We commemorate the over 20 000 women who, on the same day in 1956, marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws as they sang, Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint Imbokodo (You strike a woman, you strike a rock).
One wonders what the annual Women’s Day or Women’s Month means to some of those women who presumably are still alive today.
They possibly look back with pride and perhaps with some amazement that their protest that day has culminated in a public holiday that highlights issues affecting women.
Perhaps the month of August as a whole reminds them and the rest of us that women have come a long way from the days when they served only as housewives, mothers, nannies, domestic workers, hairdressers and cooks, and when fewer women were teachers, nurses and midwives; a long way from the days when working-class women earned much less than their male counterparts in the same job.
August is a reminder that women are now more visible in the workplace (even in Parliament) and that they have relative control over their own affairs. But August is also a sad reminder that something is still fundamentally flawed in society because the very idea of a Women’s Day or Women’s Month in a sense sounds like an aberration.
Does it not highlight the minority status that women still hold in society, for why should a day or month be set aside for women in the first place? Could it not imply that the rest of the year belongs to men and that August 9 is like a pacifier in the mouths of women to stop them from crying (out)?
Does August then sidetrack us from perennial gender issues that have refused to go away? Two such issues stand out for me: firstly, that women continue to be victims of gender-based violence and murder, while some child rapists and molesters get suspended sentences or a slap on the wrist; and secondly, that women still operate on the fringes of leadership and power, with women (of colour in particular) remaining at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
August is a reminder that in terms of core leadership roles women remain far behind their male counterparts.
In the context of higher education, for instance, it is clear the playing field is not yet level when it comes to gender equality in core leadership positions. Although the appointment of female vice-rectors, deans and senior directors at our universities indicates a move towards gender equality in core leadership positions, it also shows much work still has to be done .
Despite of all the media hype during August, women continue to be abused in their homes, harassed at work and assaulted in the streets.
Will criminals, misogynists, rapists and abusers not continue to have a field day at the expense of women unless we change our rhetoric and begin to ask in the same spirit of solidarity that the 20 000 protesting women showed: “Why strike a woman at all?”
The challenges mentioned here are just some of the struggles South African women grapple with daily. Addressing and solving them will require us to look beyond Women’s Day and Women’s Month and to put women’s issues on the agenda throughout the year.
If we succeed in doing this, then, perhaps we will have more to celebrate in August.
* Dr Funlola Olojede is a researcher at the Gender Unit in the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.