“It’s so unfair — there’s a Women’s Day, so why can’t there be a Men’s Day?” wonder woebegone males countrywide each August. The answer is that every day (including August 9) is in actual fact a man’s day.
Yes, we have a Constitution that enshrines gender equality, bodily integrity and reproductive rights. And, undoubtedly, there are many women playing an active role in public life. But there’s a long, long way to go.
We live in a country where girls are fondled on their way to school. Taxi drivers strip a woman to her underwear for daring to wear a miniskirt. The barbaric practice of virginity testing continues (despite it being illegal to subject girls younger than 16 to this). Sex workers are harassed and persecuted by the police. Women face discrimination in the workplace. And the head of our ruling party purportedly believes that a woman wearing a kanga is an invitation — or, even worse, a justification — to have sex with her.
We live in a country where there are 54 000 reported rapes of women — and countless more face unspeakable abuse.
The advent of our democracy has done little to improve the lot of women. Why? Because misogyny and patriarchy are ingrained cultural norms among men — both black and white. It is accepted, even if only implicitly, that women are second-class citizens, subservient to and owned by their masters — men.
We have a crisis of values in which men are brought up to believe they are entitled to treat women as objects to abuse, hurt, exploit, rape, harass, control and patronise. Young boys growing up seeing their mothers being bashed about know no better. And so this vicious cycle of oppression continues.
But can men alone shoulder responsibility for this parlous state of affairs? It is important to bear in mind the role that some (and not all) women play in perpetuating patriarchy. They do this in passively accepting their fate, and in reinforcing the misogynistic worldview espoused by their husbands, raising chauvinists as a result of this.
Senior women members of the ANC — especially those in the Cabinet — have failed utterly to take action against the rampant domestic abuse women face. They have been bought — co-opted into power, perks and patronage. Their loyalty to a patriarchal regime indifferent to the suffering of women has thus far ensured that South Africa’s women remain trapped in their suffering.
Most of these senior party women have remained silent over the HIV/Aids pandemic — of which women bear the brunt. They have been toeing a line that has led to countless deaths and unnecessary infections — the latter, especially, being a direct result of the government’s recalcitrance over the implementation of programmes for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The most notable exception, our erstwhile deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, was fired for daring to show integrity and initiative in her response to the crisis.
There are signs of hope. We have a vibrant civil society — and its successes in challenging the Mbeki government’s Aids denialism has proven that through strength, courage and perseverance, things can change.
The media can also make a huge difference in dismantling the notions and representations of patriarchal society and the tyrannical, dehumanising symptoms that stem from it. Talk Radio 702’s inspirational Redi Direko spearheaded a protest march to the Noord Street taxi rank (where the miniskirt incident occurred), accompanied by hundreds of women voicing their opposition against misogynist thugs.
The struggle to achieve nonsexism is not over. Liberation and true gender equality is an elusive dream for many millions of South African women and still needs to be fought for — and won. The status quo of the implicit oppression of women will continue unless women — and enlightened men — actively challenge sexism (and the patriarchal systems that underscore it) in all its manifestations.