It is a sad state of affairs that demands for gender equality, women’s rights and an end to sexist discrimination can ever be timely with regards to global discourse. However, this year as we celebrate International Women’s Day, galvanised by activist movements, a long overdue global conversation is taking place on the discrimination, violence and harassment of women.
This year the UN has chosen the theme ‘Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives’ for their work around International Women’s Day, and it could not speak more poignantly to the work that ACTSA is doing with regards to promoting women’s rights and gender equality in southern Africa. As we praise the work of movements such as Time’s Up and Me Too which have shone a spotlight on harassment, violence and discrimination that some women face, it is important that alongside this we also take this opportunity to celebrate and empower those women who have not garnered such high profile attention.
Today we launched our latest appeal ‘Gender Justice Now!’ calling attention to the situation for women in Swaziland. Women in Swaziland face adversity in a deeply patriarchal society. ACTSA partners with the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly (SWRA) in country and in their 2018 International Women’s Day statement they note that for Swazi women the bleak reality is that gender parity is at present, ‘still a farfetched dream’. An exclusive political system and discriminatory legal structure prop up a wider system of oppression and discrimination against women. Married women do not have equal legal status to their male counterpart’s under both the Marriage Act (1964) and customary law married and Swazi women cannot even sign a legal contract without permission from their husband, this means that buying and selling property, and accessing credit is impossible without a husband’s authorization. Discriminatory laws such as these coupled with other blatant denials of women’s rights – marital rape, forced and early marriage are all legal – serve to construct a society in which patriarchal oppression is pervasive. You can read more about this and other challenges for Swazi women on our appeal page.
The good news is that there women’s rights activists in Swaziland such as SWRA and others are seeking to challenge these sexist laws, and are educating and empowering Swazi women on their right to do so too. Our project ‘Improving Women’s Rights in Swaziland’ worked with a project team from Foundation of Socio and Economic Justice (FSEJ) and SRWA to give local women the opportunity to participate in advancing their own rights. As part of the project rural women attended public meetings, lobbied MPs, participated in civic education sessions on issues including the Swazi Constitution, women’s rights, HIV/AIDs and domestic violence. The project ended in 2016 after reaching over 23,000 women with its activities and leading to the development of the Swaziland Progressive Women’s Charter. In its wake SWRA continue their invaluable work empowering women’s participation in politics and decision making structures, and to achieve economic emancipation. We are proud to continue to work with SWRA and other partners in the region to promote education and awareness of the situation for Swazi women.
In another part of the region our project Dignity!Period supports women’s activists in Zimbabwe with the provision of sanitary products, which became increasingly expensive following the economic crisis in the country in 2000. For many women reading this article it will be unsurprising that issues surrounding women’s health and hygiene were rarely considered in mainstream discussions of the fallout of the economic collapse in Zimbabwe. Indeed, globally women’s reproductive health is seldom prioritised in the way that it should be. However, when we asked our partners at the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions what women in Zimbabwe want, need and had previously had, they responded that the lack of safe sanitary protection was a challenge from an economic, social and health perspective.
Unlike many of their counterparts in the countries surrounding Zimbabwe, many Zimbabwean women were in employment at the time of the economic crash. However as women lost their jobs and remaining work opportunities became insecure, sanitary products simultaneously became both scarce and unaffordable. Many women, suffering from stigma around menstruation, could not go to work or school and some resorted to using newspapers leaves or even tree bark as a substitute to sanitary pads. This poses significant health risks.
Since launching the project ACTSA has provided over 7.5 million sanitary products to Zimbabwean women and continues this work through the in-country partnership with the ZCTU. You can read more about the project on our Dignity!Period campaign page.
Gender-based violence, legal discrimination and harassment is never acceptable; and fundamental rights, dignity and respect are non-negotiable. This year as we stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists across the world, please do consider sharing the stories less told of the women of SWRA, ZCTU and other women’s rights activists across the southern African region.
Feminist theorist bell hooks wrote: “Naming oppressive realities, in and of itself, has not brought about the kinds of changes for oppressed groups that it can for more privileged groups, who command a different quality of attention.”
Starting a conversation on the discrimination, harassment and violence that women experience is crucial in the struggle for gender parity and an end to sexist oppression; but pointing out oppressive realities alone will not change these situations, especially for marginalised populations. This International Women’s Day let us celebrate the activists urban and rural who are continuously pushing for change, who are educating women in their communities on their rights, and who are ensuring that these conversations develop into action.