by Laurel Oettle
As International Women’s Day 2016 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the power of global solidarity, and the sense of instant connection and shared purpose that social media provides. There was an excited energy in the office as our team at the Association For Rural Advancement (AFRA) gathered to make our #PledgeForParity, and share these on Facebook and Twitter, even as my own awareness that parity is not nearly a complex or meaningful enough goal to be striving for pricked my conscience.
As Michelle Festus, Action Aid South Africa’s Women’s Rights Coordinator put it today, “We need to move away from this idea of gender parity, which advocates for men and women to be in collective spaces in equal numbers. What we should rather focus on, is the empowerment, safety and dignity of women to challenge inequality. Our struggle is not about equal numbers, but about changing the systems that reproduce inequality.”
South Africans tend to focus their celebrations and demonstrations related to women’s rights on our own National Women’s Day, which is held annually on the 9th August and commemorates the 1956 march of approximately 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against one of the Apartheid Government’s oppressive laws, the pass laws. I believe, however, that it is of immeasurable value to pause and listen to the global pulse and dialogue, and both contribute to and learn from the wider debates and campaigns, and then return with renewed focus and energy to continuing to grow our understanding of our specific context.
Dr Tobias Takavarasha, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Representative for South Africa, said at a workshop on Governing land for women and men in the context of the Voluntary Guidelines of the Responsible Governance of Tenure in October 2015, “Women’s land rights are one of the most critical parts of the post-2015 agenda and the new Sustainable Development Goals.” This is a globally-echoed sentiment, as land is certainly one of the most significant resources: access to land can in turn provide access to sustainable livelihoods through food, shelter, jobs and services. Land dispossession can thus be clearly identified as one of the most critical factors impacting on poor rural women, and the loss of land leads to increasing marginalisation. What then is the context within which South African women’s land rights operate?
The South African Context
In South Africa, past racially discriminatory land practices led to the dispossession and marginalisation of rural black people, who were forcibly removed from their land. In the case of black women, this racial discrimination intersected with gender inequality.
Following South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994 our country’s Constitution, widely recognized as being one of the most advanced and progressive in the world, now promises equal rights to men and women, and prohibits gender- or race-based discrimination. We have state structures such as the Commission for Gender Equality, and many of our policies speak – at least on the surface – of progressive gender reform. An ambitious, three-pronged land reform programme was launched which aimed to both redress past injustices through restitution, change land ownership patterns through redistribution, and to reform tenure systems. However, change has been slow for the women of South Africa as they continue to face discrimination and injustice each day, including within their limited ability to have secure land on which to live and sustain themselves and their families.
South Africa is a liberal democracy, which has an ideology of formal (as opposed to substantive) equality, meaning that that individuals are referred to in an abstract sense that fails to take account of their social conditions. The constitutional basis of the concept of gender equality in South African state ideology and policy is the liberal one of individual rights, which sees all adult citizens as equal before the law in a universal and theoretical way that is not grounded in specific contexts. The limitations of this approach become clear at the point at which we shift our focus from policy to implementation, and see how apparently well-intentioned policies can fail to address – or indeed deepen – inequality.
It is also arguable that a reliance on rights can have the negative impact of keeping people passive and dependent upon the state, since it is the state that grants and protects rights – and by keeping our focus on rights, we often fail to address individual interests, which can take the contradictory subject positions of women into account, and avoid essentialist identities. Citizens are often urged to take greater responsibility for protecting their rights themselves, which generally assumes that individuals, having been granted their rights by the State, will automatically have the agency to assert these rights. This perception ignores the social power dynamics that prevent many rural women from gaining a full understanding of what gender equality is, let alone accessing the resources that will enable them to assert their rights.
It is important for our work with communities to understand that the formalisation of rights can, in some instances, lead to less rather than more security for some individuals. It is now widely recognized, for example, that registering assets in the name of the (still predominantly male) household head can worsen the position of other family members, particularly women and children, when conflicts arise. As long as land rights are not legally registered, all those living there are in the same situation, and one could say they are “equally insecure” in that none of them have the rights to sell or rent that land. Once this power is conveyed via formal title deed, however, power relations can shift rapidly, and those not listed on the title deed can become more vulnerable. Recognising women-headed households is not sufficient: we need to address the needs of the majority of rural women, who live in male-headed households, and work towards ensuring that women hold joint title on the land on which they occupy, or are protected by other legal mechanisms.
A context-driven approach
The importance of understanding specific contexts is central to analysing gender. If unique local circumstances are ignored, and the illusion of the universality of gender analysis is applied in development, ‘it can lead to inaccurate understanding and inadequate (or even counter-productive) interventions’, as Alice Iddi wrote in a Gender Works. The contexts that gender relations are negotiated within are varied and nuanced, and include social, cultural, economic and political frameworks.
Gender identities and relations vary from culture to culture, and community to community. Far from being universal and stable, they are dynamic and change with time. If we aim to reduce power imbalances of any sort, it is first necessary to try and understand the complexities of how these relationships are structured. One of the problems of failing to analyse specific contexts before adopting strategies to change them is that these strategies make the false assumption that all women have the same interests. Women’s experiences differ based on a wide range of variables, including class, race, age, sexual orientation and context, although it does nonetheless remain true that there are many common problems shared to a majority of rural women.
Culture is always a complex area in which to tread carefully. It is useful to note, however, that while it is often argued that the ideals of gender equality conflict with local traditions and should thus not be imposed in rural areas, challenging wealth and class inequalities are much more widely seen as acceptable, even when equally in conflict with traditions. Our Constitution subordinates citizen’s rights to practice their culture and religion to the fundamental principle of the right to equality, and these two co-exist in complex ways within communities.
Assumptions around the cultural inappropriateness of gender equality are easily made, but need to be carefully verified by and discussed with the women with whom we work. Working from the bottom up, using participatory approaches and methodologies, we can continue to be creative in how we shape safe spaces for women to express what they themselves deem appropriate for their situation. Sensitivity and openness are critical in doing so, and an understanding that a strong Western feminist rhetoric is often unhelpful and can put both women and men on the defensive.
To ‘empower’ someone is defined by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary as “to promote the self-actualization or influence of” one. The term empowerment has largely emerged in literature from feminists, environmentalists and poststructuralists who have criticised the Western, top-down approach of mainstream development, and called for more participatory approaches. Empowering women, and the poor, to improve their lives has become the standard, accepted goal of most development, and is used in this context “as a metaphor for fundamental social transformation”, as Jane Parpart wrote in Feminist Post-Development Thought.
Empowerment, like most terms, has been used to signify different things in different contexts. The term has, ironically, long been adopted by mainstream development practitioners as well as alternate ones, right up to the World Bank itself. The adoption of the term by mainstream agencies has not, however, bridged the divide between them and their critics, for while they have adopted the term they have given it meaning that allows them to continue applying the same top-down approach.
Writer, social economist and research fellow Naila Kabeer argued in Reversed Realities: Gender Heirarchies in Development Thought that the way empowerment differs from mainstream development is not the category of needs it address – such as income or employment – but rather “how such needs are identified and met.” To empower women, development must open up the possibilities available to them, rather than close them off. Furthermore, empowerment should be participatory, and rather than have ‘experts’ directing the poor, or women, there should be ‘facilitators’ working with them. In this way, vulnerable groups such as women can identify their own problems, and from this their own solutions, suited to their specific context. Jane Parpart concluded that “participation and empowerment [are] critical requirements for women to develop and challenge patriarchal structures and assumptions.”
This ‘bottom-up’ approach comes from a general theory that ultimately development should take the experiences of the poorest women as its starting point, as they are the most oppressed section in society. This does not, of course, mean that poor women are the only people who matter in development, but merely that they are on the lowest rung of the ladder of oppression, and that development and equality are not possible without the transformation of the lives of the most oppressed.
Mapping a path forward
Tomorrow, the AFRA team will come together in a Gender Workshop to further analyse the complexities of our work with communities of women and men living on farms. AFRA’s vision is an inclusive and gender equitable society where rights are valued, realised and protected, and we aim to achieve this by identifying, promoting and supporting pathways to achieve security of tenure and access to services for people on farms. I am deeply grateful to work with a team that is willing to grapple with their own personal awareness and contradictions, and keep striving towards new ways of thinking, and the best processes and outcomes for the communities we journey with.