Op-eds

Women’s Day: no cause to celebrate

  • BonitaMeyersfeld2 WHITE
In my husband’s family, everything is celebrated: a marginal increase in school grades; a lucrative month in the family business; a friend’s successful sporting accomplishment; even the pet’s birthday. Any of these, and more, trigger the champagne and dinner reservations.
by PROFESSOR BONITA MEYERSFELD | Aug 06, 2020

There are good reasons for this quickness to celebrate. My mother-in-law took ill after she gave birth to her son, and has experienced a lifetime of increasingly poor health. Often, she wasn’t sure that she would make another birthday. So you can see that the family understood (and understands) the importance of celebrating all positive moments when they occur.

Societies around the world rush to celebrations for all manner of reasons. We celebrate mothers on Mother’s Day; fathers on Father’s Day; the earth on Earth Day; Nelson Mandela on Mandela Day. We have an array of religious celebrations, traditional celebrations, and inter-personal celebrations.

And then we have National Women’s Day. Women’s Day of course commemorates the anniversary of the great women’s march of 9 August 1956, where about 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the carrying of pass books.

For me, however, Women’s Day evokes a sense of disquiet. This is so for several reasons. The first is because that which we have to celebrate is overshadowed by that which we have to mourn. The second is because the notion of a celebration for someone implies solidarity and recognition, and that is absent from women’s experience in South Africa. The third is because it’s superficial, and in the context of the lifetime of fear that so many women experience, superficial responses are dangerous.

We know the statistics. One in three women in South Africa has or will experience violence in her lifetime because she is a woman. She will be hit, hurt, raped, abused, mutilated, murdered, imprisoned, and harassed because she is a woman.

She will be humiliated for her sexuality and belittled because of her gender. Half of the women in the workplace will be sexually harassed, and only a fraction of them will trust the workplace to help them. Most of them will resign.

She will earn 18% less than men for doing the same work with the same qualifications. She will be confused with a personal assistant when she is in fact the chief executive.

She will be cat-called in the streets, and propositioned in taxis. She will be offered safety in mines underground in exchange for sex. She will have to flee an abusive relationship and choose indigency over violence. She will be left without any income when her husband dies because her customary marriage was never legally recognised.

And she will come to your gate during lockdown and ask for food because even though she has nothing, she is still the person who must educate and feed her children – and after her 13-year-old is raped by a neighbour – and her grandchild.

She will stop her maths degree at university because she is afraid of the all-male maths faculty. She will be told it’s her fault when she is raped at school by a teacher. And if she is one of the 6% of rape victims who report rape to the police, there will be a roughly 8% chance that the case will go to court. And of those cases, very few will result in punishment of the rapist.

When women at universities bewail the failure of the university to stop sexual harassment and rape on campus, they will be excluded from that university for life.

When she has a great business idea, the bank will be more likely to advance her credit if she is a man, even though she is the one who balances the monthly household budget. She will be an emancipated, accomplished woman in the workplace who is still the parent responsible for her children’s well-being, and will still fear getting into an uber or taxi to get home at night.

And if you think any of these scenarios is hyperbole, I assure you that 90% of women reading this article will relate to one of these experiences.

So do we really have that much to celebrate? We have the highest rates of rape in the world, domestic violence occurs in every part of our society – not least of all in the Jewish community – and the level of femicide means that women really must fear for their lives, every day.

This brings me to the second source of my concern about Women’s Day. That’s the question of solidarity. We celebrate mothers and fathers on their respective days because we value and respect the role parents play in society. Is there truly societal respect for women?

Of course, there are men who are respectful of women and who don’t hit, hurt, or humiliate. The problem, however, lies not only with the men who hurt, but also with the men who are silent and complicit.

Complicity arises not only if a man sees another man hit a woman and does nothing about it. It arises when he sees his neighbour’s wife with a swollen eye, and pretends to ignore it. It occurs when he tells, laughs at, or remains silent in response to a sexist joke; when he says that a good woman is a woman at home; that women are not as competent at maths as men; that daughters should not become professionals because it will mean they will not be able to look after their children one day.

The negativity around women inheres in our daily rhetoric – don’t run/throw like a girl; boys don’t cry; don’t be so girly; women are “bossy”, and men are “leaders”; man-up.

These stereotypical tropes are as alive as they are harmful. So no, Women’s Day can’t be said to be a show of solidarity with women.

Of course, Women’s Day does have the vital role of bringing attention to the harm, bias, and violence that characterises many women’s lives. But what actually happens on this day? Companies have given female professionals sewing kits to celebrate Women’s Day; business organisations have held high-tea events, or given women lectures about how to dress in the workplace.

But in the back of my mind, I have my mother-in-law insisting stubbornly that we must still celebrate. So here’s my challenge: let’s celebrate, but let’s do so honestly. Let’s celebrate that we have taught our sons never to hit a girl (or anybody for that matter), and that we have spent the same time teaching our daughters to throw a ball as we have our sons.

Let’s celebrate that we undertake to call friends or relatives whom we suspect are in a violent relationship and let them know that they can call on you any time, even if they have never said a word about the abuse. Let’s celebrate the determination to confront our male colleagues at work who make lewd comments about female co-workers.

Let’s celebrate that we can actualise a society of equality. If this is the basis of the celebration, then I will pop the champagne and make the (virtual) dinner reservation.

  • Bonita Meyersfeld is an associate professor of law at Wits Law School; the recipient of the 2018 Jewish Achiever Europcar Women in Leadership Award; and has been awarded the Knight of the National Order of Merit by the French president for her work on human-rights and gender-based violence. She is the founder of Lawyers Against Abuse, and the author of the book, “Domestic Violence and International Law”.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Vacelia Goodman 06 Aug
    Many Thanks and Bless You for this article. One thing that needed to be added is the ABUSE towards us when we suffer from illnesses which are more prevalent in females e.g. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Fibromyalgia. How we're not taken seriously and threatened with psychiatric illness label when we could have caught a virus etc that brought on these illnesses e.g. working in a medical lab without any protection. Sadly much of the ABUSE against us is perpetrated by other females e.g. social workers and health professionals that death is often a result. Is it possible for me to get Dr Meyersfeld email address bcos we're looking for a lawyer who can assist with these life-threatening situations. Thanks 

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