Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
As we commemorate Women's Day in South Africa, it is vital to remember why the 9th of August is so important. It is the anniversay of a remarkable demonstration in 1956 - when 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria led by legendary activists and leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.
They left bundles of petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at the doors of the Prime Minister's office. Their ground-breaking protest also involved standing silently for 30 minutes, many with their children on their backs. And in contrast, raising their tens of thousands of voices to sing a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo - 'Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock'.
In the 56 years since then, this rallying cry and phrase has come to represent women's bravery, courage and strength in South Africa. And like many things in the struggle against apartheid, its significance has grown beyond South Africa.
Which is why, as we commemorate this day, we must also honour all the countless contributions to the struggle for justice and human rights by multitudes of women across southern Africa - that we should spare a thought for the continued violations of basic rights of women by states, society, armed and unarmed groups, corporations, traditional structures, individual men and all those who hold power in our unequal and patriarchal societies.
In particular, we must not forget the women in the eastern part of DRC, who continue to be victims of organised sexual violence; or the women of the region who are abused and discriminated against solely because of their sexual orientation; or the women of Swaziland whose rights and freedoms are violated every day by the absolute monarchy under which they live - such as Sibongile Mazibuko, the acclaimed leader of Swaziland's National Association of Teachers (SNAT), who daily champions the legitimate rights of her union's members in the face of an oppressive regime.
And we must spare a thought for the massive number of women who are victims of economic and social crises that they had no part in creating. The young women working on farms and in textile sweatshops under poorly regulated labour conditions; the young women forced into early and abusive marriages in Malawi; the desperate women in a small village in Lubango in Angola who were displaced into the bush by the actions of an uncaring local government, the women in Zimbabwe who are victims of politically motivated violence, rape and intimidation; the women in Tete Province of Mozambique who were displaced to make way for coal extraction; and the women who have been subjected to forced sterilisation in Namibia because they were HIV+ as well as poor and marginalised.
And that is the key issue in our region. Today gives us the chance again to condemn the continued feminisation of unemployment, poverty and inequality; the on-going absence of social and economic policies that are pro-poor and pro–women; and the continued inability of so many women to access the benefits and opportunities arising from their economies and the development processes in their countries.
And within OSISA, we should remember how much work we do with our partners all year to address the various challenges and issues facing women in southern Africa.
Just to mention a few of our activities to drive the point home. The work of the Gender and Women’s Rights programme is helping to develop the next generation of leaders in the women’s movement and to give young feminists a voice; the HIV and AIDS programme was instrumental in pushing the successful legal case in Namibia that will hopefully end forced sterilisations in public hospitals once and for all; the Economic Justice work has been advocating for socially inclusive macro-economic policies that enhance access to basic services for women; the Education programme's focus on youth and adult education is a critical contribution to promoting the rights of women; the LGBTI programme has spotlighted the women's sexual rights in very robust and creative ways; and the list goes on.
Indeed, the OpenForum in Cape Town in May demonstrated the focus we place on women as equal members of society - and why we must fight gender inequality day-in day-out.
And why we must continue to strive to ensure that OSISA is a safe and happy place for women to work, to explore their creative imagination, to grow their careers, to develop their leadership and management skills.
Sceptics will say that this day achieves nothing - that it merely allows politicians to talk without making them actually get up and walk - as those amazingly brave women did over 50 years ago.
But I disagree. Of course, there will be no revolutionary change today. But it is an important day nevertheless. A day when we can share our commitment to change - and proudly make it clear that we remain partners in the long fight for the genuine liberation, empowerment and recognition of women as equal citizens and rights holders in our region.ShareThis