File picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

 We need to examine how what we do in our homes contributes to the continued inequality between women and men, say Kopane Ratele and Rebecca Helman.

Pretoria - One of the most damaging effects of patriarchy has been to make some women and girls believe it is natural for men to have power over them.

This is quite an achievement because patriarchy’s main goal is to convince women and men to uphold the idea that fathers have a natural right to rule.

But patriarchy, even the benevolent kind, can be mentally, emotionally and physically costly to women, particularly those who do not obey its commands.

In our country, although gender equality is a constitutional right, patriarchal norms ensure males tend to be regarded as naturally superior to females. Even more incredibly, women continue to be treated as junior partners in their homes.

The World Health Organisation’s Multicountry Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women has shown the home may be a place of danger for women and girls.

To realise the constitutional aspiration of equality between men and women, there is an obvious imperative to continue marching and persuading employers to establish egalitarian workplaces and employment policies on sexual harassment and parental leave. That said, the eradication of an unjust socio-economic disparity between men and women will remain a dream unless unfair pecking orders in families are overcome, particularly as the family is the first place where boys and girls are taught that men and women are unequal.

Women’s Day commemorates the 1956 march to the Union Buildings against the injustice of pass laws as one of the key contributions women made in the fight for freedom and equality for all.

Most of the Women’s March posters denounced the extension of the “dompas” laws to women, while some pointed out that these laws were intended to break up African families further.

White patriarchy did not like intact African families. In other words, the Women’s March can be understood as a protest for the right of women, especially African women, to decide what goes on in their families.

The question remains: what kind of families do women need?

It seems obvious that women need non-violent families, as violence is antithetical to women’s mental and physical health. It can lead to death, disability, depression and anxiety.

As the findings by Claudia Garcia-Moreno and her fellow WHO researchers have suggested, violence against women is “a concrete manifestation of inequality between the sexes”.

What women need, we think, are equal families. In spite of such evidence, decades after the establishment of constitutional equality, patriarchal domination continues to shape the lived experiences of many women and girls.

The persistence of gender inequality is reflected in the high rates of violence against women reported in the media.

Research has demonstrated how these rates of violence are closely connected to social norms that position men as dominant and women as subservient.

In this context it is clear women cannot be made solely responsible for establishing gender equality and ending the multiple forms of violence against them.

Women and men have to come together to make the promises of freedom and equality a reality.

Realising true equality may seem an impossible task as gender inequalities, alongside racial and class inequalities, are deeply ingrained in the social fabric.

One example is the idea that the man is naturally the head of the household.

Another is the notion that the male-headed “nuclear family”, where two parents of different sexes live with their biological children, is the ideal structure.

However, in this heteropatriarchal nuclear family, women have historically been responsible for the care of children and other domestic labour, while men have been responsible for financial provision and, crucially, big decisions.

Yet the nuclear family is only one notion of how to enact family life and it developed in relation to a specific set of social and economic conditions produced by Western industrialisation.

Although significant shifts have taken place in South African family life, our own research with families from a range of communities suggests this family model continues to be regarded as the “natural” and “proper” way to conduct family life. Inequitable relations between women and men in the home remain invisible and unchallenged.

What is needed is an examination of how what we do in our homes and families contributes to the continued inequality between women and men and how equality can be engendered.

In many homes the act of preparing and cooking meals is regarded as women’s responsibility. Although it may appear that in some families women choose to fulfil these tasks, this “choice” must be considered in context.

Women do not necessarily choose to be in charge of domestic responsibilities. Rather, they are practically and ideologically coerced into this role.

Women continue to be paid less than men, therefore it is more difficult for them to be primary wage-earners in their families. A consequence of this inequality in pay is that women are relegated to the tasks of caring and managing the household.

Simultaneously, men are discouraged or prevented from taking on domestic responsibilities because of their positions as financial providers.

Not only are men expected to fulfil the financial needs of their families by working long hours, and perhaps even holding multiple jobs, they are regarded as being less competent than women in the domestic sphere.

This creates a context in which men may find it difficult to share child care and household labour more equally.

However, it is possible for us to begin taking small steps towards equality by challenging and changing the patterns of inequality in families.

As one father in our research study said, he and his partner “decided if she was going to do all the breast-feeding, then I could do all the nappies”.

Through these kinds of decisions more space is opened up for women to pursue tasks beyond the home, including paid employment.

* Kopane Ratele and Rebecca Helman are with Unisa and the SA Medical Research Council respectively.