A woman’s place is everywhere!

These young women added a splash of
colour to the A Woman’s Place
proceedings with their innovative
headgear.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

Members of the Young Women’s Network
dance for joy in the old Assembly
Chamber in parliament.
(Images: Jennifer Stern)

Jennifer Stern

One hundred and fifty nine women from various walks of life met in Cape Town on 27 November to explore the concept of “A Woman’s Place”, as part of the international 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children.

The event was organised from the office of the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. “[It] is a collaboration of various women-focused partners, including parliament and legislatures, government, civil society, trade unions, academia and the corporate sector,” Madlala-Routledge said.

The 16 Days of Activism is an international campaign that starts on 25 November, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, and ends on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. This choice of dates reflects that violence against women is a human rights issue affecting everyone.

And it is no accident that the 16 days also includes 1 December, World Aids Day. It is a terrible reality that the spread of HIV/Aids is furthered by physical and economic violence against women and children.

Exploring place

The concept of place is a tricky one. There is physical space, which is easy to understand, but there is also psychic or mental space, social and political space. And they all interconnect.

Any good architect, ergonomist or feng shui practitioner can tell you that the physical space you inhabit affects the quality of your life. Any social worker, domestic worker or psychologist can explain how one’s mental state is reflected in one’s surroundings – miserable or depressed people tend not to keep a cheerful and tidy house.

“We don’t mean only a physical place like a building,” Madlala-Routledge said. “We also mean every space that women occupy throughout society, from parliament to boardrooms to kitchens to hospital wards to schools to factories and farms … a woman’s place is everywhere.”

“A women’s place,” she said later, “is created through movement and interaction, the flow of knowledge, information, commodities, arts and culture, as well as the acknowledgement that structures of power can, and did, limit or contain all of these.”

The purpose of the event was to explore this interaction to create a more positive space – “A space where women are free and safe. A space where women’s lives are celebrated – where their voices are listened to,” Madlala-Routledge said.

Planned as a consultative process, the discussion focussed on the interpretations of a woman’s place from three different perspectives – women’s place in history, women’s place in government, and women’s place in arts and culture.” Not surprisingly, delegates found that these spaces overlapped significantly.

Women’s rights in South Africa

In South Africa the rights of women are deeply enshrined in our Constitution. This fact is borne out by the impressive gender ratio in local, provincial and national government, where more than 30% of elected representatives are women – a figure that puts us way ahead of most countries in the world.

“But that’s not enough,” says Yvette Abrahams of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). “We are launching a 50/50 campaign to get all the parties [standing for election in 2009] to indicate how they stand on 50/50 gender representation in local and national government.”

While many South African women do occupy positions of power and yield real influence, the majority of their sisters are living with the triple whammy of poverty, disease and the threat of gender-based violence. For many, life is a daily battle to survive.

While unemployment and poverty affect everyone, it is usually women who suffer the most. Disease, too, affects everyone more or less equally, but the status of women is an important factor in the extent and severity of the spread of disease – especially HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases.

It is an unfortunate fact that, while many women may be perfectly aware of how to protect themselves from these diseases, they are powerless to negotiate safe sex, or even – in many cases – to decide whether they want to have sex at all.

It was also made clear during the course of the day, that the need for a woman’s place was not limited to South Africa. If anything, the situation was even more desperate across our borders. Some women from DRC, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Somalia told their stories, offering a poignant and very real view of the dire consequences of being “displaced” – the fear and insecurity of not having a safe place, a place where you can rest secure in the knowledge that you belong.

It was a real eye-opener for many present, and a call to action. And it was brought home to many that we can’t live in isolation. The plight of our sisters (and brothers) in the rest of Africa affects us deeply.

“We need to connect with women all over Africa before they come to our borders,” said Abrahams.

Turning 16 days into 365

Everyone agreed that the 16 Days of Activism campaign was a fantastic symbolic event. It was a powerful way of raising awareness of the problem, but 16 days were not nearly enough.

“The 16 day programme needs to be expanded to 365 days,” Madlala-Routledge said. But that’s a long process.

Delegates were asked to volunteer to join a working group to carry forward the resolutions reached by the consultation. The group, consisting of Abrahams, Bernadette Muthien of the NGO Engender, Rosieda Shabodien of the proposed Women’s Museum and Centre, Diana Gibson of the anthropology department of the University of the Western Cape, Fiona Clayton of the District Six Museum, Nosizwe Madlala- Routledge, deputy speaker of parliament, Lynette Sait of the Office of the Speaker, Rita Edwards of the New Women’s Movement, and Vainola Makan of the Young Women’s Network.

These women will meet early in the new year to promote awareness of women’s issues in local and national government, in schools, in hospitals and in the workplace, and will explore ways of creating physical spaces for women.

Some of the proposed strategies include a women’s newspaper, the creation of a women’s ministry in parliament, and the construction of a number of multipurpose women’s resource centres in various parts of the country.

An interesting project that is in an advanced stage of planning is a proposed women’s museum that will celebrate the contribution of South African women to our history and culture.

While there was no doubt in the mind of anyone present that the situation for women in South Africa, the rest of Africa and – in fact – in most parts of the world was pretty dire, it was a cheerful and vibrant affair.

The presence of dozens of singing, dancing women rocked the staid walls of the Old Assembly Chamber, where parliament sat prior to 1994, and many attendees mused aloud about staunch apartheid-era politicians like JB Vorster and HF Verwoerd turning in their graves.

It was a colourful way of taking ownership of a space that was once very segregated, very white, very male and very hierarchical.

Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Mary Alexander at marya@mediaclubsouthafrica.com.

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