International Women’s Day: A Reflection from South Africa
by Elizabeth Petersen, Founder and Executive Director of SAFFI
International Women’s Day is not as widely celebrated in South Africa as other parts of the world. We have our own National Women’s Day, which is celebrated on August 9 as a public holiday. The month of August is normally dedicated to the memory of women who have played a significant role during the anti-apartheid struggle. Across the country, women leaders are honored for their achievements in various spheres of society, and gender-based violence (GBV) organizations use this time to raise awareness about the scourge of violence against women and children.
This year, as the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I wish to share some of my reflections on the challenges, achievements and hopes of South African women.
“Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression, unless we see, in practical and visible terms, that the condition of women in our country has been changed for the better in all aspects of life – as equals.”
--Nelson Mandela, 24 May 1994
These were words spoken by our first democratically elected South African President in 1994 during his inaugural speech. South Africa comes from a dark, painful history of apartheid and segregation.
It is said of the 1910s that despite the fact that women of all races were virtually restricted to the home, migrant labor had already begun to forge differences between the experience of African and white women in South Africa. In rural areas and towns, African marriages and family life were destroyed as African men were away from home for extended periods of time working in the mines. This made life particularly tough for African (black) women, who had carried the responsibility of keeping the family together and the burden of agricultural work. As black women started moving to locations near towns, they were met by the government’s influx control measures in the form of pass laws. Living in towns meant that women became more independent and assertive. They became more politically aware and embarked on various defiance campaigns against the discriminatory restrictions placed on them by these pass laws. Women demonstrated against having to carry passes in three major campaigns dated 1913, 1930 and the famous 9 August 1956 march. It is said that in each of these defiance campaigns, women reacted not because of major political issues or broad developmental policies, but because the stability of their homes and families were in jeopardy. (Source: South Africa History Online)
Over the past century, the struggle for women’s emancipation continues to unfold as a multi-faceted, complex reality. This is especially true as South Africans move from a dispensation of colonialism and apartheid to a culturally diverse democratic society. As we strive for the unity in our diversity in South Africa, we are faced with all sorts of challenges in the quest to make sense of women’s experiences and aspirations for emancipation in their personal and public life.
As a young woman of faith growing up in the 1970s and 1980s on the Cape Flats in a working class Pentecostal Church setting, I have always been puzzled and shocked by the contradictions in the Church’s message on so many levels. On the one hand, people were invited to experience the abundant life that was available to all in through the life of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the Church alienated those who tried to attain this abundant life by challenging the atrocities of the apartheid system and government – it was preached that we had to pray for and respect our white leaders.
As a young social worker, it was hard to make sense of many gender activists who strongly advocated for women’s rights and empowerment; yet they dismissed the voices of their black colleagues in the early 1990s. In the same breath, many of them played a crucial role in bringing about some of the progressive legislations and policies we have today—e.g. the Domestic Violence Act of 1998. The contradictions and achievements are many. At times it is difficult to keep up, but it helps to have beacons of courage and inspiration to remind us (the younger generation) that the achievements outweigh the contradictions.
I am particularly mindful of the many South African women who stood the test of time in the quest for reclaiming women’s humanity and right to equality. One such woman is Lilian Ngoyi, born in Pretoria in 1911. Lilian was an ordinary woman with extraordinary vision and commitment to a future where women from all cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds would live free from oppression and discrimination. On 9 August 1956, she led members of the Federation of South African Women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to present petitions protesting the pass laws on behalf of the 20,000 women from across South Africa.
Lilian Ngoyi knew how to combine her identities as an African, woman, mother and worker to mobilize South African women in the fight against apartheid. For Lilian, the restrictions and limitations that apartheid laws placed on black women were at the heart of the system of white supremacy. Therefore, it was only natural that black women be in the vanguard of anti-apartheid resistance. (Source: Women's History Network)
It was leading lights like Lilian Ngoyi and others who laid the foundation for a National Women’s Coalition formed in April 1992, which ensured that equality for women be made possible in the constitutional dispensation. It is therefore important to acknowledge that the inclusion of ‘women’ as a category along with race in the preamble and in the South African Constitution was the result of challenges made by over 60 women’s organizations to the Constitutional negotiating process from apartheid to democracy. (Source: Sheila Meintjies, 1996: “The Women’s Struggle for Equality during South Africa’s Transition to Democracy”)
In 2009, the African Union (AU) adopted the Africa Gender Policy. This policy guides the process of gender mainstreaming at regional and sub-regional levels and makes provisions on technical support that the AU committee can provide to member states for mainstreaming gender in their policies and programs. The launch of the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020 provides an opportunity to leverage global and regional political goodwill for the advancement of African women.
On 8 March 2011, The Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities in South Africa urges all government departments to launch the South African Women’s Decade on International Women’s Day. In line with the 2010/2011 South African Police Women’s Network Program of Action, the objective is to address human trafficking, prostitution, pornography, sexual offenses and drug abuse amongst youth.
At times the quest for equality and the emancipation of women seems daunting. But my recent experience as a Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey scholar during 2008-2009 provided a rare opportunity of spending 10 months with emerging leaders from over 100 countries across the globe in the USA. This journey of encounter with emerging women leaders from countries such as Palestine, Liberia, Serbia, Estonia, Russia, Tanzania, Kenya, Indonesia, China, Brazil, and Egypt enabled me to find a deeper appreciation for my experience as a South African woman. The similarities in terms women’s experiences when it comes to violence across the globe were frightening. The courage and achievements of women across the globe was sobering and inspiring. Journeying with women like Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, who has mobilized religious leaders and faith communities in addressing GBV since the early 1970s, was an invaluable blessing. This whole experience ignited in me a new determination and a clearer vision for the work that I feel compelled to do in South Africa at this point in my life.
International Women’s Day provides this incredible opportunity to remind us that as women, we are never alone. Our lives and experiences are interconnected whether we lived in 1911 or whether we are living in 2011. We live and have lived to bring hope and healing to our world.
Elizabeth Petersen is from the Cape Flats and earned a Masters Degree in Social Work (2006) from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She began her professional career in 1993 as a social worker at St. Anne's Homes in Cape Town, a century old Anglican shelter caring for abused and homeless women and children, and became their Director in 1997.
Elizabeth is passionate about women’s issues and the plight of the marginalized and has addressed various local and international audiences to help bring about gender & racial sensitivity and equality. Her quest for addressing root causes of violence against women led to the establishment of South African Faith and Family Institute (SAFFI) in 2008 with the intention of creating a coordinated restorative justice response to domestic violence with a particular focus on mobilizing religious leaders from all faith traditions, building capacity in the faith sector and holding perpetrators accountable for their abusive behaviour.
Her extensive work in the domestic violence sector and her faith commitment enable her to bring these sectors together in the quest to break the cycle of violence and abuse. She completed a Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program in the USA (2008-2009), which afforded her the opportunity to establish critical partnerships with colleagues in the United States to advance the eradication of gender based violence in South Africa.