Real women’s empowerment still elusive

By Leona Kleynhans, DA MPL in the Free State Provincial Legislature:

The below speech was delivered by Leona Kleynhans (MPL) during a debate on Women’s Day at a sitting of the Free State Provincial Legislature today.

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!

Honourable Speaker,

Women form the foundation of any society, yet in many societies around the world, including that of our own here in South Africa, women bear the brunt of the violence of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is evident in all aspects of our social and economic life. Despite the legislative framework established since 1994 that seeks to advance and protect women, the lived reality for millions of women in South Africa is that of social marginalisation, gender-based violence and the hardship of poverty and economic deprivation.

Honourable Speaker,

It is still the woman and the girl-child that suffers first. Even as we speak here today, with all the legislative protection afforded to women, it is the woman in her house, her community, her workplace, that has to endure the systemic violence against them.

There is much to celebrate about the resilient spirit of women.

The power of women can no longer be suppressed or ignored. We see how the power and dedication of women break new frontiers ranging from the political, to the social and economic spheres.

Women can no longer be defined by society, women are increasingly defining themselves.

Women’s Day and Women’s Month give us an opportunity to reflect on the transformation that has taken place in the lives of women since 1956. It is an opportunity for us, both men and women, to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women.

But it must also be a moment for reflection. There is still much that needs to be done to emancipate society from the oppression of patriarchy.

Honourable Speaker,

Let us first honour those women who made this transformation possible. Let us honour the 20 000 South African women, black and white, who stood up as one, in 1956, to march to the Union Buildings against the hated pass laws.

Here was a women’s movement, led by dedicated and brave women like Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams.

Let us also acknowledge the persistence and dedication of the brave women under the banner of the Black Sash. Formed in 1955 to protest the removal of coloured and mixed race persons from the voters’ roll, the Black Sash, a largely white women’s organisation, became a perpetual thorn in the side of the Apartheid State.

The bravery of and dedication to democracy, freedom, and equality espoused by the Black Sash founders, Jean Sinclair, Ruth Foley, Elizabeth McLaren, Tertia Pybus, Jean Bosazza, and Helen Newton-Thompson set the path for many other women marginalised by Apartheid’s oppressive racial and patriarchal policies.

The Apartheid State vexed these women, they threatened them, some were banned, others arrested. Throughout the oppression of Apartheid, women became its easiest victims. We remember that it was mostly women and children who died in Langa, and in Sharpeville, and in Boipatong.

Many women paid with their lives. We honour them, we can never forget, but we also know that even today, the struggle continues.

Then there is Helen Suzman, she too endured years of ridicule and disdain for being a woman who dared to stick to the principles of equality, freedom and justice.

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!

But it is not only women here at home that have fought bravely against oppression.

Let us also honour those women in Africa who stood up when the call came.

From Kenya, Wangirai Maathai, was the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a dedicated environmental activist born into a rural and patriarchal society, yet she fought against the destruction of the African environment by careless governments and unscrupulous big corporations.

Despite the many violent attempts by these corporations to silence her, Wangirai remained resolute in her struggle. She mobilised rural women in Africa to take charge and together they’ve planted over 51 million trees. This forest of a legacy lives on today in memory of Wangirai Maathai. The struggle continues.

We should also acknowledge women leaders like Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson. She stood up when the call came to lead her country into peace and prosperity after it was devastated by civil war. She was brave enough to tackle the general lawlessness inherent in the corrupt State which had defined Liberia for decades. She began a process that sought to create a better life for all of Liberia’s people.

Honourable Speaker,

A young girl in Pakistan was shot in the head for advocating education of the girl child. Even as a child her call came to take a stand against the violence of a patriarchal society. Malala Yousafzai was that child. Her determination and her will to live saw her survive that gunshot and she became an inspiration to millions of girl children, not only in Pakistan, but in the entire world. She is the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel peace Prize.

Malala serves as an inspiration, even as several death sentences have been issued against her and her family by religious fundamentalists. She remains resolute and her struggle continues.

All of these women serve as our inspiration and must be recognised for opening the doors so that others may follow. No longer can women be silenced.

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!

Honourable Speaker,

But we dare not risk becoming complacent and think that the battle is won. Patriarchy is alive and well and thriving.

Today we see more women in boardrooms, we see women in government, more and more women are represented publicly and this may lead us to believe that women everywhere have gained true equality.

There is a serious difference between the cosmetic representivity of women in the echelons of society and the true empowerment of women.

Today, as we speak, it is a fact that women are still often paid far less than men for the same job. The principle of equal pay for equal work remains elusive for many.

In some places very young girls are still being sold off to marry old men.

It is women that are still violently abused by their partners or family members.

As I have highlighted here today, great women like Lillian Ngoyi, Jean Sinclair, Wangirai Maathai and Malala Yousafzai all had to endure some form of violence against their person for being brave enough to call, not for special rights and privileges, no, they only called for equality.

For many others, they were not so lucky, Anti-Apartheid stalwart Ruth First paid for her bravery with her life. The Apartheid State killed her with a parcel bomb. She was killed because she dared to demand justice, freedom and equality, for all.

Honourable Speaker,

Girls are still trafficked into prostitution. Women are still targeted to serve as drug mules. In some societies women are still expected to stay at home to act as a servant to their husbands.

Honourable Speaker,

Women today also bear the brunt of what is known as the double burden. While women are now able to access employment, it is still considered the woman’s chief responsibility to care for children, the elderly and to do domestic work such a laundry and cooking. On average, employed women will spend six hours more doing unpaid domestic work compared to her male partner.

Honourable Speaker,

We are pleased that the ANC has buckled under the pressure of the DA campaign to have Clause 11 reinstated in the draft Maintenance Amendment Bill. Women are far too often left abandoned by their male partners to fend for themselves and their children. Female headed household have to struggle to make ends meet because the fathers of their children refuse to pay child maintenance.

This clause allows for the black-listing of parents who fail to comply with their child maintenance obligations. A finding by a court that a parent is in arrears will enable the black-listing, as Clause 11 currently stands. Why the ANC objected to this clause is anyone’s guess.

Honourable Speaker,

While we honour those fearless women who paved the way for our achievements, let us take up their banner and continue the fight for true equality wherever discrimination against women still exists.

Let us ensure that every girl child receives quality education, and receives the opportunities to fully determine her own course in life, and decide in what way she will make her contribution to society.

Let us put party politics aside and acknowledge here today that:

  • Structural sexism hinders women’s empowerment
  • Societal attitudes of patriarchy hinder the empowerment of women.
  • Rape and abuse of women hinder women’s empowerment.
  • Fathers who do not pay maintenance hinder women’s empowerment.
  • And alcohol and drug abuse in our families hinders women’s empowerment.

Honourable Speaker,

The true emancipation of women still needs to be achieved. The struggle is not yet won. As women leaders we have a responsibility to stand firm and speak up where we encounter the oppression of patriarchy.

The DA believes in the values of Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity and it is armed with these values that we move our cause towards the full empowerment of women.

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!