Friday 19th Apr 2019

Editor · The Southern Cross -
Adverts in the media at this time of the year will implore men to buy the women in their lives flowers or perfume or chocolates for Women’s Day, which is celebrated.

While it is indeed commendable for men to show appreciation for women — preferably also on the other 364 days in the year — the commercialisation of Women’s Day as a glorified Mothers’ Day is an unwelcome subversion of the meaning of this public holiday.

The holiday has its roots in the great women’s march on Pretoria’s Union Buildings in 1956, when 20000 women demonstrated against the pass laws.

The August 9 holiday is intended to advocate for the empowerment and emancipation of women — and no empowerment or emancipation has ever resulted from breakfast in bed.

The march’s theme was expressed in the freedom song “Wathint’ Abafazi Wathint’ Imbokodo” — “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

The demonstration was organised by the Federation of South African Women, whose leadership included women of Catholic background such as Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-de Bruyn. The federation was founded to advocate and agitate for the liberation of women from patriarchal domination, including that prevailing at the time within anti-apartheid structures.

Already in the 1950s, women were standing up against their oppression, by apartheid and by patriarchy.

In 2018, we can note progress in the empowerment of women. At the highest levels, for example, women make up almost half of all parliamentarians — before 1994, that figure was 2,4%.

Various legislations have been passed to reduce the discrimination women have faced, though much still needs to be done, including the consistent enforcement of those laws.

While women have increased their share in management positions, the vast majority of CEOs of South African corporations are still men. And it is still a scandalous fact that women do not always earn the same salary as men for performing the same work.

But whereas middle-class women have attained some measure of empowerment and emancipation, though by no means complete, the situation for the great majority of women remains difficult.

Inequality in access to education persists; sexual abuse and exploitation, and domestic violence, are acute; and social structures that make women dependent on men remain in force.

For all the progress that has been made in addressing it, gender injustice still afflicts our country.

Indeed, these gains have created a reaction from those who insist on the primacy of the patriarchal system, to the point where some absurdly rationalise domestic violence by reference to the perceived disempowerment of men that supposedly accompanies the empowerment of women.

The idea that Women’s Day is best celebrated by gender-specific gifts trivialises the struggles which women still face in South Africa, and undercuts the point of the holiday.

August 9 is also a timely reminder for the Church to review how far it has come in giving women concrete positions of authority and influence, recording its successes, failings and challenges.

The idea that Women’s Day is best celebrated by gender-specific gifts trivialises the struggles which women still face in South Africa, and undercuts the point of the holiday.

South Africa cannot claim to respect its women when they are routinely subjected to domestic violence, when rape remains endemic, when women and girls are at risk of sexual exploitation, when women are molested for their sense of fashion, when some are violated and even murdered because of their sexual orientation.

Women cannot be said to be enjoying freedom when they suffer disproportionately from poverty-related diseases and malnutrition, compounded by often inadequate health care.

Women cannot be said to be empowered when their right to access to education is not universally put into action, and when their employment opportunities are restricted.

Women in public service cannot be said to be empowered when often they are held to higher standards than their male counterparts.

For Women’s Day, let’s not give women a bouquet of roses and a bunch of empty platitudes. Give her a job, a fair salary, equal access to opportunities and health care, and primacy over her own sexuality.

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