“Wathinta umfazi wathinta imbokodo!” are the famous words that are often bandied about in South Africa's media during women's month every August without fail. The fuss around women's day leaves me and many other women wondering what every other day is for, celebrating men?
Given a past that has been dominated by white supremist patriarchy and apartheid, one of the obvious signs of our country's development is the level of participation women have in society at large, particularly black women. Looking at South Africa, we have a progressive Constitution, an emerging group of empowered young women(from all racial groups), a benevolent ministry dedicated to "the vulnerable groups" but on the other side of the coin, forced marriages of young girls in the Eastern Cape are becoming more prevalent, rape statistics are frightening, young women also bear the brunt of being oomakhwapheni, prey to older, wealthier men in order to help support their poor families and one cannot forget the heinous crime of corrective rape meted on lesbian women.
Such ironies of the existence of women in our country suggests a disconnection when it comes to understanding women empowerment in a developing country. The widening gap between the rich and the poor, rural and urban and the pace of urbanisation further complicates the question of, whose responsibilty is women empowerment? If we focus on the area of education; access to education increased (in numbers) at the advent of democracy, but this has often jeopardized quality education especially in marginal areas where large classes, insufficient resources and lack of management are the norm. Again, the question of access becomes complex for young girls who often have to stay home and away from school to look after younger siblings in child-headed households or work extra hours in the fields. Where a quality education has been made a priority in other developing countries and where the right to equality has been protected, women have been able to take control of their lives and effect change in their communities and the lives of their families.
Having a ministry for rural development and “the vulnerable group” has been government’s recognition at the importance of development in complex communities. However what has not been clear is the agenda of these ministries. What is worrying is the often paternalistic view of government about “helping the masses” and imposing development through once off events of food parcels as opposed to sustainable programmes that face what rural development and empowerment mean for women in these areas. What is often also worrying is the sense of treating people in these communities as guinea pigs for research and project initiatives where academics and researchers go in and out of communities without fulfilling a moral requirement of not simply exploiting individuals for research and leaving the communities as they were. One cannot help but wonder as well what the resuscitation of community courts and chieftainships in rural areas means for women as these are most likely to uphold patriarchy in conservative communities.
The danger of writing about this issue is that as an educated, young woman from the city, I am speaking on behalf of the people in marginal communities. Perhaps this where the problem is: everyone knows what’s best for women in rural areas as though the women in these communities do not have what it takes to take control of their lives and effect change in their lives. But are they given enough space and an opportunity to make their voices heard? What will it really take for us to realise that it takes more than benevolent and well-meaning projects to effect change in poor and marginal communities?