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No more lip service: Let’s reclaim Women’s Month, especially for those with disabilities

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Tarryn Tomlinson is a writer, television host, philanthropist, coach, published speaker and activist. She is a lover of life who believes all is possible when we think creatively.

Women’s Month commemorations and programmes often miss the mark on the real significance of 9 August 1956, and most exclude women with disabilities.

A quick Google search reveals that most Women’s Day events centre on the theme and keywords “pamper”, “spoil” and “celebrate”, missing the true significance of the day and of the women’s movement in South Africa. 

This is a day and month which should be commemorated by women coming together to actively make changes within the private and public sectors and in our communities for women who are marginalised, abused and forgotten. 

The women who marched on 9 August 1956 were activists. They rallied together with their smarts, dug in their heels and they marched until they were heard.

These activists “were a big force”, and according to Dorothy Masenya, one of the 1956 march participants, no one could stop them – “if they arrest one we all walk in [to jail] and not turn back”. (SAHO – women’s interview)

Sadly, what started as a movement of powerful women agitating for the rights of all women has been watered down to a month of high teas, cucumber sandwiches, talks and vouchers. Not only has the message been watered down, lulling us into a false sense of security and inaction, but the events geared towards women – and often run by women – mostly exclude women with disabilities.

By hosting events at venues that are inaccessible, and by not marketing to or providing access to information for women with disabilities, we exclude them from equal participation, thereby perpetuating the inequality we claim to be against. Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to become disabled during their lives and that disability prevalence is higher in women at 8.3% compared with 6.9% for males. 

Women with disabilities remain the most marginalised group of people in the world; often the victims of sexual abuse, excluded from educational, economic and social opportunities. Women who live under a cloud of stigmatisation and exclusion even within their own families. Women whose struggles continue to fall on abled deaf ears.

Yet we should be listening because, if we think about it logically, by creating equality for women with disabilities, all women secure their future wellbeing, as, statistically speaking, women are more likely to become disabled than men and women are the primary caregivers to children with disabilities. 

“Part of the reason that older women are more likely to have disabilities is that women are just living longer regardless of the disability. As the population is ageing, and women are more likely to live longer, it has huge implications for [women’s] quality of life. They live longer and have poor quality of life years and also tend to be less likely to have the social and economic resources to deal with these problems.” (Jen’nan Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University; see Women live longer but have more disabilities)

So what should we do?

First, we have to make sure that as a society we reclaim the proper meaning and significance of Women’s Month, which is ACTIVISM, and make a conscious effort to keep the focus on creating equality for all women through action and not by paying lip service.

Women with disabilities need to be included in all event programming, not just in physical spaces but online as well, making sure that they have equal access to information. We also need to feel that we are welcomed by seeing images of persons who represent a wider spectrum of diversity in Women’s Day marketing material.

That being said, women with disabilities play a vital role in our self and collective advancement by voicing our opinions and fighting for our rights. We have to create the world we want to live in by first expecting more from ourselves. In the words of Fadila Lagadien, a disability rights activist: “Nothing will change for disabled women without them making their own voices heard.”

We also need better systems in place to support women with disabilities and mothers with children who have disabilities. Systems such as assisted living facilities, home help programmes, mobile medical services, inclusive childcare facilities, inclusive transportation and community support all contribute to ensuring that people with disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities are able to participate and flourish in society.

Let us look to not just commemorate the women of 9 August 1956, but to follow in their footsteps. Let us come together in strength and unity and insist on our equality, and let us leave no one behind. 

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” (Audre Lorde, poet, feminist, civil rights activist) DM

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  • I often wonder why we place this focus on one day, one month for women who play such an important role in society. we should be doing this every day. OK i am a male and probably put my foot in it bit seriously, one day, one month is that all women deserve? the article is great. I have just finished a story on the Cecilia Makiwane Field Hospital in Mdantsane to cater for overflow from the main hospital and overflow Covid patients. I looked up this lady and included an historical piece in the article. She was a the first black women to be registered as a nurse in SA and in 1912 lead a group of 5000 black women in protest against the pass laws. Just as in 1956/Aug 9 that was activism so to was an exceptionally brave march in 1912 made when Louis Botha was Prime Minister. Also sadly no ongoing activism! So question – is activism just for a day or for every day? the author has the answer.

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