Time to ditch the phrase ‘building the capacity of women’
By Reneva Fourie
The month of August is appropriately dedicated to women in South Africa, with a focus on our contributions to history and society and the challenges that we still experience.
One of the buzz phrases that are bandied about during this time is the “need to build the capacity of women”.
While well-intentioned, this phrase comes across as patronising and condescending of the abilities of women.
It unconsciously affirms the notion that women are inferior and accordingly requires some special intervention to enable us [particularly black women] to be developed to the same level as those that currently hold power, who seemingly were born all wise and able.
The justification for the generous intervention by the superior to place us in a perpetual state of development is that “women who are given responsibilities of leadership before they are ready, get destroyed”.
This argument undermines the reality that a common humanity of both men and women supersedes any reproductive differences that might exist.
Women were not born with mental defects that require us to first undergo a special development support program.
Black women are human beings, born with the capacity to acquire skills, knowledge and ultimately competence in the same manner as those who currently have access, do.
While there may be examples where women have been collaborative in their appointments to undeserved positions, it must be noted that such occurrences, including tokenism and nepotism, exist regardless of ethnicity and sex.
The argument that we should not lead for our own protection is an exploitation of the phenomena to justify the exclusion of women from positions of power and authority.
World history, and particularly South Africa’s history is filled with heroic women leaders and achievers. South Africa has examples of women leadership that spans centuries. The traditional leader in the Balobedu community has been a woman since the 16th century with succession being matrilineal.
On August 9, we commemorated the mass of women who demonstrated against pass laws and on August 17, we commemorated the murder of Ruth First by the apartheid regime.
Contemporary strong women include - in politics, Dr Naledi Pandor and Dr Geraldine Fraser Moleketi; in academia, Professor Cheryl Potgieter and Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng; in science, Rapelang Rabana and Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim; and in sports we have Laurian Johannes and Desiree Ellis. South Africa’s highly competent women leaders have by no means emerged because of charity.
Despite the plethora of competence, black women, particularly, still bear the brunt of poverty, inequality and unemployment and still occupy the lower strata of the employment space. Domestic work and child-rearing remain gendered and naturalised.
According to StatsSA (2018), the unemployment rate for women is higher than that of men, and women are less likely to participate in the labour market. Black women are the most vulnerable, sitting at 34.2 percent followed by ‘coloured’ women at 23.5 percent. White women were the least affected at 6.7 percent.
The 2017 BWASA Women in leadership census states, “In a country where women comprise 51 percent of the population, only 20.7 percent of directors and 29.4 percent of executive managers are women. At the very top leadership level, the number is significantly lower with women holding only 11.8 percent of chairpersons’ positions.”
This poor show of women in the employment space is not indicative of the capacity of women, but rather a reflection of patriarchal power structures and the difficulty of breaking them.
Patriarchy is a constructed system of gender hierarchies and identities, which reinforces inequality, and particularly the sub-ordination of women to men. It is defined as “a system for maintaining class, gender, racial, and heterosexual privilege and the status quo of power”.
Gender historian Gerda Lerner states that, “patriarchy manifests and institutionalises the domination of men over women and children within the family and extends its influence over the public sphere in a society.”
Accordingly, the determination of the acquisition of power have little to do with natural abilities. The power elite, which is predominantly white, male and wealthy, is bound by an economic system, resources, mutual interests, and social networks that are near impossible to penetrate. Those outside of the inner circle have great difficulty accessing it, with gender being no exception.
The advancement of gender equity therefore requires a fundamental restructuring of patriarchal power relations, including an acknowledgement of the structural linkages between class, race and gender.
This requires a substantive shift in the deeper dimensions of societal norms and sense of identities that ensures that all are valued and respected equally and are provided with the full range of opportunities and benefits to reach the same finish line, regardless of gender.
Deliberate interventions to enforce access to and equitable participation of women in education, society, the economy and politically must be increased.
Preferential access for women by setting minimum thresholds to ensure that women occupy all spaces in society cannot be equated with the phrase “building the capacity of women”.
The latter places the fault with women, whereas the former correctly places the fault with structural power relations.
Until we get the focus right, gender equity will remain an aspirational dream.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently resides in Damascus, Syria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.