This is the Sunday Independent opinion column from 4 August 2013
It is time men step up and take the lead to effect change in the way society regards women, writes Thabo Makgoba.
Women hold up half the sky, says an old Chinese proverb. It reminds us, as Women’s Month begins, that women and men are equal partners in shouldering life’s responsibilities.
In fact, in the daily business of keeping homes and societies running smoothly, I suspect women bear more than their fair share of the burden. It’s a burden borne in far too many ways. Top of the list are inexcusable levels of sexual violence and abuse. The Modimolle case is the tip of the iceberg in a nation with close to three women murdered daily, mostly by their intimate partners.
At the same time, exploitative and discriminatory attitudes and practices regularly surface across public life. Other burdens range from sexual objectification to misogynist so-called humour; and from coercive relationships, in which women are viewed as little more than property, to the impossible images of so-called beauty that are all around us.
Even in stable homes, women often bear a disproportionate share of responsibility. For much of my own childhood, my mother raised us single-handedly as my father periodically absented himself. Today, too many women bring up children with little support. In households where both parents work, mums generally do far more domestic chores than dads.
Last month, on Madiba’s birthday, the call went out for every day to be Mandela Day; every day we should uphold, and work to realise, his vision for a united, non-racial, democratic society, free from poverty. Every day should also be Women’s Day, with women and girls afforded true equality, dignity, and respect in every area of our nation’s life. It will not do to prioritise one day or one month, then fall back into unreconstructed attitudes or complacent acceptance that, awful though it is, gender inequality is something we have to live with.
Churches, mosques and other faiths have to watch their step. Too often we have allowed our scriptures to be interpreted, and our traditions to develop, in ways that have reinforced patriarchal and discriminatory views. Even if the religious sector is finally getting its act together, as a society we have a long way to go. We need fundamental changes in attitudes, and in the narratives we tell ourselves – and feed ourselves through the media, from news stories to soapies – about how men and women, girls and boys, relate to one another.
We have to oppose the bad and encourage the good. We have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
All of us can do it. Yes, we need leaders to give a lead and speak out, but we cannot wait for them, for they often fail (as in their silence when a senior government envoy was recently compared to “a stupid, ignorant, street woman” – in other words, a prostitute – by a foreign leader). If we all take matters into our own hands, we will achieve far more. I particularly encourage men to step up and take the lead, for example, in the effective initiative against domestic violence, launched in India, called “ring the bell”.
Simply put, if you or I hear a disturbance at our neighbour’s place, we should not be afraid to ring their bell, knock on their door or phone them. This does two things. First, it interrupts the violence that is taking place. Second, it lets the perpetrator know that the community is watching – and particularly that other men are aware of what is going on. For we know that men listen to other men. Men care about their reputation with other men. And ringing the bell gets the message across that men who are violent are not socially acceptable.
This campaign is being led in South Africa by the Sonke Gender Justice Network. It works especially to encourage men and boys to take a stand and make a difference in promoting equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.
Men must also speak up and call a halt to inappropriate language to, or about, women among their friends – even in jest. Subjects such as so-called corrective rape are never a laughing matter, as two FHM journalists recently learnt the hard way.
We must also help men who have messed up in the past to find a better way forward. As I write, the Zwelinzima Vavi saga is still unfolding, and the facts remain unclear. But at least he has had the courage to admit that an adulterous affair was wrong, and to apologise. Now the rape accusation has been dropped, he should drop his counter-charge.
In many of our cultures, where the sanctity of marriage has been abused, it may be appropriate for some restitution to be paid – but all this should be worked out through the proper channels, involving the wider families, as part of broader processes of restorative justice which pursue healing within the communities concerned. And where public figures are concerned, and betrayal of public trust is involved, there should also be genuine apology and contrition to the nation.
And, of course, where there has been rape, assault, sexual coercion or abuse of any sort, justice must be done, including through the courts.
Yet there is also much to celebrate this month. Some women don’t merely hold up half the sky – for them it seems that the sky is the limit. Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma has made history as the first woman chairperson of the AU. This month, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka will take over leadership of UN Women, the three-year-old “new girl” among international agencies. In a world where there are many new challenges, from trafficking to online abuse, alongside older problems ranging from child brides to rape as a weapon of war, “we have to become smarter about how we fight these women’s issues”, she said in a recent interview. We wish her well as she takes on these new responsibilities.
I’d also like to take my hat off to Graça Machel, who so graciously, so modestly, and yet with such courage and strength of character, has been steadfastly at Madiba’s side these weeks, tending to his needs and the needs of a watching, waiting, nation.
Alongside these, we have many other women leaders and achievers taking over the baton from past generations – in politics, business, media, academia and every walk of life. We salute each one, and salute all those other strong women who, in just the ordinary everyday business of life, in and beyond the home, shoulder their responsibilities and do a good job. May these be the true role models for future generations of girls, as we celebrate the women of South Africa and work hard to create a today and tomorrow where they all can flourish, free from fear, and fulfil their true potential.