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A concrete commitment to women’s rights

01 August 2015

By Deputy Chairperson Pregs Govender, Commissioner responsible for Basic Services & Health Care

The song of women on the march in 1956, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo, honours the love that ensures the survival of millions of families and communities.

One of the meanings of imbokodo is “grinding stone”, referring to the work countless women do to produce food. In contrast to the production of weapons, creating food to nourish and sustain life is not counted in the gross domestic product, the measurement of economic growth.

It is no accident that 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, an unequal and unjust spatial geography condemns many to lives of poverty, violence and inequality.

South Africa’s apartheid, capitalist and patriarchal state relegated people who were black, female or poor to homelands, townships and informal settlements. Democracy’s unconscious choices (the lack of consciousness that Steve Biko tried to transform) have not radically altered apartheid’s conscious policy choices.

Women are patronisingly labelled as “vulnerable” – objects of charity, not bearers of rights. This label ignores the macroeconomic choices that create unemployment and precarious employment, diminish women’s economic power and deepen vulnerability to rights violations, including gender-based violence.

Unconsciousness blinds reporters, researchers and government officials to the contributions women make or the peaceful protests they stage when all their efforts to secure clean water, decent toilets, housing or healthcare receive no response.

Institutional culture and priorities shaped over centuries alienate the newly ascended from the people they are elected by or appointed to serve. An example is the city bureaucrat, a young black man who explained that the reason there were no lights in a township’s public toilet that had no windows was because the large lights in the distance provide “ambient lighting”.

In one of photographer Zanele Muholi’s exhibitions, there are photographs of women killed because they were lesbian – and they are all located in areas of poverty. Unlike Muholi, the bureaucrat is trained to fragment human life, so he does not connect the dots.

For centuries, only those who were white, wealthy and male were regarded as full human beings with lives of value.

South Africa’s Constitution promised to create a society that would “address past injustices” and “free the potential of each person”. Instead, inequality has deepened. While 64% of children live in poverty and one in four South Africans go hungry, the CEO of SABMiller, Alan Clark, earns more than R122 million a year and Nicandro Durante of British American Tobacco earns more than R118 million a year.

From the south, a handful of African, Asian and South American people have emerged as billionaires, absorbed into and perpetuating the old patriarchal order.

In this order, human rights such as food, water, health and education are commodities to be traded for maximum profit. The global food crisis was sparked by speculation on food by billionaires who blithely ignore the resulting hunger, malnutrition and death.

The focus by the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on the gendered impact of the food system builds on lessons from its water and sanitation campaign. The campaign asserted the indivisibility of all rights.

It linked individual violations to the systemic problem and identified structural causes such as the fact that 95% of rural water is owned by less than 2% of the people (those who own mines, agribusinesses and other corporations).

In public hearings held countrywide, government was invited to listen to people worst affected before being held accountable for how it would address the lack of rights. The Public Protector was invited to take complaints of corruption.

The right to dignity underpins every constitutional right. Yet many policy makers and practitioners seem unaware that human rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent.

On an SAHRC site inspection of township toilets, a young woman explained that, to use the toilet, she had to cross a busy road, park her wheelchair at the door and crawl into it. Government could have prevented her daily humiliation and dehumanisation by ensuring that the business contracted to build the toilet understood and upheld human rights.

Last week, the SAHRC engaged a wide cross-section of organisations, including those that represent women who are small farmers, farm workers and traders, who came together with trade unionists and other civil society organisations that work for peace, equality and social justice to scrutinise the gendered impact of the food system.

From seed to plate, gender-blind policies that reinforce gender stereotypes while undermining the female contribution were rigorously interrogated.

The estimated 100 delegates agreed to creatively shape an advocacy campaign to involve and mobilise others in their sectors. When corporations corrupt or collude with many elected representatives to advance their interests, a human rights campaign that strengthens solidarity is essential to secure political will.

Trade decisions that vest the ownership of seed, including that of South Africa’s staple food, in global corporations such as Monsanto were sold on the myth that genetically modified (GM) seed would address hunger. Instead, GM seed has contributed to rising food costs and increased hunger. Myths can and must be busted.

The institutionalised violence of the system that brutalises society is directly linked to the prevalence of gender-based violence. The wisdom of those gathered at the round table will shape the final report that will be sent to relevant Cabinet ministers.

The campaign aims to secure a recommitment from government to ensure that the country’s budget (from macroeconomic choices to choices on income and expenditure) is gender responsive.

Such commitment between Women’s Day and the 16 days of activism campaign against gender-based violence will represent a concrete commitment to women’s rights and will be more valuable than any amount of rhetoric.

A UN report – Progress of the World’s Women: Transforming Economies, Realising Rights – illustrates that this is a global problem. The corporate push for governments to deregulate leaves workers worldwide vulnerable to terrible working conditions and slave wages.

This campaign is a call to reassert the creative revolutionary potential of solidarity, expressed in the clothing union song Bread and Roses: “We come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead; Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread; Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew. Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”

» Govender is the SAHRC deputy chair. This Opinion Piece appeared in the City Press Newspaper of 09 August 2015.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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