The 9th August is designated ‘Women’s Day’ in South Africa. Even more significantly, for several years now, the entire month of August has been deemed ‘Women’s Month’. There’s a powerful reason why the holiday came about. It commemorates the march that took place in 1956 when about 20 000 women took to the streets of Pretoria to protest the special identification documents (the ‘pass’) that all black South Africans were forced to carry. It was an astounding demonstration of the power of women to stand-up against injustice. The group of women comprised all race groups – they were mothers, wives, sisters and daughters – joined in a show of peaceful protest, of female solidarity and inner fortitude against the tyranny of apartheid. It was inspiring and something to which we have been paying homage since 1994. As the women sang on that day: ‘Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock’.
Where are we today?
The good news is that South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world, and the ruling party seems serious about creating equality of the genders. As a result, according to the Global Gender Gap, we rank 7th in the world with respect to women’s representation in the public sector, which is not a bad achievement. This is where the good news ends. When it comes to education, we rank at 87th position; with regard to health and survival, we drop to 103rd place.
Over and above this comes the really bad news, which is part of the reason that an entire month has been introduced to put as much emphasis as possible on considering and addressing the plight of women. South Africa has almost the worst rape statistics in the world. Here is the chilling breakdown.
- An estimated 500,000 rape cases take place in the country every year.
- In 2000, the United Nations Office on Crimes and Drugs ranked South Africa first for rapes per capita. Of the 4 000 women questioned in Johannesburg, 1 in 3 had been raped.
- There are conflicting stats as to whether a woman is raped every 26 or 36 seconds, but either way it’s an appalling situation.
- More than 25% of a sample of 1,738 South African men from the Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces admitted to raping someone when anonymously questioned; of these, nearly half said they had raped more than one person, according to a non-peer reviewed policy brief issued by the Medical Research Council (MRC).
- Nearly three out of four men who admitted rape stated they had first forced a woman or girl into sex before the age of 20, and nearly one in ten admitted to doing so before the age of 10.
- It is estimated that over 50% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported.
- It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.
- In 1997, violence against women was added as one of the priority crimes under the National Crime Prevention Strategy; nevertheless, the rates of reported rape, sexual abuse of children and domestic violence continue to rise.
The last statement is of crucial importance – despite all the statistics and awareness, violence against women seems to be on the increase. Hence a month whereby we are to focus our attention on the serious work that still needs to be done, and the education of both men and women as to the behaviours that need to be modified and the cultural practices that need to be abandoned.
What actually happens though?
In many corporate circles Women’s Day seems to have become a glorified Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. I heard a presenter on a radio station saying that while she appreciated the rose from a co-worker and the giveaways of magazines etc., what she really wanted was a world where her daughter could grow up without fear, have access to all levels of education and be able to translate that education into a meaningful career at the highest level that she was qualified, able and willing to fulfil. In some ways we seem to have completely missed the boat as to the importance of the day and how it should be celebrated. For many companies, Women’s Day has become translated into nothing more than a raucous ‘knees-up’ for women.
A case in point is the ‘celebration’ I have just attended. The venue was packed with hundreds of excited women all dressed for the occasion in matching outfits to denote their teams. Part of the function included a well-run and fun quiz, which was enjoyable, although it had nothing to do with the station of women or the contribution we’ve made. There was also good music and entertainment, but then the games started, and my sense of humour departed. We had two male compères who, to give them their due, read the crowd well, given that they whooped and yelled and applauded every new task. And what did these games include? The first one was a treasure hunt and a few women were dispatched to find a list of items. These included a condom, a tampon, a belly-ring and a G-string amongst many others. One of the contestants brought up a woman who was wearing a G-string and had a belly ring. In order for the items to be accepted, she was required to take off her clothes to show the evidence. A little later this was followed by a group of women who needed to open condoms (‘no teeth allowed’ they were admonished) and then to blow them up until they popped. The bigger the condoms grew, the more the audience screamed. The last game involved 4 women who were asked to bring their best friends up on the stage with them. They were then told that they had one minute in which they were to change clothes and wear each other’s outfits – the lights would be dimmed during this time. And again, the crowd went wild.
As I left the event, I couldn’t help thinking how we have lost the entire point of why Women’s Day and Women’s Month are in place. For a country with such appalling sexual violence, how is this improved by blowing up condoms and demonstrating G-strings? When you consider that the United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day 2014 is ‘Equality for Women is Progress for All’, how have we moved forward by stripping down and changing clothes? In President Obama’s acknowledgement of International Women’s Day, he tweeted: ‘We must carry forward the work of the women who came before us and ensure our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements and no remaining ceilings to shatter’. Lofty ideals, and indeed worthy of a day of special observation. In no way did what I experienced, along with the stories of others at many more similar corporate events, bear any resemblance to enhancing respect and esteem for women, for their contribution to society, for all their accomplishments and discoveries, and for the enormously important roles that we are still going to need to play in the future.
I’m sure there are many readers who are disappointed at the ‘Bah, humbug!’ tone, and might be thinking that there is nothing wrong with a little fun and laughter. I have nothing against women dressing up and having a party, even with all the sexist games (as long as they leave me out of them!), but this should be confined to bachelorette type gatherings; I definitely don’t think it’s appropriate for recognising something as important as ‘Women’s Day’. Even though significant gains have been made during the 20th Century, the work of equality is far from over. It seems clear that the 21st Century is going to be defined by women more than any other Century and that it’s during this time that we are going to achieve true equality – something that hasn’t yet happened in human history. Women are starting to move into executive positions in both the private and public sectors in ever-increasing numbers, with many countries introducing targets to enforce this process. And women are ready for this to happen – they represent the majority of qualified talent in the world and control 80% of consumer spending. Women have been shown to improve all aspects of corporate governance and to improve profits when they are represented at top management levels. More importantly, as women take their rightful place in society, they will start to transform many outdated practices, and the sexual violence and discrimination that we’re currently subjected to is going to be drastically curtailed. Women are also ‘greener’ than men and will have a significant impact on saving the planet. In addition, women have been shown to be the chief agents in tackling and reducing poverty worldwide. Ultimately, I believe that women’s full participation in society will even bring about an eventual abolition of war as a means to settle disputes, as stated in a recent quotation I read: “So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease; for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it.”
This is a vital role and ‘Women’s Day’ is the time to re-energise women and remind them of the victories already won. Our role in shaping our civilization is crucial, and our input into society often has the effect of ennobling, enriching and elevating behaviour. Introducing feminine qualities to counter-balance the current male domination is a vital component of future success in our communities and workplaces and there’s a long way to go to see that balance in place – particularly in business circles. We need to remember that women still represent only 5% of CEO posts, hold less than 17% of director positions and make up less than 15% of executive management, and we are still not paid equally to our male counterparts. We are all striving for our voices to be heard and for our opinions to be valued, but how do we achieve this when we allow the very day provided to honour this to devolve into sexual stereotyping? How do we expect men to take us seriously when we allow ourselves to be demeaned? More importantly, how proud would those brave women who went before us feel about the way in which we acknowledge their sacrifices?
I’m not suggesting that Women’s Day should be celebrated solely in a somber atmosphere and with a minute of silence. Celebrating our progress can be presented along with fun, and the vibe at the function I attended was great – after all, it’s impossible to sit still through Blurred Lines and Happy. It would have been a perfect time to introduce some of the more serious aspects of the significance of Women’s Day, and somehow this would have been so much more appropriate than the ‘frat-boy’ type humour that ensued.
Thinking back to how I felt when leaving this ‘celebration of women’ and ‘appreciation for our equality’, it occurred to me that I would far prefer for there to be no Women’s Day rather than to be presented with a patriarchal pat on the head which diminishes the value of our contribution and simply highlights how easily pleased we are with a few hours off work, some ribald humour and a bunch of flowers. Happy Women’s Day indeed.
“The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is essential to human progress and the transformation of society. Inequality retards not only the advancement of women but the progress of civilization itself. The persistent denial of equality to one-half of the world’s population is an affront to human dignity.”