With the 11th AWID Forum: The Power of Movements having just been held in Cape Town from 14-17th November 2008, AWID covers a new South African women’s initiative which seeks to claim and reclaim women’s place and space in the economic, social, cultural and political history of the country. By Lindiwe Bardill.
“Women’s Place is everywhere!” stated the South African Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Nozizwe Madlala Routledge at the opening of a one-day consultative meeting on November 27th to discuss the new initiative, ‘Women’s Place’. Part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, ‘Women’s Place’ took place in Parliament and brought together a range of organizations from parliament and the legislature, government and civil society to trade unions, academia and the corporate sector. The initiative aims to ‘bring to life the aspirations, voices, talents, achievements and stories of the past, present and future’ with a focus on: women through the ages, women and slavery, women in arts and culture, women as wives, mothers, caregivers, women in South African history, conflict, resistance and advocacy and women under apartheid.
Introducing a ‘Women’s Place’
Opening the meeting, Commissioner of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), Yvette Abrahams. expressed her sense of overwhelming joy that the event should held in the Parliamentary chambers, a space traditionally occupied by white men. Today, the chairs were taken up by women; young and old, coloured, black and white, South African, and women from Europe, the United States, and throughout the African continent. Conceived as a free and safe space for women, the Women’s Place initiative aims to document the herstories of South African women who have been excluded from the history of the country, provide a platform for women to be acknowledged and honoured for their roles, restore the dignity of women, particularly black women, and reflect a women-centred history of South African Women, present realities and future opportunities.
Where is Women’s Place? It is everywhere. From our homes to our workplaces, and our countries to our continent. Despite concerns that the event would be “just another launch,” the presence of women inside the parliamentary chambers was testament to the achievements of the South African women’s movement. “Leadership”, said the Deputy Speaker, is what is needed to take our ideas forward and turn them into concrete actions. It is what will make the difference between rhetoric and lasting change.”
Women, Politics and Power
One of a number of small group discussions, the participants addressing women, politics and power voiced their many experiences of and concerns with the growing distance between women on the ground and women in positions of power. Women parliamentarians present at the meeting shared stories of the power struggles they have to deal with on a day to day basis. Stories of lack of support and resources highlighted that although some South African women have gained access to positions of power, they are not always able to use them to advance women’s rights.
Another challenge identified was the confidence of women to claim public spaces, to access these spaces, and once they have done so, to speak in public. One participant directly posed the question to the Deputy Speaker, “If women in positions of power can’t speak, how can you expect that from us?”
Safety was another key theme of the day’s discussions. In the context of the current crises in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur, participants at the meeting committed to to form real solidarity with women from these countries who now live and work in South Africa as well as those who survive in contexts of crisis in finances, food, and security.
Moving Forward To address the complex challenges facing African women, there is a crucial need for more information and resources to be made available to women in parliament as well as grassroots women’s organisations, for greater access to and space in the media for women, and feminist women in particular to have their lives, work and stories documented and represented, and greater investment in arts and culture.
Another crucial next step is to draw on theory, and feminist theory in particular. Feminism, the Deputy Speaker urged, is a tool to understand the deeply complex patriarchal system in which we are all embedded. It is this system that has women pull each other down, that has our voices escape the media, and our bodies continually marginalized.
A powerful example of how the system operates to continually oppress women was given by an activist working with the young women’s project of the New Women’s Movement. The young women she works with living in the townships are pulled down by their communities and actively discouraged from taking up space in the public world, whether in business, economics, the arts or politics. The prevalence of HIV and AIDS, violence and drug use in the townships also constantly threaten the lives of these young women.
A student from Stellenbosch University added that if South African women want to develop a true ‘Women’s Place’, younger women need mentoring from older activists. However, she said, “These older activists are usually so busy juggling multiple responsibilities that they don’t have the time to lead younger women as they emerge into activism”. With agreements made on a number of concrete steps forward and a second, follow-up consultative meeting scheduled for early next year, step by step, the South African women’s movement is redefining the meaning of ‘Women’s Place”.
 For more information on the South African Deputy Speaker and South African Parliament, view http://www.parliament.gov.za/live/content.php?Item_ID=659
 For more information go tohttp://www.parliament.gov.za/live/content.php?Item_ID=685
 The New Women's Movement is a membership-based organisation consisting of poor, unemployed women who have joined together to lobby government around the Child Support Grant. See http://www.aidc.org.za/?q=Partners