The Women’s Legal Centre
International Women’s Day is commemorated annually on 8 March. In South Africa, we honour the bravery showed by womxn on 9 August 1956 when they took to the streets in protest over the apartheid system. 20 000 womxn came together on that day to make their voices heard. They were the leaders that their generation had been waiting for.
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the lives of too many South Africans. The infection rate continues to grow daily, although in recent days at a lower rate. Womxn, however, continue to be more disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in terms of the rates of infection where stats show that far more womxn are being infected than men.
Womxn continue to be on the frontline of fighting the virus in our healthcare system. Here too many health care institutions have failed to provide safe and secure work environments.
Throughout the state of national disaster, womxn have been ensuring that our agriculture sector continues to produce the food that makes its way onto our tables.
Many have done so in working conditions where their health and safety have not been prioritised. Some womxn, have not had their work deemed important enough by their employers to apply for the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme grant, and there are simply those who work in domestic service or on our streets and brothels who continue to have their labour disregarded and even criminalised.
This Women’s Day let us call for recognition of all womxn’s work and the contribution that they make to our economy, but also within our homes and communities. It goes without saying that womxn’s work is real work.
Women’s Day requires that we recognise the failure of the state in making adequate provision for a basic income grant and putting in place access to sufficient social protection floors in general. This collective failure led to too many people experiencing extreme poverty and hunger during this time.
Womxn are the face of poverty in our society as they struggle to provide for their families, but also as many rallied in service to their impoverished communities. We recognise the many womxn who used their hard-earned money to subsidise state obligations and fed their extended families, neighbours, and communities. We continue to see long queues of children every day in our country lining up at informal community feeding schemes while the state fails to introduce a plan to ensure access to basic nutrition for children.
Many of these womxn hosted soup kitchens from their homes and faced harassment by the police with some being arrested and others fined. The impact of Covid-19 and the measures taken will continue to affect these communities in months to come. The womxn who have so bravely stepped forward to provide for their communities are deserving of acknowledgement and recognition for their feminist leadership.
Womxn and allies continue to strive towards giving life to the feminist realities of empowerment and leadership that they want to see. They have been at the forefront of challenging corruption in our country and exposing the genuine impact that it has on womxn’s ability to work in safe and protected working environments.
They continue to speak up about the way their communities’ natural resources are being exploited by private interest in collaboration with our very own government. They continue to make their voices heard as they loudly roar in mourning and grief at the death of too many of their loved ones lost to the extractive industries every year. Speaking truth to power is the very essence of feminist leadership on display in our country by its womxn every day.
Womxn have met the challenge head on to manage working from home while at the same time providing care and education for their children. The burden of unpaid care work has weighed heavy on the shoulders of womxn in our country over the past months.
None have been more proactive than our grandmothers who intergenerationally have cared for and nurtured the children of their children. Covid-19 has added to their vulnerability as they face a higher risk of complication and death. They have continued to open their homes and their hearts to provide care and support to their communities. We are because of them.
When our government announced the premature opening of schools. The womxn who teach the children of our nation stepped forward and cleaned offices, classrooms and toilets to make sure that learning conditions were optimal for the return of learners. They did this because their government had failed to ensure proper provision for sanitation, sterilisation and PPE distribution at schools. They risk infection every day to ensure that our children’s constitutional rights are realised by bravely stepping into the gap left by government. We celebrate their dedication.
Patriarchy has deep roots in South African society. The number of womxn experiencing violence at the hands of intimate partners and total strangers alike continues to grow each year. Womxn’s bodies have continued to be objectified as an outlet for men’s anger and beyond. Toxic masculinity is a reality that every womxn in our country faces whether she leaves her house or enters her home. These are not “other” men, but our fathers, brothers, cousins and friends. They also sit in our legislatures and government departments.
Womxn are the ones who have created shelters and provided safety for each other at times when care and protection are needed. Too many do so without any recognition, compensation and with little to no support from government. A government who continues to pay lip service to their commitment to ensuring safety and security for womxn, but without any serious financial commitment to address the problem.
Counselling services, shelter, legal support and representation of survivors of violence are being paid for daily by womxn in our country. The State’s commitment is being realised by ordinary womxn showing feminist leadership.
When the President announced a national state of disaster in March that saw our country go into lockdown the womxn in our communities heard a call to action. From womxn working on farms to those standing behind the cash register at our local stores – womxn continued to keep the country moving forward. They have stood in long queues weathering the elements to get into unsafe taxi’s in order to go to work.
As corrupt dealings were being hatched behind closed doors in boardrooms and ministers and officials were floating regulations it was womxn who stepped forward and led from the front. As the prices of basic food items and protective equipment were being inflated in favour of capitalist interests and the size of family food baskets shrank – womxn bore the brunt of the burden of care.
Let us remember as history unfolds that the womxn of 2020 stand on the shoulders of those who came so bravely in 1956 to the Union Buildings to demand change. Let history recall the resilience of the womxn who cooked through the night to feed the many who queued outside of her home through a pandemic. Let history celebrate and acknowledge the sex workers who worked tirelessly to educate her community about the health implications of Covid-19, and let history celebrate the thousands of community health care workers who knocked on doors, experienced abuse and prejudice as they assisted in the screening and tracing of our communities.
The womxn of 2020 did not wait for a government to lead – they walked past a failing state with their heads held high and led our country while creating the feminist reality of the future.
* The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) is a non-profit law centre that seeks to achieve equality for women through impact based litigation, the provision of free legal advice, legal support to advocacy campaigns and training.