Women empowerment and gender equality is everyone’s responsibility

Leona Kleynhans MPL

Free State Provincial Legislature

Note: This is a speech delivered by Leona Kleynhans during the Women’s Day debate in the Free State Provincial Legislature last week.

Madam Speaker,

We remember the women who marched to the Union Buildings on 09 August 1956. They were women from all walks of life who fought against the injustice of Apartheid.

They were determined in their quest for freedom for all who live in South Africa.

‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock’ was the mantra on that day. They were angry, but unafraid, as they defied the mighty Apartheid State of JG Srijdom.

Do we harbour the passion of those women shared on that fateful day?

Do we stand up and speak truth to power when our children, our sisters, our grandmothers are being raped and butchered?

Do we speak up, loud and clear, when the poorest among us are being robbed by corrupt politicians and greedy businesses?

Do we stand up to protect our daughters when old men come looking to buy their bodies and their youth with pretty worldly things?

Throughout all the ages, women have often had to be the moral compass in their society.

It is Joan of Arc who rose up and led the disenchanted and tired soldiers of France to continue the fight against injustice.

It is Boudecia who rallied the downtrodden people of the British Isles against the Romans oppression.

We think of Adelaide Tambo and Albertina Sisulu, who was forced to keep the home fires burning. These brave women had to fend for their families during the Struggle for Freedom under constant harassment by the Apartheid State, without the support of their freedom fighter husbands, imprisoned on Robben Island.

Helen Suzman was the sole opponent to the Nationalist Apartheid Regime in Parliament for 13 years. A brave woman, constantly subjected to verbal abuse, intimidation and threats, ridiculed and mocked wherever she went.

We remember that Helen Zille had to take her children into hiding with her to escape the constant harassment, threats and intimidation of the Apartheid State on her and her family for assisting and hiding underground freedom fighters in the Struggle for Freedom.

Women have had to, and still have to, go to great lengths and make many sacrifices to keep the family safe and fed, while the men are off fighting various wars and campaigns.

When men left the comfort of their homes to work in the mines, or to join the fight for freedom in exile it was the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the women who stayed behind to raise the children.

Sometimes men refuse to acknowledge their fatherhood and refuse to contribute financially and emotionally to the children’s upbringing. Very rarely do women have such an option. It is usually they who must bear the consequences of such abandonment.

But as remarkable as women are, they are still the most marginalised section of our post-democratic society.

In the 2011/2012 financial year, only 11% of reported sexual offences reached the courts, and only 6% of these cases actually resulted in a conviction. We also know that less than half of rapes and sexual offences are reported.

Honourable Speaker,

It is shocking that we live in a country where for every 10 000 sexual crimes, only 33 people are convicted.

Is this acceptable to us?

Where is our outrage?

If the system is not working why are we not fixing it?

When the police turn away women and children who want to report physical or sexual abuse, is that not a crime committed by police against the Humanity of the woman?

Why do men rape our grandmothers, who in their golden years need what little peace and comfort they deserve after a long life of toil?

Why do men rape? I think quite plainly because they want to, and they can. There are men and boys in our society who are so filled with rage and frustration, that rape is their act of violence against society.

What are we as women, wives, mothers and grandmothers doing to teach our daughters, and our sons, about self-respect, personal responsibility, and caring for others?

What are we doing to instil in our children the ideals of love and compassion?

Even a rapist has a mother.

Sometimes, we go to court to protest when a man is being tried for rape or murder. This is usually what they call a ‘high-profile’ case.

But what are we doing every day to ensure that our police are properly trained to assist victims of rape and abuse.

If our police were properly trained, and did not think that many women ‘deserve to be raped’, and were able to deal with the case in a sensitive manner, and above-all,  arrest and convict the rapists, our society would begin to be a safe one for our women and children.

What are we doing to ensure that our boys are becoming strong and confident young men, who know how, and above-all why, to respect women?

Are we making sure that our girls are empowered and self-reliant, to take their rightful place in our society?

Or are they also frustrated and desperate, and see salvation in a sugar-daddy?

Over the last three years, 300 teachers were charged with sexually abusing girls at school. What are we doing about it?

Are we demanding that guilty teachers are immediately dismissed from schools, and never, ever come near a child again?

I ask many questions here today. Important questions. Hurtful questions. Uncomfortable questions.

And they all have difficult, hurtful and uncomfortable answers.

Every person, male and female, need to accept responsibility for their own Humanity. We must become resolute in our fight to eradicate sexism.

We must first see our own Humanity and only then can we be able to acknowledge and affirm the Humanity of others.

The only way we that we can eradicate any form of prejudice, like racism, sexism and homophobia, is when we consciously stand up against the entrenched injustices perpetuated by a patriarchal system that is our society.

We must take the lead, demonstrate the political will and commitment to implement the policies that can trigger meaningful social change, and allocate the resources necessary for gender equality and true women empowerment.

When we have done these things, then can we say that we truly HONOUR the women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956.