Putting women in their rightful place
Women still bear the most responsibility when it comes to raising the children in our society – so it’s an insult when they are excluded from positions of empowerment and decision-making, writes Thebe Ikalafeng.
Johannesburg - I never knew my biological father. It has never bothered me then nor now. But then in that regard, I am not an exception but rather the norm for many in Africa, where millions of children are raised by single, divorced, abandoned or widowed women. While men always seem to be able to father children with a choice to opt in or out of parenthood, often women have no such choice.
A recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations estimates that between 1996 and 2010 the number of children who lived under the same roof as their fathers decreased to 37 percent, and those with absent but living fathers increased to 47 percen0t. Black children are the most affected, at 51 percent, while only 17 percent of white children and 13 percent of Indian children are living without fathers.
For the estimated 9 million children in South Africa who don’t know their fathers, often the one person they know is their mother – a woman. This is not merely a South African peculiarity, but a global reality for children and women of African descent.
According to US government statistics, 72 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers, compared with 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, and 41 percent overall across the US.
So when it is said it takes a village to raise an African child, in reality it means women, who bear this responsibility diligently against all odds.
Despite this immense responsibility and history, the problem for women isn’t necessarily the challenge of raising the children, but how they are ultimately “rewarded”.
Rather than being their grateful protectors, the most suffering women endure is at the hands of the boys they raise to become men, who ultimately turn against them – often not just in abandonment, expecting them to be “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen”, and when they dare challenge, retaliate with violence.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), domestic violence is a global problem affecting millions of women.
In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the WHO found that 56 percent of women in Tanzania and 71 percent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands or intimate partners.
Violence against women goes beyond beatings. It includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, sexual harassment, intimidation at work, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, trafficking, forced prostitution and genital mutilation in other parts of Africa.
This violence continues because women continue to live without much protection from the law.
In Kenya the family protection bill criminalising wife beating and other forms of domestic violence was enacted only after years of protests and lobbying by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and “fortunately” some outraged men and parliamentarians.
In Nigeria, citing Islamic law, Sani Yerima, a senator married to a 13-year-old girl, opposed a constitutional amendment that set 18 years as the minimum age for marriage.
In Somalia a woman is reputed to have been paid $150 restitution for the rape of her four-year-old daughter.
In South Africa, where the extent of sexual crime against women has no boundary, reportedly as many as one in four females are raped, from months-old babies to 90-odd-year-old grandmothers.
Recently, the country reacted in outrage when 17-year-old Anene Booysen was attacked and left to die in the small town of Bredasdorp.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, says sexual violence in conflict areas such as Congo is war’s oldest and least condemned crime.
In response, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and former AU Commission chairpman Jean Ping launched the Africa UNiTE campaign in 2010 to end all violence against women and girls by 2015.
Unfortunately, many of these initiatives, such as the “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children”, result in anniversary events, rather than sustainable behavioural change.
Tired of being victims, women have taken on the task of protecting themselves, pushing for adoption of international instruments, such as the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, affirming that violence against women was a violation of their human rights and a form of discrimination that nullified their right to freedom, security and life, and calling on governments to protect women against violence.
But few countries have met those obligations.
A 2011 report on Progress of the World’s Women by UN Women, the UN body responsible for gender rights, reported that only 21 sub-Saharan countries had specific laws against domestic violence.
Men, through their actions, have robbed many women of their dignity. In addition, when they seek to earn a living, women have to endure the same discrimination by a patriarchal corporate world, irrespective of their qualifications and proven ability to handle more than just their domestic responsibilities.
In their new book, Half the Sky, Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that throughout much of the world the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Kristoff and WuDunn argue that particularly in developing world, it is not only the right thing to do, but also the best strategy for fighting poverty.
Indeed, in a report last year on research among 2 360 companies globally by Credit Suisse, entitled Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance, results showed that on average it would have been better to have invested in corporate organisations with women on their management boards than in those without women – they delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, and better average growth, giving credence to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that it may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.
Financial Mail reported that in a 2012 Business Women’s Association Women in Leadership Census survey of JSE-listed companies, women represented 4 percent of chief executive or managing director positions in state-owned enterprises and government, 6 percent of board chair positions, 17 percent of directorships and 21 percent of executive manager positions.
Due to these low statics, The 30% Club – Global Initiative for Women Representation on Companies Boards launched in South Africa this year. Their goal is to achieve 30 percent women on boards by 2015, in certain countries, including South Africa, by 2018.
This is not a favour but a sound economic imperative.
While it is laudable, recognising women such as Liberia’s Sirleaf Johnson as the first African female president, Nigerian oil magnate Folorunsho Alakija worth estimated at $3.2bn (replacing Oprah Winfrey) as the richest black woman in the world (Sunday Times UK Rich List), Malawi’s President Joyce Banda as the “Most Powerful Woman” in Africa (Forbes), or Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the first chairpeson of the Au Commission, should not be applauded as a moment of pride or progress, but a shameful reminder of the discrimination that women face today.
This August around the world, we pause yet again – for a day or few – to remember women in a “tradition” that started in the US, when the first national Women’s Day was observed on February 28, 1909, following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. In August 1910 an International Women’s Conference was organised to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen.
In South Africa we will remember the seminal women’s march of August 9, 1956, when 20 000 women, led by Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophie Williams de Bruyn and Lilian Ngoyi of the Federation of South African Women, marched to Prime Minister JG Strijdom’s office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws, with an unequivocal warning:
“Strijdom, wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo – you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock.”
Tired of being marginalised and typecast as politically inept, immature and homebound, women are rising to break male-erected barriers and fight for their complete emancipation. It is often said that behind every successful man is a woman. But in South Africa women have not only been behind, but often at the forefront of the liberation of the country.
Where would Mandela be without Winnie Mandela or, lately, Graça Machel. Oliver Tambo without Adelaide. Walter Sisulu without Albertina. Joe Slovo without Ruth First?
Or, more importantly, were would we all be without women?
In 1963, a young Miriam Makeba, the first black African woman to win a Grammy Award (shared with Harry Belafonte in 1965) took the fight to the men at the UN to challenge another form of discrimination – apartheid:
“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place?”
That question is as relevant about apartheid then as it is about how society treats women today.
Paraphrasing scripture, John F Kennedy once said, “to whom much is given, much is expected”.
Too much is expected of women, for too little in return.
Women represent 52 percent of the South African population, but only 44 percent of the workforce – and 20 percent of these women are domestic workers.
Our minimum wage for domestic workers, which ranges between R1 056.35 and R1 746 per month, is not a just return.
A ministry for women (and children) or a day in a year is an insult to them.
Inspired by the women of 1956 and Marilyn Monroe, who once said “women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition”, women, clearly the superior sex, must go beyond seeking equal rights – and stamp their authority.
Globally, instead of celebrating a “happy women’s month” we must champion a call for “happy women”. All efforts should be geared toward returning women to their rightful place – away from the crèche, kitchen and abuse, and at the centre of every decision about our present and our future.
In the end, we must remember, like Abraham Lincoln acknowledged, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my mother”.
Thank you mom. And thank you grandma.
* Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African adviser and author on branding and reputation leadership and founder of Brand Africa and Brand Leadership Group. @ThebeIkalafeng.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.