Feminist Dialogue: Approaching 20 years of democracy Women, leadership and transformation(PHOTO) From left to right: Councillor Janine Hicks (Commission for Gender Equality and Chair of Agenda Feminist Media), Public Prosecutor Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who presented  the key-note address at the Feminist Dialogue and  Deputy Executive Director of the Human and Social Development at the HSRC and Agenda Editorial Advisory Group member, Prof Vasu Reddy.

 

Women are shapers of democracy   

“Women are shapers and concretisers of our democracy” Advocate Thuli Madonsela told women and men gender activists gathered at the Agenda/HSRC Feminist Dialogue on 6th June. Opening the panel discussion on women in leadership and 20 years of democracy, Madonsela said, women’s exercise of leadership in communities and in households is not always recognised. She said that in the last 19 years progress has been made by women who have taken on ministries which cover the whole sphere of national responsibility – from mining to defence to health and to justice. The work on ensuring that there is equal representation of women and men in leadership must be ongoing. She said she believed that now there is an important priority to situate where women are in relation to poverty and in the private sphere which has not seen such transformation occur. Women still occupy the most precarious jobs as domestic workers, as informal or casual workers and are over-represented among the unemployed. “There is a duty for us to close the gap”, she said.

Joy-Ann Watson (senior researcher, Parliament RSA), who facilitated the panel discussion, said the Feminist Dialogue intended to engage with what the major obstacles are for women who enter and engage previously male-dominated terrains in public office and what interventions are required to address the slow pace of change in the workplace for women raised in the recently released Employment Equity Commission report. A further question was what the transformative outcome of women’s representation in leadership was and how has it contributed to meeting feminist goals for greater social and gender equality and justice for the most vulnerable. Lastly, the Dialogue would engage the problem of how we ensure women in leadership remain connected and accountable and how women can build a women’s movement that integrates top down and grassroots mobilisation to advance an agenda for gender equality.

Prof Jane Rarieya (HSRC) speaking on the subject of “Women’s representation in leadership: Building parity and enabling environments”, said that women have fared well in representation in government rated against other countries, however, we have not fared very well in labour participation or labour market terms where women are still poorly represented in leadership. Rarieya pointed to the gap in the skills that men and women hold for leadership, and that often women do not hold the qualifications for the majority of top positions.that men continue to dominate. She said that women’s path to leadership is obstructed by several barriers, including internalisation of gender stereotypes, double standards that are applied to women and men who hold leadership positions, and the lack of aspirations to become leaders by young women. Interventions are needed to transform this situation she said, include, education, gender equity practices, support for maternity leave and family policies, and better ways for women manage their household responsibilities with work demands. (see presentation attached).

Prof Amanda Gouws (University of Stellenbosch, Commission for Gender Equality) speaking on “What constitutes a feminist approach” said that with nearly 50% women in parliament, the thinking is often that gender parity has been achieved in government. She said that having increased women’s representation in parliament does not necessarily translate into substantive equality for women, nor does it imply feminist transformational leadership or a change for women’s lives on the ground. We need to connect “presence to power” she stated, and also to see critical acts by women and the defining of a constituency of women. She said what feminist leadership implies activism and seeks to make a difference and is at the heart of changing presence into power for women. Gouws said that feminist leadership implies a feminist praxis, and that feminist theoretical beliefs need to be turned into feminist activism around the women’s issues that need to be addressed in order to create gender equality. She did not believe that a critical mass of women necessarily results in gender equality, rather that “critical individuals” can ultimately make the difference by putting women’s issues on the political agenda and championing those issues. Importantly, she said that feminist leaders will be accountable to a constituency of women and in turn will need the support of women’s organisations in civil society to form solidarity around women’s issues. Currently she said the problem of a binary between universal women’s rights and traditional or customary rights undermines the exercise of women’s equal rights, which requires women speak out and mobilise.

The third speaker in the panel, Fatima Shabodien (ActionAID South Africa) spoke to “Supporting and holding women leaders to account: Linkages with issues and activism from below”. Shabodien said that women need to resist patriarchal power, and the quota system had been important in this sense. However, she agreed with Gouws that representation must be connected to effective representation of women in organisations on the ground, specifically mass movements of working class women. She said that we have not seen a mass organisation of black working-class women with a strong critical mass, rather small collectives of women and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have a limited power base. She said that there is a growing women’s movement among women’s rural and land movements and pointed to the need to engage working-class structures such as COSATU which do not have an agenda on women, and the ANC Women’s League which has a large working-class membership. Shabodien said that the intersection of issues affecting organised women and women in leadership is complex, not least because of the dominance of neo-liberalism and deregulation which prioritises markets and not people. Women on the ground and in Parliament need stronger areas of collaboration and connection so that power is linked with presence to build stronger leadership on the ground and for women in leadership in government.

A lively discussion followed among the participants in the three venues in Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town, Agenda Chair Janine Hicks and Editorial Advisory Board member and Deputy Executive Director of the Human and Social Development Programme at the HSRC, Prof Vasu Reddy emphasised the importance of protecting and defending the democratic constitution which had been fought for and of engagement by feminists on the critical issues that affect us in preventing the rollback or rights, particularly for the most vulnerable groups of women.

A full report on the Feminist Dialogue will be published in Agenda and on the website.