by Laurel Oettle
The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) brought stakeholders from Educational and Research Institutions, Civil Society, Chapter 9 and 10 institutions, and Government Departments together in Durban yesterday for a Stakeholder Reflection Dialogue.
The CGE is an independent statutory body created under Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution, and has a mandate to promote and protect gender equality in government, civil society and the private sector. The aim of the Dialogue was to both celebrate gains and identify gaps that still need to be addressed, and the morning also saw the CGE bid farewell to one of their much-loved Commissioners, Janine Hicks, who yesterday ended her second term (and a total of nine years) with the CGE.
In a participatory process, all stakeholders were asked to bring three key achievements and gaps in their sector to contribute towards discussions on the day. After mapping these into their relevant categories under Rights Violations, Gender Mainstreaming, Gender-Based Violence, Social Issues or Women in the Workplace, we broke into groups to discuss current interventions being undertaken by our organisations around these key issues, what we feel the CGE should be doing, and how we can best collaborate.
It quickly became clear that a huge amount of valuable and innovative interventions are being undertaken, and that there are a number of opportunities for valuable partnerships and collaborative work to emerge from the day’s discussions. These included joint awareness campaigns around shared issues, a greater understanding of what useful gender indicators organisations could be including in research and share with the CGE and other stakeholders to help improve both monitoring and advocacy work, and the concept of a common online platform or database to aggregate data for analysis, sharing & learning.
CGE CEO Ms Keketso Maema, after summarising the way forward from today’s dialogue – including further such engagements to understand what is happening on the ground – wished Commissioner Hicks a very fond farewell. She noted that it is never easy to say goodbye to somebody who is as dedicated as Ms Hicks, and she expressed the CGE’s gratitude for the work she has done, her devotion to championing gender issues, and her invaluable contribution to assisting the CGE to build a wide range of lasting relationships.
I caught up with Ms Hicks at the end of the Dialogue to hear some of her views on the day, reflections on her nine years with the CGE, and – following her recent support to AFRA’s Strategic Planning process – her hopes for the current work being planned around increased gender mainstreaming within AFRA.
Regarding the Dialogue, she said: “I particularly loved the activism that we’re seeing on the ground. What was evident from today’s discussions is that gender equality is very much alive in multiple and many different spaces – we’re seeing groups do education and awareness raising, service delivery, policy advocacy, networking and collaboration. People have been saying, “Where is the women’s movement? We don’t have a women’s movement any more.” We very much do – we have women’s movements, and movements around gender equality, and we are seeing men play a role in movements around gender equality. So that was very heartening.”
“What was disheartening was seeing that when we identified where the gaps and challenges are, they’re the same ones that we’ve been talking about for 20 years. Why have we not got the correct response to dealing with Gender-Based violence? Why are we still talking about good policy that is not being implemented? We’ve got equality legislation, so why are we still seeing such inequality in the workplace? When we know that there are particular group struggling to access rights, why are we here 22 years post our Democracy still talking about women in rural areas struggling to access land? We need to ask the big uncomfortable question of why we don’t have gender transformation in our society and our spaces, and we need to pause and reflect on that. Is it something imbedded in all of us, and our society, that poses the greatest threat to transformation?”
When we moved to discussing her contribution to the CGE over the past nine years, she share her pleasure in some of the policy framework developments she has played a role in having been taken up by the CGE and the State, with highlights including the law reform happening around maternity benefits and protection for all classes of working women (including women in the informal economy), the current call for the decriminalisation of sex work to put an end the abuse of rights we are seeing where women and men are being denied access to a range of rights, and escalating issues around forced and early child marriage, which is especially critical in the province of KwaZulu Natal. She further mentioned the key element of improving effective networking and collaboration across sectors.
“That work is in safe hands,” she said. “It’s embedded in the work and the commitment of the people here, and that work will continue even without me there as Commissioner. I’m most proud of that fact – I can step out and things won’t collapse.”
She went on to confess that once you’re part of the CGE you never really leave, and that she will continue to be active and involved in those spaces and conversations, just in different ways.
In closing, I asked her to reflect on the time she has recently spent with the AFRA team, as we seek new and effective ways to take forward our vision of an inclusive and gender-equitable society, including deepening and enriching the mainstreaming of gender in our work.
“It seems roundly embedded now in your team’s approach. While your team have said they need greater understanding of and embracing of gender equality as a concept, I heard the awareness of gender issues being layered into the different interventions and the work that you’re doing – whether you’re handling complaints and cases of eviction or talking about policy advocacy work, or outreach and awareness on rights. I think there’s a realisation among your programme staff that we need to surface gender and deal with it specifically, whether we’re talking about women’s access to land, to resources, to economic opportunities, in particular some of the vulnerable situations that women are placed in, as well as the need to tap into women’s agency and activism. I’m really pleased to hear that that is there.
Your bigger challenge is that while you have that understanding internally and as an organisation, you have to go out and work in a world that in some respects is very hostile to issues of women’s agency, and hostile to the notion of women owning land and to women leading development processes. We know that women play such a core role in ensuring family livelihoods, for instance; they are actively involved in getting water and energy for their family needs, but we don’t feel comfortable putting women in leading positions and driving processes. You’re going to be encountering those kinds of attitudinal prejudices and it can be quite violent and hostile, the reactions.
We see it across the board – a backlash to talk about gender equality, to feminism, to women’s empowerment. There’s a hostile reaction to that right now – that’s what we see in the gender sector generally. So I think as AFRA you’re going to have to fashion your interventions in a way that people understand that we’re not doing this because it’s a nice thing to do to help women, but to realise that we will not succeed as a country, that we will not be able to drive agrarian reform and meet our development targets, unless we include women.
Women are the majority of our population – they are our potential, and we need to tap into that or else we’re walking with one leg and one arm, and we need both legs and both arms. Yes it’s a Constitutional imperative, but more than that it is actually a developmental necessity to have women as part of that conversation and part of that drive. I wish you well in that journey!”
We are grateful to the CGE and our fellow participants for a constructive and participatory dialogue today, and to Ms Hicks for her insight, support and encouragement. We look forward to further collaboration and conversations as we all continue to work in our unique ways towards an equitable society where rights are valued, realised and protected.