DA’s triple challenge for new gender forums

By Mbali Ntuli, MPL, Member of the DA in the KZN Legislature:

AS we begin our discussions around Women’s month and gender today I want to, on behalf of all the women here, thank the many brave women who came before us and fought to ensure we could enjoy the rights we have today.  We thank especially those brave women of 1956 who showed that across racial and class lines women could come together and shake a nation. That showed us that we are stronger when we stand together.

May I also say that despite receiving the discussion document for the gender forums late, the DA welcomes the many good initiatives on the agenda.  We also welcome the Premier’s campaign against rape and the importance of men as allies in the fight for gender equality.

Naturally the debate on gender must include empowerment through jobs, access to opportunities and discussions around domestic violence and rape. Today though, I want to recommend that the new gender forums also speak about ensuring true equality in places and through institutions that make us uncomfortable.

We must debate gender and especially the issue of equality when it comes to our homes, our culture and our religions. These are often regarded as sacred – places where we must not upset tradition.  But we must also recognize that in some cases it is these elements that are used as a tool to disempower women and tell them how to behave.

Gender forums must also prioritise discussions about how women are socialized from a young age to have certain responses to sex, marriage, pregnancy and men. Unless we are having these conversations true gender equality cannot be achieved.

If discussions of how women must behave towards men continue to emphasise many of those traditionally espoused in religion and culture, we must not be surprised that we create a nation of women who feel they have few options when the men they love abuse them or when randomly men feel their bodies are public property.

Three main points the gender forums and we as leaders must urgently address in society if we are truly committed to true and all-encompassing gender equality are;

–          The first is to speak for those women who have no voice – mainly women in rural areas and women who are in the sex work industry.

For women in rural areas the duality of justice systems and limited access to opportunities is creating a new form of oppression.  We can no longer speak about rural development and the issue of land if we are not going to speak about the fact that we still have, in parts of our province, women under certain chieftaincies who are required to have a male member of their family represent them in any land negotiations.

This is in complete contradiction of truly empowering women in these areas and further entrenches patriarchy by making woman take on the role of a minor at the mercy of her male relatives to justify her existence and economic empowerment.

Thousands of women are in the sex work industry. Whatever various moral or religious sensitivities some may have we are committed as leaders to represent and fight for all members of our society. That this industry continues to victimise women, including at times the very police meant to protect them, indicates that we are not adequately addressing the concerns around sex work. We must give a voice to the women in this industry who are so often as second class citizens.

–          The second point is around issues of culture and/or religion when it comes to conversations around sex and woman’s bodies and their integrity.  We have seen reports on the Umkhosi Wohlanga preparations and the fight by political parties within Ethekwini municipality about the cost.

For a long time the Reed dance has been cushioned and used as a cultural practice with no real interrogation by political leaders as to its continuing relevance or the way in which it may conflate issues around women’s bodily integrity.

It is a shame that not one leader suggested that while culture is important to us all, that its very nature is fluid and traditions which may no longer be helpful in an ever changing society need constant review.

Whatever one’s personal view on these events, ultimately  if the state contributes funds to stage them then the state has every right and must insist that the conversations around gender and women’s bodies must be more than just the fact that we encourage young girls to test their virginity or have a simple talk about HIV. These talks must include discussions around sexuality, discussions around woman and how their worth is not reduced to their virginity and how it affects their chances of marriage.

We need to discuss with women the issues around the stigma associated with sex, the dynamics of power around it and the issues of shame that women have been subjected too for centuries. We must unwaveringly champion that the enjoyment of sex or the manner in which women choose to conduct themselves is entirely their own prerogative otherwise these cultural practices will cease being viewed for whatever good intentions they may have originally had.

–          Thirdly, I reiterate the inclusion of men in gender conversations. Gender issues are not just women’s issues.  They are in fact human rights issues and so, men must be encouraged to become allies in the fight for gender equality.

While this debate is centred mainly on women’s month we must not forget that gender equality encompasses all genders and that men too have a stake in fighting for gender equality for all genders, both for the advancement of our country but also for the justice that has been denied for so many.