Friday, March 09, 2007

The Imperative of Women's Emancipation

The imperative of women's emancipation

By President Thabo Mbkeki of the Republic of South Africa
Reprinted From ANC Today, March 9, 2007

The day before this edition of ANC TODAY was published, our country joined the rest of the world to mark International Women's Day, which falls on 8 March. We would therefore like to take this opportunity to convey our sincere congratulations and best wishes to the women of South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world.

On 6 March, two days before this important day, Africa and her friends from elsewhere in the world, had gathered in Accra to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the epoch-making independence of Ghana. On this occasion, many correctly recalled the statement made by Kwame Nkrumah on Independence Day in 1957, that Ghana's independence would be meaningless unless it was also accompanied by the liberation of the rest of our continent from colonial and white minority rule.

For many decades now, our movement has held this same perspective concerning the issue of the liberation of women. Whatever words we have used, we have also insisted that our national liberation from white minority rule and the legacy of colonialism and apartheid would be meaningless unless it also meant the liberation of the women of South Africa.

Consistent with this fundamental tenet of our movement and struggle, which places the task of the emancipation of women as one of the central objectives of our National Democratic Revolution (NDR), our National Executive Committee (NEC) said in this year's January 8th Statement, to mark the 95th anniversary of the ANC, that:

"We must also take care to ensure that women are integrally involved and targeted in the design and implementation of our economic empowerment programmes. As a section of society who, despite comprising more than half of our people, continue to confront additional economic disadvantages, all our programmes need to have a capacity to benefit and empower women. This will only be achieved by involving women in the process, and ensuring that they are able to help direct and monitor all the work in this regard."

Our National Executive Committee said this in the context of addressing what it identified as the central task of the NDR - the intensification of the struggle for the eradication of poverty. Thus it sought to make the unequivocal statement that, as a movement, we must do everything necessary and possible to ensure that the women of our country fully participate in defining what our country does in this regard, benefit from all programmes adopted to eradicate poverty, help to direct the implementation of these programmes, and participate in monitoring the implementation of these programmes.

Thus our NEC sought to give practical expression to the strategic perspective of our movement, that the emancipation of women is a defining feature of our NDR. The challenge that faces us is that we must translate our words into practical reality. In this regard, I would like to insist that our movement has the capacity to match the words we utter with the actions we take. We will therefore have nobody to blame if we do not realise the objective to organise the women of our country to be activists for, and beneficiaries of development, consistent with what our NEC said in the January 8th Statement.

Because of what some of our Members of Parliament, elected leaders of our people, said, during the Debate on the State of the Nation Address, I said in response that as we continue to confront the central challenge of the fundamental transformation of our country, we must also focus, deliberately, consciously and systematically, on the task to transform the South African mind. Specifically, in this regard, I said:

"On all occasions when we meet as we have since last Friday, we speak of change - some about our success in changing our society for the better, and others about how we have failed to effect any significant change, each speaking from his or her opposing trench, such that in the end we appear to be speaking about different countries, one of which might be called South Africa, and the other, to give it a name, whatever its meaning, might be called Azania.

"When we talk about change we speak, as we must do, about the number of jobs created, about the number of houses built, about the provision of water, sanitation and electricity and about rates of economic growth.

"But we rarely speak about the change or the absence of change in our minds. Each time anybody dares to venture into this area, in many instances to decode a vocabulary that has learnt to disguise old insults by presenting itself as the vehicle for the dispassionate presentation of objective reality, a deluge of condemnation descends on the daring soul, communicating the message to all who would dare that these should forever be mindful of the advice - only fools rush in where angels fear to tread!

"If I may, I would like to suggest that the fact that it was necessary, today, to repeat verbatim what was said 10 years ago, makes an immensely sad statement about us all. It must surely be a matter of profound distress that almost at the end of the 13th year of our emancipation, questions must still be asked as to whether we are, as a nation, capable of uniting to pursue a commonly defined national agenda, as to whether it is to expect too much to believe that as individual members of our society, we are capable of honestly asking ourselves the questions - what more can we do, what can we contribute?"

Given its defining importance within the historic agenda of the NDR, and as we celebrate International Women's Day, we have an obligation constantly and honestly to ask ourselves whether we have done everything we need to do to change the South African mind, so that, really and practically, we achieve daily victories in the struggle for the emancipation of the women of our country!

Our movement, and our movement only among our national political formations, took the eminently correct decision that in the aftermath of our 2006 Local Government Elections, its elected municipal council representatives would be constituted on the basis of gender equality - which has come to be described as the 50-50 principle.

Later this year, our movement will hold its five-year Policy Conference. It must surely be self-evident that this critically important Conference must and will address the issue of gender equality, to ensure that our movement builds on our decision and actions with regard to the last Local Government Elections, further to entrench the principle and practice of gender equality in the fundamental reconstruction of our society.

Again later this year, in December, we will convene in Limpopo, at the 52nd ANC National Conference. This Conference will consider the decisions of the Policy Conference, as well as debate and decide upon any other policy issues it may identify. However, like the Policy Conference, it cannot avoid taking decisions about the issue central to our democracy of gender equality.

Personally, while I must and will respect the decisions of the ANC Policy and National Conferences, which will, as before, emanate from an open democratic process in our movement, I cannot imagine that these Conferences would fail to take decisions on the strategically important issues of: the amendment of the ANC Constitution to provide for gender equality in the composition of the structures of our movement; and, the amendment of the Constitution of the Republic again to provide for gender equality in the institutions of state.

In this regard, I would like to revert to what I said to conclude the National Assembly Debate on the State of the Nation Address. Specifically, as I have already indicated, I said: "When we talk about change we speak, as we must do, about the number of jobs created, about the number of houses built, about the provision of water, sanitation and electricity and about rates of economic growth. But we rarely speak about the change or the absence of change in our minds."

I refer to these comments because the struggle to achieve the emancipation of women is, in good part, a struggle to defeat deeply entrenched social and individual prejudices that present themselves to the people holding these prejudices as obviously accepted and standard social norms.

This creates the immense difficulty that it becomes virtually impossible to change the mind of the prejudiced person because he or she considers his or her prejudice as self-evident truth, and draws comfort and sustenance from empirically derived knowledge that a critical mass of members of society holds the same views as the person who is a prisoner of prejudice.

Inevitably, in this context, we must consider the meaning of words. This is because it is through language that human beings communicate thought and feeling and what we have described as prejudice. Words therefore serve as an expression of a state of mind and therefore an indication of behaviour that would derive from this state of mind.

Because this Letter is written in the English language, I will turn to a universally accepted authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, to address the issue of prejudice, which feeds the terribly ugly social phenomenon that is generally politely described as gender discrimination. Specifically, I would like to demonstrate that the apparently distinct and separate words, "prejudice", "belief", and "faith", essentially describe the same mindset.

Applied to the issue of the social (universal) acceptance of the practice of the oppression of women, the understanding of these words as manifestations of the state of the human mind and soul, should help us to understand why it is that, in addition to changing the material world that objectively defines a subservient social position for women, we must also confront a mindset that, because of prejudice or belief or faith, views it as a normal social prescription that women should occupy a subsidiary position in the ordering of human affairs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "prejudice" as "a feeling, favourable or unfavourable, towards any person or thing, prior to or not based on actual experience; a prepossession; a bias or leaning to one side; an unreasoning predilection or objection".

The same Dictionary describes "faith" as "what is believed, or required to be believed, on a particular subject". Again, this Dictionary defines "belief" as "assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth or a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness".

Thus when we talk of a mindset that prescribes discrimination against women, we are talking of the stubborn mental condition that is informed by feelings not based on actual experience, by what is believed and required to be believed, and truths beyond observation, requiring no empirical verification, an unreasoning predilection. All these definitions describe a mindset that is not open to change through rational discussion, which, in part, is what feeds the scourge of the practice of the oppression of women.

From 1975, the United Nations started observing 8 March as International Women's Day, which was first observed in 1911. In this regard, it has been said that "in adopting its resolution on the observance of Women's Day, the General Assembly cited two reasons: to recognise the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.

"For the women of the world, the Day's symbolism has a wider meaning: it is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilise for meaningful change."

In this context, when he addressed a conference on Women in Local Government in August last year, Minister Essop Pahad said correctly that: "Despite (the) Constitutional commitments to gender equality we must acknowledge that women in South Africa still face huge challenges. Despite their valuable contributions to the survival and maintenance of their families and communities as caregivers and economic providers, women continue to face social, economic and cultural barriers in realising their full potential and equal rights in society.

"Women in South Africa continue to confront the challenge of poverty, live in informal settlements, and work in the 'second economy' as street vendors, poorly paid service employees and domestic workers. Women continue to be subjected to discrimination, and stereotyping, domestic violence and sexual abuse. They are underpaid compared to their male counterparts for work of equal value. They are underrepresented in the decision making centres in the public sector and their representation in the decision making centres of the private sector is much worse."

In April 2001, Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, delivered a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, which was later published under the title, "Many faces of Gender Inequality". In this regard, Amartya Sen said:

"It was more than a century ago, in 1870, that Queen Victoria wrote to Sir Theodore Martin complaining about 'this mad, wicked folly of 'Woman's Rights''. The formidable empress certainly did not herself need any protection that the acknowledgment of women's rights might offer. Even at the age of eighty, in 1899, she could write to AJ Balfour, "We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist." That, however, is not the way most people's lives go - reduced and defeated as they frequently are by adversities. And within each community, nationality and class, the burden of hardship often falls disproportionately on women. The afflicted world in which we live is characterised by deeply unequal sharing of the burden of adversities between women and men...

"When anti-female bias in action (such as sex-specific abortion) reflects the hold of traditional masculinist values from which mothers themselves may not be immune, what is needed is not just freedom of action but also freedom of thought - in women's ability and willingness to question received values. Informed and critical agency is important in combating inequality of every kind. Gender inequality, including its many faces, is no exception."

We too must continue to act as an informed and critical agency to combat the persisting gender inequality in our country, as described by Essop Pahad. To do this successfully, we must constantly challenge the prejudices we carry in our heads, which act as barriers to a speedy advance towards the realisation of the goals of gender equality and the emancipation of women. As long as we allow these prejudices to persist and inform our actions, so long will we not be able truthfully to describe ourselves as revolutionary democrats.

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