Every year South Africa reserves 9th August as the day to honour the thousands of courageous women who defied societal norms of a “kept woman” and marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to stand and sing for their right to freedom. They stood not just for their own rights, but also for those of their children and children’s children and every generation of South Africans to follow as described below:
“… We are women from every part of South Africa.
We are women of every race, we come from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages.
We come as women united in our purpose to save the African women from the degradation of passes…
In the name of women of South Africa, we say to you, each one of us, African, European, Indian, Coloured, that we are opposed to the pass system.
We shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom have been abolished.
We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security.”
(Taken from a petition presented to the Prime Minister on 9 August 1956)
The tenacity of each of these women paved the way for women and girls today to be recognised in the South African Constitution as equal citizens. Women now have opportunities that 62 years ago seemed impossible. Yet in most instances today there is still the stigma within our communities that a women’s place is in the kitchen and that she should be seen not heard.
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” (Audre Lorde)
What is surprising to me is that women themselves believe that this is society’s expectation of them and continue to feel powerless. What happened to embracing freedom and the right to be treated with dignity? Nowadays women still struggle to have their human rights recognised.
In 1995, on the heels of a democratic South African, the United Nations hosted a conference in Beijing, where the then First Lady of America, Hillary Clinton, gave a speech in which she said: “Human Rights are Women’s Rights and Women’s Rights are Human Rights”.
She highlighted the role women play as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, learners, teachers, workers, leaders and citizens. This speech paid homage to the various ways women contribute to society as a collective. Mrs Clinton went onto say that regardless of their economic status, women in the world ensured that they found common ground and provided support for each other, whether it was to fight for democracy, share information on healthcare or nutrition for their children, to uplift and address personal concerns, or even to encourage that women be treated with dignity and respect.
In her speech, she implored that governments step up and give women access to education, healthcare and employment. She encouraged governments to listen to the voice of women so that their needs are understood and addressed. She deduced that when a woman flourishes, all those in her care flourish as well.
Through the years, women have awoken to claim what is rightfully theirs and on 1 August 2018, thousands of women took to marching in the capital and countrywide for the rights of women to be protected from gender discrimination, sexism, misogyny, femicide and patriarchy. With access to democracy, the voices of women have become even louder to ensure that those in power start to listen and address their concerns.
In my work as an advocate for children’s and human rights, I’m always asked how women and girls can empower themselves. My answer to this is that the energy must come from within to enable yourself to feel empowered. To do that I believe in the following:
- Educate yourself. Michelle Obama in an interview said that girls must place books before boys. Women and girls must take every opportunity to continue and persevere in gaining qualifications that will place them in advantageous positions to be considered for employment and promotions. If you wish to go into business for yourself, then surround yourself with people who will give you advice and information on your chosen field.
- Motivation. Surround yourself with people who support you and believe in you and, most importantly, believe in yourself. There will be difficult days and everyone who wants you to succeed will tell you that failure is part of the process, that you get back up, shed your tears for a short while, change your strategy and just keep going. Be confident. You will succeed.
- Be financially savvy. Learn about money. How to make it, how to protect it and how to save it. Know your legal options. Learn how to negotiate. If you make a mistake, learn from it. Always ask questions and get an opinion from people you trust and are trustworthy.
The world is a scary place and even those closest to you might not support you, but I want you to draw strength from your passion to succeed. I want you to know that you can achieve greatness and that the month of August is a reminder that when you strike a woman, you strike a rock. Do not be afraid to invoke the spirit of all the warrior women who take a stand each year to claim what is just and rightly deserved for all equally.
“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard … we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala Yousafza