Opinionista Nikki Stein 12 August 2014

Women’s what? Still not reaching where it matters

We may think, if we are really optimistic, that Women’s Month is creating some awareness of women’s rights, at the very least. But it is not even touching the lives of the girls and women who need that awareness the most.

Awareness around Women’s Day – and now a whole Women’s Month – has grown substantially over the past few years. My inbox is flooded with e-mails of specials on massages and facials in the month of August; shopping centres are handing out flowers and chocolates. I saw an advertisement on television for a full day of “chick flicks”, music showcasing great women role models and encouraging messages from female celebrities.

So if you own a TV, frequent health spas and spend your weekends at malls, it is not easy to escape the focus on making women feel special and appreciated in August.

If you are a schoolgirl living in a rural area in South Africa, on the other hand, chances are it’s business as usual for you.

Women’s Day is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the strong, dynamic women that lead us. Its origin was a day on which 50,000 women demonstrated their opposition to Apartheid pass laws, with dignity, discipline and grace. Women’s Day  gives us reason to highlight the role of women in bringing us to where we are today, notably to a society in which we all now have a constitutional right to equality. This is something worthy of great celebration.

But to do that alone does not paint a picture of the conditions in which many girls and women in South Africa continue to live. While we see Women’s Day as one of the milestones of anti-Apartheid activism, and look at how far we have come since then, we can also use it as a regular reality check on where we stand today and how far we still have to go in achieving the values our Constitution enshrines, including the value of equality.

SECTION27’s work on basic education, particularly in Limpopo, has highlighted the conditions of danger, inequality and indignity in which many learners are forced to go to school. The constitutional rights of all of these learners are breached on a daily basis when they attend schools with no toilets, when they do not have their own textbooks, when they must sit on the floor because they do not have desks and chairs, when they fall victim to rape and sexual assault by those whose responsibility it is to look after them.

While the impact of these conditions is felt by both girls and boys, their effect is unquestionably disproportionate when it comes to girls. A few examples highlight this:

  • Rape and sexual assault of learners, while rampant across age, gender, socio-economic background, is certainly more common against girl learners, whose teachers or fellow learners take advantage of their vulnerability, often with impunity. Under-reporting of cases of rape and sexual assault in schools makes accurate statistics of these cases difficult, but the reports we do have highlight an urgent need to address sexual violence in schools and make conditions safer for our girls.
  • The state of sanitation facilities threatens all learners’ rights to health, education, privacy, dignity, equality and safety. We need no harsher reminder of this than the tragic death of Michael Komape earlier this year. Our research into school sanitation has included girl learners at schools across Limpopo, who have come forward to discuss how the conditions of sanitation facilities in their schools force them to miss up to a week of school every month because there is no way for them to manage their periods. Toilets without doors, running water, sanitary disposal bins and soap exclude our girls from up to a quarter of their school time. While the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education are planning to build new toilets at 868 schools in Limpopo, these cannot be used to dispose of sanitary pads and to our knowledge, no other means for disposal will be provided. Without any way to dispose of sanitary pads, it is likely that even those girls attending schools with new toilets may not be able to attend school while they are menstruating. Alternatively, with no other means to dispose of sanitary pads, it is possible that they could be disposed of in the new toilets and that these toilets will soon become blocked and, in time, will need to be replaced once more.
  • Many girls throughout South Africa do not have access to sanitary pads at all and so, even with adequate sanitation facilities, are forced to stay at home during their periods because of this.
  • A denial of meaningful sex education and availability of condoms in schools, to allow learners to make informed choices about their activities, will necessarily have an impact on girls. Girls are obviously vulnerable to pregnancy where they do not have access to information that empowers them and services such as condoms to enable them to act responsibly. They are also disproportionately vulnerable to contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, impacting both their health and their education.
  • Lack of reliable learner transport, forcing learners to walk long distances to school on dangerous roads, again exposes them to threats to their safety on the way to and from school each day. Stories of sexual violence against schoolgirls of all ages who are en route to learn are a reality for many rural communities.
  • Gender discrimination is also highlighted in the rapid growth of independent schools, which has arisen in response to the challenges in our public schooling system. One of the reasons for this is that, once parents are forced to pay for their children’s education, and when poverty forces them to make tough decisions about limited resources, they often choose to send their sons to school rather than their daughters.

With these issues in mind, it comes as no surprise that a disproportionate number of girls drops out of school before completing grade 12, perpetuating the cycle of gender inequality we so desperately want to stop. If we want to break that cycle, to truly achieve equality, to keep girls in school and to put them in a position to realiSe their full potential, we cannot stop at making sure that we seat them in a classroom. These multi-layered, multi-faceted issues must be addressed in a way that ensures that girls are accommodated at schools, that they are safe, well cared for and treated with dignity.

And they must be addressed in a way that we can celebrate that we have truly honoured all of the women – and future women – in South Africa, allowing all of them a meaningful opportunity to be educated and to become our leaders and our role models.

On Women’s Day this year, let’s commit to empowering the next generation of women through dignified, equal and quality education. DM

Nikki Stein, an attorney at SECTION27, is currently working on the right to basic education and the obligations of the government arising from that right. She obtained a BA (Law and Psychology) and an LLB from Wits University. She then went on to clerk for Justice Nkabinde at the Constitutional Court and completed her articles at Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys. In 2008/09 she obtained an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Virginia in the United States. She returned to Bowman Gilfillan in June 2009 and joined SECTION27 in September 2011.


In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

If you believe in supporting the cause and the work of Daily Maverick then take your position on the battleground and sign up to Maverick Insider today.

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