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Opinion Piece by SAHRC Deputy Chair Pregs Govender

On International Rural Women’s Day this week, over 250 rural women from across our country marched to Parliament. Their pamphlets and green t-shirts (over colourful traditional clothes) were imprinted with an image of a joyous woman. Hands encircling the earth, fingertips enfolding Africa, she proclaims:  “Women – guardians of seed, life and earth”.

The women gathered in the mountains of Ceres this week to launch the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA), a self-organised alliance of national rural women’s movements and peasant unions and federations in Southern Africa. They came to the city to honour slave ancestors, to plant trees and demand their rights to land, decent employment, housing, safety, clean water and transport to proper schools for their children. They demanded that companies stop polluting the land, air, water, plant and animal life, with tragic effect on climate change and human beings.

They invited the Human Rights Commission, to share our work on getting government to be accountable to poor communities on water and sanitation. They wanted us to listen to their experience and the obstacles to enjoying their human rights. They gave the Commission a copy of their memorandum to Parliament and submitted written complaints to our legal officers. An Afrikaans speaker from De Doorns, expressedwidespread frustration. “We are tired of marching to Parliament and giving them our memorandums. Why have they not come back to us on our memorandums from our three other marches?”

The women’s memorandum demands the ‘scrapping of the Traditional Courts Bill’. While they were standing outside Parliament, NCOP Justice Committee members met inside Parliament on the Traditional Courts Bill. They decided to send the Bill back to the Provinces. Yet most provincial mandates, including from predominantly rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, reject the Bill. The provincial legislatures have heard what rural women have said. Women want parliamentarians to hear their voices instead of pandering to those they think are most important in the upcoming election.

In the dialogue, women spoke about traditional leaders undermining their rights. A Zulu speaker from KZN asked “who appoints these leaders and gives them so much power over us and our access to land, water, housing…?” In the hall, the women roared that they are powerful but those in positions do not respect their power.

Rural women spend hours collecting water. They see wealthy agri business, mining companies, tourist companies and other big business using, wasting, polluting and even stealing over 80% of South Africa’s water.  In the face of this, they challenge Government’s image of the dripping tap in a poor community. The question is when will Government target behaviour change of the powerfully wealthy?

As the world commemorated Food Day, the women in Ceres celebrated their contribution to food production and demanded food sovereignty.  They questioned economic growth that does not recognise and value their contribution as subsistence farmers. The economists who set government’s budget priorities provide for little, if any state support for their work. Yet they work to provide sufficient nutrition to keep many families and communities alive. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Food recognises that it is small scale farming that will enable food security across the world.

The women spoke of saving and re-using seeds and indigenous herbs and the importance of protecting South Africa’s biodiversity. They rejected the control of South Africa’s food systems by Montsanto, Syngenta and Pioneeer Hi-Bred, three of the world’s largest genetic modification (GM) corporations. Patenting seed demands that farmers buy new seed every year from companies who believe that they can patent life itself. Montsanto claims it controls over 50% of SA’s maize market in the only country that has allowed its staple food to be genetically modified. Wealthy countries and communities buy organic food for themselves and their families. They are guided by studies of GM food on animals that raise worrying results, including damage to internal organs.

Such policy choices raise worrying questions about those who shape government policy in their interests. Many in Government and Parliament talk of women as ‘weak and vulnerable’ and in need of paternal ‘protection’, including from traditional leaders.

Their analysis resonates with Apartheid’s infamous Kwa-Zulu code that reduced African women to ‘minors’ subordinate to men. This dominant paradigm underpins Stats SA’s data on those who continue to carry the violent burden of unemployment and poverty. They remain Black women in SA’s former Apartheid homelands, townships and informal settlements. A Ministry with limited power and resources, with responsibility for everyone but able-bodied men cannot change this reality.

Our Constitution frames women as equal rights-holders. SA’s Parliament must recognise and respect the power of rural women leaders who gathered in the mountains of Ceres. They travelled to the City to try to speak to them and deserve responses from all relevant Ministers.

Pregs Govender is SAHRC Deputy Chairperson. She was one of the speakers at the  RWA meeting in Cape Town.

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