Struggle stalwart Sophie de Bruyn is the last surviving leader of the Women’s March of 1956. Here is her message on Women’s Day 2020.
This year’s commemoration of women’s role in our national democratic revolution takes place in a country bedevilled by a health pandemic which has exposed and exacerbated social problems and deepened the already existing economic distress.
It is appropriate in this Women’s Month to salute women on the front line - women who serve as health workers, police and soldiers, teachers, volunteers, and women who are caring for sick and recovering family members.
This Covid-19 pandemic hits all people in South Africa and across the globe, but the face of this threefold crisis remains the face of the black working-class woman.
The face of poverty, the face of lack of safety, the face of inequality - always it is the face of women that comes to mind.
When women gathered on April 17, 1954 to form the Federation of South African Women and adopted the Women’s Charter, they articulated this clearly, and I quote: “Women’s Lot: We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for the homes that are too small, broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands are away in the mines, on the farms, and in the towns earning our daily bread.”
The struggle that women face today is different in one fundamental form - we have won “The right to vote and to be elected to all State bodies, without restriction or discrimination” - the first of the objectives stated by the women in 1954.
We are now concerned about equity targets in elections, about women’s right to not always deputise to male leaders, about those factors that still make it harder for women to hold office than it is for men. Winning on these issues is an important dimension of achieving the gender equality envisaged in our Constitution.
The UN has noted on its Women website that the profound shock of Covid-19 on our societies and economies “underscores society’s reliance on women both on the front line and at home, while simultaneously exposing structural inequalities across every sphere In times of crisis, when resources are strained and institutional capacity is limited, women and girls face disproportionate impacts with far reaching consequences that are only further amplified in contexts of fragility, conflict, and emergencies. Hard-fought gains for women’s rights are also under threat”.
For most women in South Africa, the pandemic has intensified their pain and frustration in so many ways.
We do not have enough food to feed the family. We do not all have safe and affordable water essential for life and health.
For many, our children’s education is undermined by inadequate school infrastructure. Too many of our children play in the streets and unsafe public spaces. Most women have to use public transport that is not safe, reliable or affordable.
But worst, many women are not safe in our own homes, in our places of work, in our communities and on trains and in taxis. The violence that is prevalent in our society impacts on women in a variety of different ways.
We are the mothers of both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. We bear the brunt of the disruption of family life and income through violence. And we are ourselves the victims and survivors of gender-based violence and femicide.
The struggle against gender-based violence and femicide must enable us as an individual, a family, a community, a society and a government to ensure better prevention of violence. But we also need the criminal justice system to be far more effective in investigation and sanction of violence when it has occurred.
Defeating gender-based violence requires us to build an alternative society, a society where resources are used for the benefit of the majority, and where human life is respected and protected by each of us and by the state.
Comrades, as I conclude, I return to the 1954 Women’s Charter, which identifies that “the test of civilisation can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women as a test of civilisation”.
To this end, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women, housewives, black and white, South African and foreign nationals, must continue to strive for the empowerment and emancipation of all women, the safety and protection of women, children and LGBTQI+ people, and the removal of all social evils and obstacles to progress.
Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the related social and economic crises is not just about rectifying long-standing exclusions and inequalities, but also about building a resilient world in the interest of everyone with women at the centre of recovery.
Igama lamakhosikazi! Malibongwe!
Malibongwe! Igama lanamkhosikazi!
(Let the name of the women be praised!)