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‘The glass ceiling is not yet shattered’

8 Jun 2017 - 13:30

Academics and activists galore pooled their thoughts at a colloquium titled Women@Work in Africa, which was hosted by UCT’s International Academic Programmes Office on Africa Day, 25 May.

Women in Marikana play a critical yet unrewarded role in sustaining livelihoods in the mining town. Their struggles, and the struggles of women in patriarchal economies the world over, were in the spotlight at a recent colloquium at UCT.

The conference programme boasted speakers from across the continent who shared their insights on a range of issues pertaining to gendered inequality in the working realm.

Dr Marie Rose Turamwishimye, acting director of the Centre for Legal Aid and Mediation at the University of Rwanda’s School of Law, spoke about the role of African women in post-conflict national development, from the perspective of Rwanda.

Under the broad question of whether the informalisation of women’s work re-entrenches capitalism and patriarchy, Professor Adelle Blackett and Myrtle Witbooi (of McGill University and the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union respectively), addressed different aspects of the domestic work / decent work duality. Blackett’s paper was delivered by UCT’s Professor Debbie Collier.

Mwila Banda Chigaga, senior regional gender specialist from the International Labour Organisation’s regional office for Africa, delivered the colloquium’s keynote address.

“The political emancipation of our continent is indeed a feat worth celebrating, and celebrate we should,” Chigaga began.

But our freedom is not yet complete, she said.

“The concept of gender equality to me means that all human beings are free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations of strict gender norms,” she argued. “It requires equal rights and responsibilities, equal opportunities and being valued equally as persons and in all roles one is in.”

Freedom was a matter of choice, added Chigaga.

“I constantly grapple with the notion of choice, especially for African women, when we look at societal expectations, because it is clear society expects you to comply with the prescribed gender roles.”

Inequality persisted in global markets in respect of opportunities for women and men, she said. The past two decades have seen women acquire much greater levels of formal education than before, but this had not translated to a comparative improvement in their positions at work.

In many regions in the world, women are much more likely to be unemployed than men, have fewer chances to participate in the labour force, and when they do, often have to accept lower quality jobs.

A collective gasp swept across the Centre for African Studies Gallery when Chigaga described how the data showed that it would take 70 years for women to be paid the same as men for the same work.

“The unequal distribution of unpaid care and household work between woman and men and between families and the society, especially on our own continent, is an important determinant of gender inequality in the world of work.”

Nowhere was this made more clear than in Dr Asanda Benya’s research on the unpaid labour of the women in Marikana’s mining settlements, without which the mining industry could not survive, despite the women not being remunerated for their efforts.

Benya, a UCT sociologist, spent some time in the mines in and around Rustenburg and wrote an award-winning paper that detailed how women’s labour, from cooking, cleaning and fetching water to raising children – many of whom would become mineworkers themselves – was essential for the mining system to survive as it is, yet was microcosmic of the impoverished mining communities’ exploitation.

At the colloquium, Benya’s presentation was titled Women Miners in South Africa: Challenges at the Rock Face. While at Wits University in 2009, Benya published a paper on the subject, revealing that women in mines faced daily threats of sexual harassment, rape and sexism.

Judge President Fumane Khabo, president of the labour court of Lesotho, weighed in on this subject.

“Of concern to me, generally, is that [in the labour court] we have very few cases of sexual harassment and discrimination of women at work, [even though] in our law, it constitutes unfair labour practice. Women don’t come up to log cases.”

Chigaga’s talk ended with a plan of action that could apply to most of the day’s presentations.

“The glass ceiling is not yet shattered,” she said, “so we need to be bold and aggressive with affirmative action. Let’s not shy away from it.”

Story by Yusuf Omar. Image by Dr Asanda Benya.