sector battling to keep communities afloat, the price of inaction is already too high. DM



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