South Africa is currently observing what government terms the “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children”. It’s a worldwide campaign, but that’s not what it’s called elsewhere. The United Nations – which launched the campaign more than 25 years ago – refers to the period as the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence”. Semantics? Not really: it’s also evidence of the South African government’s ongoing insistence on lumping women and children into the same group.
“Women and children”. It’s a phrase we’ve become accustomed to in South Africa due to the frequency with which we hear and see it in government communications. Through force of repetition, these two categories of humans now seem to fit together utterly unremarkably. That’s why it raises no eyebrows when the government observes “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children”, even though the people who invented the campaign – the UN – call it “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence”.
It is rare to find a government statement about issues affecting women which does not reference in the same breath issues affecting children. People with disabilities have historically also been lumped into the same group. The supposed similarities between these demographics was made explicit from 2009 until 2014, during which period South Africa had a Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities.
The categories were separated in 2014, with responsibility for children and people with disabilities shunted to the Department of Social Development, while the Department of Women took on a new half-life under the Presidency.
Those welcoming this division as evidence that the government was starting to appraise women and children in different ways, however, would have rejoiced too soon. In 2017, the language of government continues to treat women and children as synonymous.
The vague descriptor of “vulnerability” is often waved around as the essential commonality that these groups share, but we should not allow that claim to escape without scrutiny. When it comes to violence, for instance, the most “vulnerable” group in South Africa – in terms of their likelihood of ending up dead – is young black males.
Yet as gender activists like Lisa Vetten have pointed out in the past, “vulnerability” is rarely a term attached to South African men, because the very notion of “vulnerable men” offends patriarchal gender roles.
Even if we are assuming “vulnerable” to mean “people least able to physically defend themselves”, it makes no sense to paint women as an entire group with this brushstroke. Some individual women are stronger than some individual men; a healthy woman is often stronger than a sick man, and a young woman can be stronger than an old man. It goes without saying that women and children have different physical abilities.
The grouping of women and children together elsewhere in the world appears to have been popularised by the old shipwreck mantra “Women and children first”, referring to the protocol whereby women and children should be granted first priority in escaping sinking ships.
This concept had its basis in particularly British notions of chivalry, but is not backed up by fact. Research released by Swedish economists in 2012 comprehensively debunked the notion that women and children have been more likely to survive shipwrecks as a result of special treatment. Men have consistently had the best survival rates, and children the worst.
Today there is no requirement in maritime law that women be evacuated together with children first from an emergency situation. This is because it makes no sense to do so. To quote an evacuation expert interviewed by the BBC in 2012: “Usually people will help the most vulnerable to leave the scene first. It’s not necessarily women, but is likely to be the injured, elderly and young children.”
The phrase “women and children” is still found in global policy documents these days, but usually in particular contexts: of war and refugees most commonly. This is often specifically to evoke pity and sympathy. R. Charli Carpenter’s 2013 book Innocent Women and Children makes the point that it is easier to raise funds or prompt government interventions for “women and children” rather than the gender-neutral term “civilians”.
That women and children are not thought of as a meaningful category in other contexts is evidenced by the fact that if counted together, women and children would make up a demographic majority of any country on earth. By rights they should thus be a hugely powerful bloc. That they are not owes something to patriarchy and something else to the fact that grouping women and children together is demographically nonsensical.
It is fair to say that in countries like South Africa, the fate of women and the children that they personally bear are often interlinked because women remain the primary care-givers. If a woman cannot find work, for instance, her own children will be directly impacted upon. But this is still insufficient reason to constantly refer to “women and children” as if they are a singular group.
In the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there has been a push to amend the phrase “women and children” to “women with their dependent children”. This alternative phrase allows for an assertion of the reality that prospects for children are often contingent on prospects for their mothers. But it also does away with what writer Cynthia Enloe calls a patriarchal elision: “The children don’t become women. The women become children.”
Beyond this, there is no logical reason for childless women to be grouped alongside children. But there is, of course, an important symbolic function underlying the classification. Accustoming people to speak of women and children in the same breath fortifies the social belief that children should be the major responsibility and preoccupation of women. At the same time, it also strengthens paternalistic imperatives of the “protection” which men should rightly be supplying to women and children. As history has repeatedly taught us, there is a fine line between protection and control.
This is, weirdly, one issue on which feminists and men from the far right see eye to eye online. Men who believe their rights and privileges have been stripped away by “feminazis” eagerly endorse the notion that “women are not children” because in their view it provides justification for not offering women “special treatment” (which in the real world often equates to “equal treatment”, such as equal pay).
When feminists say that “women are not children”, however, we do not mean that attempts to level a historically unequal playing field for women should be abolished, or that violence against women should not be treated as a vital concern. We simply mean that women are, quite literally, not children – so stop referring to us as the same group. DM
Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.
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