In South Africa, we celebrated Women’s Day yesterday, we sent each other messages about the strength of women, we wished other women a happy women’s day, we decorated our messages with flowers. But what did it all mean? Did we stop to have conversations about how gender bias still exists in our homes, in our thoughts and actions? Did we stop to talk about what it truly means to be female in our country and in the world we live in? I’m not sure. Part of me feels like we’ve cheapened Women’s Day somehow, like we’ve missed the plot on what we should (or rather should not) be celebrating.
When I woke up this morning post our public holiday my initial thoughts were that I was grateful for a day off but that I didn’t really understand the what the point of Women’s Day was. Sure I understand the history and the significance of the day in our country and sure I’m moved by the strength and determination of those women who marched all those years ago but if I consider my actions on Women’s Day, I’m really not sure I gave enough thought to where we are as women in our country or even beyond that. Stats SA helped to paint a fairly grim picture this morning as I read about how we’ve achieved gender parity in terms of access to education but that women are still getting left behind in terms of pay, promotions and benefits. I had to stop for minute and breathe deeply before I could accept that one in five women in South Africa have been subjected to physical violence by a partner. I remember attending a Women’s Day event and one of the speakers telling the audience that she had seen first-hand that domestic violence increased when a woman moved up the ranks in her career, threatening the traditional power dynamics that serve a patriarchal home.
So where does that leave us as South Africans? It leaves us applauding and cheering the man who talks of how “women are better/stronger/more intelligent” than men are, all the while knowing that he reigns over a home and a position that patriarchy has prepared him for. Personally, if I never have a conversation about how “women are better” than men again, it would be too soon. That isn’t the point. The point of talking through these issues shouldn’t be some placitude about the power of a woman or how we compare against men. The concepts of “being better than”, to me, just serve the narrative of “women’s work” and “men’s work” instead of challenging the assumptions in the first place and it is immeasurably frustrating and juvenile. We celebrate and cheer, yet we’re unwilling to look deeper, into our own homes where we know that the burden of unpaid work still falls on women, a fact that will continue to stifle women until we are willing to acknowledge it and take steps towards shifting it. We want to claim progress (or maybe just the public holiday) but we don’t genuinely want to have the difficult conversations that will help us move forward. We laugh and celebrate a day off from work, yet women in our communities are being raped, more often by someone close to them and I wonder just what it is that we are celebrating. We read the stats, we are exposed to the reality almost daily and we face this reality with a sort of jaded indifference.
Last week I came across the stat that over 130 million girls were not in school worldwide and I thought of Amartya Sen’s paper, written in 1990 titled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”. My first taste of Sen’s writing moved me because it brought to light the severity of gender bias and unequal access to basic resources. I would read, and reread Sen’s work many times over after that. Sure, this statistic of girls not being in school wasn’t as severe as the mortality of girls in Sen’s paper, but I wondered if my assumption was valid. I wondered if it wasn’t just as severe. I wondered if robbing girls the opportunity to be educated, if that “unfreedom”, was not the same as robbing them of their lives. I think about how, closer to home, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and subsequent careers are still dominated by men, serving to validate the myth that men are simply naturally inclined or better at these subjects than women are, and I wonder about the lost potential. I wonder about the “missing women” in our country, those missing in male dominated industries, those missing a seat at the table where real decisions are made. Those “missing women” who carry an unequal burden in their homes, those “missing women” who have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that a man would.
It’s enough to break your heart. Not just because women should be given the platform, not just because it is “right” to level the access to opportunity, but because it makes sense. It makes sense that we capitalise on the opportunity that an inclusive society can bring. It makes sense that every member of our community has the opportunity to live a life they chose to value. It makes sense that our women can live in a country where they are not afraid, it makes sense that the men in our country respect women enough to also be part of breaking the cycle. It also makes sense that we stop pretending this isn’t an issue, it makes sense that we are part of the solution. If I had one ardent hope on this day post our celebration of Women’s Day, it would be that today, you start a conversation. That you start now. That you look to your friends, you look to yourself and ask how you can be part of the solution. You ask what your ideas are about what it means to be a man or women in today’s world, you ask what messages we give to young boys and girls, you ask how in your homes you chose to serve the gender biases you were raised with. It may not be a solution, but it sure will be a step towards understanding, and in that understanding there might be a hope of knowing what the answer is.