Over the past three years artist, Phoebe Davies, has been exploring current attitudes to feminism, gender inequality, expectations and aspirations. Working collaboratively with a wide range of communities and young women’s groups, her research has led her to draw upon and subvert the contemporary culture of nail art. Creating printed nail designs depicting people of significance that are specific to the groups she works with, these designs are then applied in a nail salon installation. This nail salon acts as a site to exchange opinions and ideas, questioning what feminism and gender equality means today.

Phoebe will be showcasing her work Influences Nail Salon in Johannesburg in November 2015 to coincide with 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. Phoebe is creating a bespoke nail designs that will represent women* of influence who have worked to address social and political issues across South Africa AND WE WANT YOUR NOMINATION!

We are collecting a range of nominations of women of all ages and backgrounds from well-known historical figures to those directly impacting their local community. All nominations are welcome whether it be anti apartheid activists, local youth workers, DJs, scientists, fashion designers or feminists, we are looking for a diverse mix of women to represent contemporary and historical social activism in South Africa.


We are collecting nominations over the next few weeks – so please email your nomination, a short reason why and how they have impacted South Africa and a headshot of the person to Sarah Phillips, sarah@artsadmin.co.uk or tweet @artsadm #InfluencesSA

The deadline for nominations is 12 noon on Wednesday 23rd October 2015 Please do circulate this call out to friends and colleagues.

Women*: Women and people who identify as transgender, queer, gender fluid or non binary.

The Power of the Pussy

Kagure Mugo, Feminism, Masturbation

By Kagure Mugo

Have you ever sunk your fingers into yourself? Not in a flurry of horniness, or during some sexy time with a partner or out of boredom at 30, 000 feet during a flight (if that is your thing). Not rushed it but touched yourself slowly, deliberately so that you really understand what the feeling between your legs is all about? Allowed yourself to submerge into yourself?

You should.

It is important to explore the depths because the vagina is a magical, largely unexplored wonderland, and powerful place. Not only is it wildly misunderstood but the vagina, like its female host, can bounce back from intense trauma as you do not call it the miracle of child birth for nothing, the miracle being how does one even begin to do anything with it again. This miracle aside there is also the, equally important, fact that it is an all engulfing, all consuming, vortex of pleasure that one can literally get sucked into.

Kegel muscles are a very real thing. You contain the cosmos between your thighs, feel the big bang.

I have increasingly become enraged with the idea that women are secondary consumers of pleasure with men being the target market and us picking up the scraps. I also understand that in the general scheme of things this may not be the most ‘important’ thing to be angered about when it comes to the fight for women globally however, issues of pleasure and sex tie into matter of agency over one’s body. If one cannot negotiate a sexual transaction with a partner what more can one negotiate from a place of power in other sectors of your life?

Understanding the importance of sexual agency, I went looking, trying to find out about women and pleasure. The first thing I properly learned about the power of female sexuality was baby sexology 101.

The clitoris.

It is criminal to mention sex and women and not mention the clitoris. Which is why a great number of men (and some women) need to be be brought up on charges of corrupted coitus. Driving the dick under the influence of ignorance.  More often than not people will think of pleasure in terms of simply filling a woman up with a swollen appendage and not stopping to think of the numerous erogenous zones doted around the female body, one of the most important ones being that little bulb of desire between her thighs.

A great deal of the information I found about loving your vagina came from very western sites. I was given all the usual advice. Touch yourself, do a weeks worth of stretches and get into a yoga type pose and have a good look at your pussy. Know it well enough to pick it out of a line up if it was arrested. However, the inner traditional farm girl in me was reluctant to go all the way.

I needed to ground the knowledge of knowing and owning my sex and sexuality in something. Thus my Afrocentric nature refused to allow me to stop there. The notion of the power of women and pleasure could not have started as something in a ‘Journal Of Sex’ published somewhere in the States. There had to be something here, on the continent, that had gotten us to a point where women’s sexuality had to be so seriously policed that the aforementioned clitoris was in some places cut off.

My search led me to find AfricanSexualities: A Reader, with information about Osunality, an Igbo-based belief in the goddess Osun. She was the goddess of childbirth, the life cycle and most importantly pleasure. Osun represents ‘a female centered, life transforming energy that courses through and animates life’. It is a force that is ‘highly sensual and sexual’.  The paper ‘Osunality’, by  Nkiru Nzengwu, states that women who embody the Osunality force ‘brandish their sexuality openly and quite unselfconsciously.’

The notion of the phallocentric nature of sex was actually birthed in Ancient Greek philosophies, with the local context being a little more female friendly. Other traditions from within various African countries and contexts recognised the vagina not as being penetrated but as engulfing the penis, able to completely drain it of its power but still able to continue even when it is sexual partner is deflated. This idea of the vagina flips patriarchal notions of sexuality on their head, and allows for a new conceptualization of the agency of women within the sexual ritual.

So outside of all the socio-historical research and rights rhetoric what does it mean? It all means that you should be having amazing sex. Epic sex, mind blowing sex. Because understanding the power of the vagina means that you understand that it should be getting first class treatment. To waste the sensual power of the vagina on bad sex is the equivalent of using a nuclear power plant to power a couple of street lamps.

There is so much potential that is lost with current ideas of sex, furthered by porn, and widespread ideas of men being the main consumers of pleasure — ‘giving it to her’, ‘pounding the pussy’ and ‘having a third leg’ takes power away from the vagina and places sex in an extremely phallocentric light. Sex becomes all about the penis and how whenever it turns up to the party then it becomes the shindig of the year. This takes away from the fact that the female body has so much, and needs so much, and can do so much, all on its own.

A woman can have multiple orgasms and the vagina can rejuvenate and reinvigorate itself after marathon sessions. The female body is built for pleasure, in so many ways however this has been suppressed not only physically but mentally. Not only is there the physical manifestation of women not needing pleasure (a survey showed that only 54 percent of heterosexual women experience regular/any orgasms) but women themselves have been wrapped into cognitive notions of sex being a ‘chore’, ‘duty’ or something that is supposed to happen in a relationship or interaction that can sometimes be enjoyable.

This thinking needs to be dismantled. The sexual act is more of a personal, spiritual, and social journey to get women to the point of being able to know about, own, and have the sex they want.

Some men do understand that there is sex outside of the penis but so many men (and women) still believe that a penis is the only thing that makes sex, sex. Those who do understand that there is more to life than that make amazing lovers. They are the ones who their partners speak about their trysts in hushed tones over glasses of chardonnay and giggles. They are the ones who make their partners shift their hips when the memory of the last night the spent together floods them. It is the partners who high-five themselves for giving head or knowing that they need to stroke the clitoris to make a woman’s knees weak that secretly rule the world of sex. They are the ones who understand the pure, astronomical force of a woman’s sex outside of the penis and for that they are silently saluted around the world.

For the women with these astronomical organs it is about finding out what makes the big bang happen. It is about finding what it is you want in bed, no matter how much or how little. How ordinary or how weird. It is about understanding the path to power is a personal one, not only is it about suddenly becoming a sex goddess, it’s about knowing what you want or do not want.

The power is in the choice made in knowledge, not the act.

Celebrating the Unbowed ‘Crazy Woman’

Njoki Wamai, Kenya, MaathaiBy Njoki Wamai

Wangari Maathai was always there with us in our house in Kenya when I was growing up. She was there on our television screens, in the morning news on the radio before we went to school and in animated yet hushed conversations about her courage between my parents and their visitors in our living room during the troubled mid-90s. The strong dark woman in African prints and braided hair speaking truth to power when no one dared question the then dictator President Daniel Arap Moi.

She was there even after Moi called her the crazy woman with insects in her head and sycophants in parliament chorused calling her a badly behaved woman and a divorcee who was a threat to Kenya’s national security.

She was there in press interviews and run-ins with the Moi governments hired goons after graciously kneeling to plant a tree.

She was there, at home with grandmothers in villages urging them to plant more trees, as she was dining with world leaders in exclusive locations explaining complex concepts of why they urgently need to address climate change.

The grey Monday morning she left us on September 25, 2011 signified the mood that enveloped me and indeed Kenya and the world as we came to terms with the loss of yet another great non-conformist. Her courage to turn her back on old formulas while inventing the future had left an indelible mark in Kenya and the world we live in. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary President of Burkina Faso once said that,

“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. […] We must dare to invent the future.”

Wangari was labelled a mad woman but because of her madness she reinvented our collective future albeit in her small way.

Wangari Maathai, feminism, politics, kenya
Picture supplied by the author

In her memoir Unbowed, she reveals the difficult choices she made in her personal life in a conservative Kenya after she went through a painful divorce where she was labelled by her ex-husband as a ‘too strong-minded a woman who was not easy to control’. By Wangari’s refusing to conform as a ‘well-behaved woman’ in her private space she made history and expanded the public space for women at a national and international level in various spaces such as the private space, the academy, in politics and most importantly the ecological space which she was later feted for as a Nobel Laurent. As a feminist, she exemplified the personal is political mantra from her days in the National Council of Women of Kenya, as a founder of the Green Belt Movement when she publicly initiated a campaign that supported another trail blazing Kenyan woman Wambui Otieno whose legendary case to bury her husband SM. Otieno advanced women’s rights. Many ‘well behaved women’ who were beneficiaries of the patrimonial politics of Moi’s leadership refused to support Wangari as she fought for the rights of another ‘crazy’ woman( Wambui Otieno who fought for widows rights to bury their husbands) and for a younger generation of Kenyan women who now enjoy these rights.

These instances of madness and non-conformity have led to several legacies she left us on environment, women’s emancipation and politics. On the environment, her madness finally bore fruit when she recovered and secured our public spaces such as Uhuru park, Karura forest and more recently our water towers: the Aberdare and the Mau complex from land grabbers and corrupt politicians. Internationally, as the co-chair of the Congo-Basin fund she tirelessly campaigned to save the African water tower.

In conclusion, the most notable constant that enabled Wangari to soldier on despite adversity and insulting labels such as ‘mad woman’ is her love for the environment.

“A true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Che Guevara.

We miss you Wangari.

You Girls

Rosa Lyster, South Africa, essayBy Rosa Lyster

A slightly famous author once accused me of liking Sylvia Plath. I was at a book party, standing outside in what the slightly famous author kept on calling “the smoking garden”. It was a concrete courtyard in the middle of the corporate hotel where the party was being held. Very brightly lit. No chairs, even. Writers standing around, all hunched up and furtive, smoking the most depressing brands of cigarettes. Your Rothmans, your Princetons, your Benson and Hedges Special Mild.

The slightly famous author took all of this in his brisk stride. He was at the book festival to promote his latest novel. Like all of his previous works, it was about a young and vaguely left-wing white man clashing with various South African authority figures (mothers, corporals, sergeants etc.). Like all of his previous works, it contained many fine descriptions of Highveld storms, and the gnarled, shining white corpses of lightning-struck trees. His books were not as popular as they had once been. There was something a bit funny about his latest one, especially. It was too obviously nostalgic for the early eighties, too wistful for a time when the voices of people like him had mattered most. The reviews had been mixed. Perhaps because of this, his reading had been badly attended. Also, it was scheduled at the same time as the fourth event featuring an authentically famous writer, the star of the festival.

The slightly famous author did not seem embittered by this. He gave the impression of having a sincerely wonderful time, looking avidly about himself and saying, “Here we are, then. Here we are in the smoking garden.” He seemed enchanted by it all: waving brightly at everyone who went past. A nice man, really.

I saw a girl I knew ask him what his favourite kind of meat was. There was no reason for her to do this. The slightly famous author answered her with avuncular dignity. He looked gravely into her glittering eyes. First beef, he said, and then ostrich. Chicken last. She asked him if he could ever give up bacon, though, and he said no. She said that bacon smelled delicious, and he agreed. She adjusted the sewn-on panda ears of her woolly hat as she asked him if he had ever tried crocodile. He said yes. She said she could never eat crocodile. Yuck. He laughed with total abandonment. Was he on drugs? Was he one of those men who you only realise is drunk after they have tumbled silently down a flight of stairs, wearing a resigned and worldly expression? I could not say.

The girl who loved meat was just getting started. I had an idea of what was coming next – she was going to ask if he had a Kindle. Whatever his answer, she was going to say that she could never have a Kindle. She loved the smell of books too much, see. She loved the feel of a book in her hand TOO MUCH. Old books? Don’t even get her started. The smell and feel of a mega-old book? Please.

I could see it all playing out in front of me. The slightly famous writer could too, I think. He decided that things had gone far enough. He took control by turning to me, blowing smoke into my eyes and ears, and asking me what I thought of J.M. Coetzee. South African émigrés of a certain age love to ask this question. They imagine us sitting around making Coetzee voodoo dolls, writing lists of all the reasons Adelaide is a stupid place to live. They want us to feel betrayed, as if Coetzee is our collective dad who abandoned us for a different family. They want us to take it personally.

I said that I thought Disgrace was a very good book. The meat girl looked disappointed. Coetzee was such an easy one, and I was letting the side down. She moved away. The slightly famous writer pressed gamely on. Women, he said, don’t usually like Coetzee. They don’t like Coetzee or Updike or Bellow or Roth. Or Nabokov, now that he thought about it. He peered at me elatedly, a sort of terrible puckishness suffusing his features. Eyes suddenly more bright, incisors more pointy. It was clear that he had made this speech before. His whole expression, his posture and everything, said, “Here I go again. Get a load of me.” Other people were slaves to the kind of PC nonsense that insisted that women could like Philip Roth, but not the slightly famous author. No indeed. He was here for the truth. I wanted to lie down on the floor.

I said, although there was no point, that I liked all of those writers a lot. He laughed throatily at me. He told me I was just saying that to be contrary. Name a Nabokov novel, he said, besides from Lolita. I did. Name a Bellow. Tell me with a straight face that you got through the whole of Sabbath’s Theatre. Tell me your best book out of all the Updikes. Say which bit in Waiting For The Barbarians made it worth the hassle.

I told him and told him and told him. His laugh became richer and more disbelieving. He was capering on the spot, punching the air with little fists. He was having the most wonderful time, and he didn’t believe me for a single minute. “You girls,” he said, shaking his head. “Say what you want, but I know you all go home and read Sylvia Plath.”

I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. I opened my hands. I closed my hands.

You girls. You girls, with your crush on Ophelia and Virginia Woolf and Elvira Madigan. You girls think you’re witches. You girls, with your anorexia and your cutting and the flowers in your hair. You girls, and your dissertations on perceptions of female hysteria. You think Mad Girl’s Love Song is the best title for anything, and you can’t believe you didn’t get there first. You believe that dying is an art, like everything else. You believe that you would do it exceptionally well. You girls with your incessant talk of periods and mermaids. You girls with your poster of The Lady of Shallot above your bed. You think you have a wound that will never heal. You girls keep tearing open the stitches.

All that. He didn’t say it, and probably he did not think it, but that’s what I heard. I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. He ground out his cigarette and lurched inside, giving a disgraced cartoonist a reassuring arm squeeze as he went.

This was about five years ago. I have had some time to think about what I might have said. Something like a lie: I’ve never read Sylvia Plath, and actually I hate her, and actually I’ve never heard of her. Something like another kind of lie: I know The Bell Jar off by heart, and I admire the gumption of a woman who believes it is appropriate to equate her personal suffering to that of a Jew during the Holocaust. Or, something like the truth: I like her all right – not my best, and not my worst. But you can’t say that, to someone like the slightly famous author. Someone like the slightly famous author, he wants you to be one thing or the other.

I saw him three days ago in an airport. He was shorter than I remembered, with the contented face of a man on his way to the first-class lounge. He nodded to me as I walked past. I nodded back. I hear his last book sold very poorly indeed.

Rosa Lyster lives in Cape Town. She is completing her PhD at UCT, and writes an essay a week at rosalyster.com

Originally published on Rosa’s blog, here

Peer education is powerful: how abortion counselors care for patients

Rebecca Hodes

By Rebecca Hodes

Zoleka Gqumisa is an abortion counselor in Khayelitsha. She works at three different clinics, and sees over twenty clients a day. At the Nolungile Youth Clinic her clients are mostly young women between the ages of 16 and 25, many still in school and pregnant for the first time.

At a gathering in Gugulethu in 2012, Zoleka noticed that a woman was smiling at her. Unsure of how she knew her, Zoleka asked her whether they had met before. The woman whispered,

‘Yes, from the clinic. You helped me very much’, she said. ‘I was so scared, and you made me calm. The procedure went well. I don’t like to tell others about it, to tell them that I had an abortion done. But I was protected at the clinic’.

Women presenting for abortions at public health clinics in South Africa have had to make difficult decisions. Their social context determines that they must be sexually available to their male partners, but that, should this result is an unwanted pregnancy, they are to blame. Research has shown that the primary reason given by most women for abortion is socio-economic.

Despite the inherent responsibility that a woman takes in ending an unwanted pregnancy because she cannot provide for the baby, social stigma surrounding abortion remains rampant. Many women fear that they will be ostracized by their friends and families, that they will be condemned by their churches and communities, and that they will be ill-treated by the staff at the clinic. They also fear the procedure itself – that it will be painful, humiliating, harmful to their health and damaging to their future capacity to bear children.

It is for these reasons that the educational and supportive roles played by abortion counselors are so crucial. Zoleka and her colleague, Nomafu Booi, are the only dedicated abortion counselors working in the Western Cape’s public health sector. According to the Provincial Government of Western Cape’s Sexual and Reproductive Health division, they are in fact the only two abortion counselors in South Africa that are attached to a public health facility. The work done by Zoleka and Nomafu is part of the City’s commitment to providing women with comprehensive healthcare at its clinics, rather than scattering these services across different sites. Instead of a stand-alone service, offered at only a small number of clinics, termination of pregnancy should be available to women as one component of women’s healthcare, and it should be provided together with other services, including screening for sexually transmitted infections and HIV, pap smears and sexual abuse counseling.

Abortion was legalized in South Africa in 1996 with the passing of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. The Act mandates that woman who seeks an abortion in the public health sector must be provided with counseling. The purpose of counseling is to explain to a woman that it is up to her to decide whether or not to have the procedure, and that she alone (rather than her family, or the man with whom she has conceived) must make this decision.

Zoleka and Nomafu use their counseling sessions to answer whatever questions women may have, including about the abortion procedure itself. They also provide women with information about pregnancy, family planning, HIV testing, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

A third of women in South African become pregnant by the age of 19. These high rates of teenage pregnancy are often blamed on irresponsible sexual behaviour and on the failure of young women in particular to use contraception. But this belies the complex social dynamics that determine how and when South African women have sex, whether they use condoms, or if they have been taught the biology of conception and pregnancy. Nor do these explanations account for the high rates of violence that women confront, or the fact that, for many women in South Africa, the only sex they know is coerced. For these women, government safe sex campaigns that hinge on messages about ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘avoiding risk’ are irrelevant. The slogan of the government’s extensive HIV Counseling and Testing campaign, during which an alleged 15 million people were tested for HIV, was ‘I am responsible, you are responsible, South Africa is taking responsibility’. For women who are unable to choose when and how to have sex, ‘taking responsibility’ becomes a luxury. What’s more, if their apparent failure to listen to these messages translates into blame and derision at health facilities, in their communities, and in their families, this contributes to the isolation of women who already constitute the most marginal groups in our society.

One reason that women are given insufficient information about contraception is that, in many cases, the nurses themselves have not received adequate and updated training. In recent years, the provincial government has collaborated with organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to pursue creative ways of training and supporting nurses. One result has been onsite training to expand nurses’ use of different contraceptives, including the intra-uterine device, meaning that women are given a wider choice of family planning methods at certain clinics. The strengthening of partnerships between government, clinics and health advocacy groups, particularly in relation to women’s health in the Western Cape, has established new knowledge and support structures for nurses, linking them to other experts who confront similar challenges and enabling them to both provide and gain greater clinical insights.

In many clinics, there remains little time in a day of long queues and steady demands for nurses to counsel their clients thoroughly. It is for these reasons that Zoleka and Nomafu have been employed to counsel abortion patients in Khayelitsha, so as to ease the workload of the nurses at these busy clinics, and to ensure a high quality of service for their patients. Part of this service is in-depth pre- and post-operative counseling on the importance of contraception in helping a woman to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. This is why Zoleka and Nomafu are approached by women in their communities, on the streets and at social gatherings, who are grateful for the counseling they received.

Nomafu explained how most of the young women who seek abortions are still in school, and believe that continuing their pregnancy would prevent them from completing their education, and open them to ridicule from their classmates and teachers. Despite the moral panic about young girls who are supposedly becoming pregnant to get access to child support grants, research on the perceptions of young woman has shown how, for many adolescents, pregnancy while in school is viewed as a profound disruption, associated with economic strain, limited employment prospects, emotional stress and social stigma. In one study, teenage girls who became pregnant reported that they felt ‘ruined’. In Nomafu’s experience as an abortion counselor, many women recounted the resentment of their partners as a reason not to continue with the pregnancy. This anecdotal experience is qualified by research conducted by the Reproductive Rights Alliance, which found that approximately a third of men reacted with ‘anger’ to the news of a pregnancy, and had put pressure on their partners to abort.

Since abortion has been legalized in South Africa, abortion related morbidity and mortality has plummeted by 90%. Whatever a healthcare provider’s moral stance is on abortion, the fact is that its legalization has led to drastic improvements in women’s reproductive health. But despite the fact that abortion is legal, social stigma and the opposition of nurses and others means that abortion is not always accessible for women. This points to the gap between so many of South Africa’s policy commitments in the fields of health and human rights, and the obstruction of these rights when the politics of communities and individuals are at odds with public health or human rights imperatives.

The existence of dedicated counselors helps to ensure that women seeking abortion are given the information they need to make the right decision for themselves about whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and are able to understand the abortion procedure and the mechanics of conception and pregnancy. The support of counselors like Nomafu and Zoleka helps to ensure that these women leave the clinic with the information they need to help prevent another unwanted pregnancy.  As Nomafu explained: ‘We take the clients to the counseling room and we explain to them what is going to happen. We touch the clients, we hold their hands, and we tell them to relax. When the procedure is over, we sit with the client until she is ready to go home.’

Rebecca Hodes is the Director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit (University of Cape Town). 

Originally published in the Cape Times



Though women have often been granted legislative rights, it is clear that men who hold tightly to power in Africa.

Yet, power is more complex than one over the other, and in our lived experiences we are able to engage with ideas of what it means to be powerful, who has the power, and what our power is for.

What’s clear is that discussions of feminism must come with discussions of power – racial power, sexual power, the power of the voice, gender power, mainstream power, political power, and the power of feminist critique. Every single situation in our lives is imbued with power.

As women, we have exercised our power historically, both in mass mobilisation and in micro-level protest and change within the home, workplace, and media. We know what it means to feel powerful, and also what it is like to be disempowered and powerless.

This September, I invite all of you to write in and tell us your thoughts on power. Send in your fiction (max 2000 words), non-fiction (1000 words), interviews (1000 words), poetry, or pictures of your artwork and they’ll be posted on the blog. Send them all in, with a photograph of yourself and a three line bio, and your social media details to:


Also, keep your eyes on the site for pieces from Rebecca Hodes (SA), Tammy Sutherns (SA), Rosa Lyster (SA), Lizl Morden (SA), Njoki Wamai (Kenya), Kagure Mugo (Kenya) and Marion Stevens (SA).

Keep up the good work feminists!


FeministsSA is taking a break. Back in August 2015

FeministsSA will be taking a break from publishing articles for June and July 2015 to undertake a bit of a revamp and to develop a themed guide for 2015/16 in order to encourage you all to write. If you have suggestions about the appearance, accessibility, or content of the site please feel free to email it to feministssa@gmail.com

See you in August. In the meantime, start writing!

Lean Back, Please

Natasha Skoryk
Natasha Skoryk

by Natasha Skoryk

First off, I’d like to say that I read Lean In last year, and I liked it. I liked it so much that I took photos of certain paragraphs and messaged them to my best friend. I particularly loved the sections on not feeling the need to be ‘unemotional’ in a workplace environment, Sandberg’s telling women to stop expecting more senior females to mentor them purely on account of their shared gender and her trepidation about women setting unattainable standards of perfection for themselves, which then prohibit them from feeling successful. I did not find the book particularly revolutionary in how it dealt with gender issues. I didn’t really get a sense of it being any sort of concrete manifesto. I read Lean In as a memoir of a very successful career woman, whom I admire, and a self-empowerment book. And I felt pretty self-empowered by the end, so I recommended the book to others, because I figured it did what it set out to do pretty well.

But I was wrong. Because Lean In had actually set out to become a practical movement. Lean In, a book about one middle class white woman’s success in the corporate world and her (genuinely good) advice for others like her, is now being framed as seminal doctrine. Which is where my confusion starts. The book is all about self-empowerment, so I struggle to see how it can form the basis of a grassroots movement that seeks to bring about meaningful transformation. I struggle to see how personal advice about things women can do to better themselves in corporate environments can be institutionalised to bring about mass change. But apparently, there is now a Lean In Circle at the University of Cape Town, trying to do just that. I quite like that name, I fancy the idea of women seated around a table, leaning the fuck in and grabbing opportunities. I just don’t really see how this Lean In Circle is doing that.

Lean In at UCT has fringed my life – I have several friends involved. This is unsurprising – most of my friends, both male and female, self-identify as feminists. However, this week the organisation made its way onto my social media radar with ‘The Man Campaign’ that they have now implemented. The idea, I’ve been told, is to ensure men are not sidelined from the feminist movement. The idea, as I understand it, is to get men’s ‘buy in’ to support gender equality. And, well. I fundamentally disagree with the premises that led to those two ideas.

Men have never been sidelined from feminist discourse. Men have never been excluded from the conversation. In fact, men have been, and still are, shaping the conversation. Lawmakers continue to predominantly be men. Most of current female-centric media is being produced by men. This is a problem. This needs to change. While we undoubtedly need support from men, we don’t need the conversation focusing around how men view gender inequality. We need men listening to the conversation, and participating in it to a degree, but the conversation needs to be shaped by women. This is not a radical notion. The idea of allies to the oppressed is present in most equality movements – yet for some reason, the idea of ‘allies’ to feminists continues to appear problematic to a lot of people. For some reason, ‘allies’ to feminists are expected to ‘buy in’. They are allowed to purchase a part of our conversation, a part of our experience, in order to validate it to society at large. They are expected to own a part of the discourse for their ‘mothers, sisters, wives and daughters’.

The reduction of women to their relationships to men has already permeated ‘The Man Campaign’. The first image shown depicted a young man saying that women are the most powerful people in the world (this is a well-meaning lie, women are not the most powerful people, women continue to take up but a small percentage of leadership roles in both the public and civil sectors and there remains a pervasive pay gap between genders – all issues, interestingly, that Sandberg highlights in her book), and that he really loves and respects his mother. I have no problem with the latter claim, except where it ties into feminism.

Please, men. Stop being feminist for the exceptional women in your life. I don’t like the insinuation that because certain women are phenomenal, all women must be. I don’t like women being reduced to one homogenous group based on preconceived ideas of femininity gleaned from the other women in men’s lives – regardless of whether those ideas are positive or negative. This takes away women’s individualism and agency. Some women are horrible. I simply don’t love all women. I also don’t love all men. But I believe they must be treated equally, because I believe in fundamental human rights. And I know that women are currently oppressed, whereas men are not. Which is why I am a feminist and not broadly egalitarian.

Another thing that needs to stop is the idea that men ought to support feminism because they stand to benefit from gender equality. They do. Feminism supports stay-at-home fathers, paternal rights and men being sensitive and creative. Patriarchy is harmful for men and women alike, the gender binary is devastating for us all. If ‘The Man Campaign’ had focused on the ways men are harmed by patriarchy, I would have possibly resented it less. That is a worthwhile conversation. Still, let’s not focus our attention on the benefits to the oppressor. Men should be supporting feminism because they believe in principles of equality. Not for certain special women. Not for themselves. But for us all, as a society.

Honestly, I really don’t need men validating my feminism. ‘The Man Campaign’s’ insinuation that I do, that by having men talk about my issues they somehow gain credibility in broader society, is abhorrent to me. I want men supporting and engaging with feminist discourse. But no, I’d rather they not Lean In with us. Why? Because they’ve already been leaning in for centuries. Let’s have men lean back for once, and let women shape this one conversation.


Natasha is a third year humanities student at the University of Cape Town. She is passionate about societal transformation, and is actively involved in student life, currently serving as Deputy Chair Internal of Ubunye. Ubunye is one of UCT’s development agencies, committed to meaningful change amongst the student population and the communities at large.

Touch Yourself – Because it’s good for you

Kagure Mugo, Feminism, Masturbation
Kagure Mugo

By Kagure Mugo

‘Get your hands away from there.’

This is the reprimand we have gotten since we were small girls, curious about what was going on between our thighs.

Boobs? Sure. Legs? Cool. Hips? Fine. But this vagina thing…with its ability to change temperature, moisture levels and make you tingle all over, what is it? What is it about?

Unfortunately we were never allowed to know.

There is a need to have conversations around all the taboo around masturbation to break that taboo down. So this is for everyone who touched themselves and felt bad about it. Everyone who was told off for digging for pleasure, everyone who was told only boys spank the monkey. For every woman who heard they would grow hair on the palms of their hands.

Masturbation is vilified. You know it’s bad when even the boys are not allowed to do it, and they are seemingly allowed to do anything. But gender relations aside the idea of masturbation is so powerful it had to be shut down and fast. Because with masturbation women can make sex fantastic.

And then the world might end. And anarchy will ensue.

Or not.

With the idea of pleasure being marketed as a male dominated activity and women seemingly picking up the scraps there is a need to change the phallocentric approach to sex.

The vagina is a powerful cosmic space which people must respect and understand, especially those who have them. You need to be well educated in the way it works but you cannot get an education without taking some classes. And unfortunately some things are better learned on a practical level.

Masturbation is sex with someone you should love, deeply and wildly. It is about taking back your sexual power and your sexy and knowing what makes you tick so you know what time you are coming.

This chat is to tackle that stigma surrounding masturbation, give some tips and open the space to have that conversation. Because late at night, when you just want a little taste of your own awesome and you take it, you are really not the only one.

So you really should go right ahead.

Don’t feel guilty about it. Or do, if that’s what gets you off.


Join in the dialogue this evening on masturbation. 7pm South African time. Follow the hashtags #TouchUrself and #SexTalkNaija

Kagure Mugo is the intoxicatingly scary gatekeeper of HOLAAfrica, an online Pan African queer womanist community dealing with sexuality and all things woman.

She is also a writer and freelance journalist who tackles sex, politics and other less interesting topics. During weekends she is a wine bar philosopher and polymath for no pay.

When ideologies and sexism collide: workplace sexism

Caitlin Spring, workplace sexism, feminism
Caitlin Spring

By Caitlin Spring

Oh, so this is what they were talking about when they discussed sexism in the working world. It usually wasn’t particularly overt, several people who witnessed it probably didn’t even notice, and some who did thought it was pretty funny; some good banter.

I had made it through my undergrad without ever having to do any group work. However, I was recently part of a team with a definite power hierarchy and a formal working structure. This year’s senior leadership body was comprised only of men, and initially I saw no problem with this. We’re a very liberal group. We stand on the right side of issues of oppression and discrimination. However, throughout the process of working in this team, certain situations arose that made me feel deeply uncomfortable: they contribute to the discourse surrounding sexism in work environments. Once I’d had some distance from the group I was able to reflect, and what I looked back on was highly problematic.

It’s important to remember that sexism is almost never going to involve your boss standing in front of you saying, ‘You are a woman, therefore you are inferior to all the men here’. Instead, it will be a series of trends that, when examined together, show women consistently undermined in various subtle ways. Patriarchy is powerful, it’s built into how we speak and how we act, but there’s a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves so we don’t propagate the kinds of misogynistic behaviour I experienced.

When I started to reflect, I realised that the two people the group leader had the biggest issues with were women. They were both women who executed their jobs really well. They were women with strong personalities: so they were labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘stubborn’. They disagreed with the group leader on some of his decisions. I didn’t find the fact that there had been disagreements problematic; no one is going to agree all the time. However, I found the manner in which these disagreements or conflicts were handled, particularly so. When these women voiced their opinions over the table as supposed ‘equals’, these were often disregarded in light of their ‘difficult and unreasonable’ viewpoints. A lot of the team saw these women, who were brought on board for their expertise in their respective fields, being publically undermined in meetings, and did nothing.

Then there was the time when I disagreed with the way my work was handled. Instead of my concerns being respectfully listened to and considered, the leader sent me a picture of his name and title, and I was told that this ‘isn’t a democracy’. I was then told to stop being so ‘emotional and sensitive’. My rational concerns were reduced to my temperament. I was later told to be mature. For decades, women’s concerns have been reduced to infantile irrationalities. Small actions like this speak to how women are professionally undermined. It is the compounding of these small instances that do great damage to how women are seen (by men and other women) and how women see themselves in workplace environments.

And then there was the time when the sexual relationships of people in the group were discussed in a working Whatsapp chat. No one shut down the inappropriate and offensive jokes that sprang up from this. Comments like, ‘oh, that is poes funny’ were used. Using ‘poes’ is problematic enough, using ‘poes’ in response to slut shaming made me deeply uncomfortable. Anything that contains a ‘bros/hos’ binary is problematic, especially when done in a seemingly professional context.

Something we released for public viewing was called out for having homophobic undertones. Nothing constructive was done in response to these allegations, and those who raised the concerns were ridiculed behind the scenes. Laughing at anyone who’s standing up for gay rights is not okay.

Throughout this experience I was so tempted to justify why I had a legitimate reason to be frustrated. Yes, I was directly affected, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be objective. So often the victims of discrimination feel the need to defend ourselves to prove that we aren’t crazy, that it is real, that we have a right to be upset – and this is dangerous. I know I’m not subjectively twisting and fabricating the truth, nor was this article written out of angry emotion, despite accusations to that effect. This is an article about how easy it is to be part of the problem and what I’ve learned from my experience.

I’ve learned that people who are perfectly nice can be extremely misogynistic and oblivious to their role in propagating patriarchy by undermining, dismissing, and slut shaming the women on their team. I’ve learned that most people simply won’t understand why you’re upset when these instances make you uncomfortable. I’ve learned that far too much is defended in the name of a joke, too many ideals forgotten for a moment of banter. However, I’m not the only one who saw these things. I’ve spoken to various people on the team who hold varying levels of power and when pressed a lot of them agree with me. But if so many of us were uncomfortable, why didn’t any of us speak out sooner? Everyone needs to speak out when someone is being targeted; a disrespectful act is never small. Surely we’ve evolved from letting the popular kids pick on someone? What is it about a group dynamic that allows for such unacceptable interactions to take place? I think a strong responsibility rests on leadership to set the boundaries for social interactions, I think there needs to be a definite line of what constitutes ‘going too far’. I think that line was absent. I don’t see the senior leadership body as a homogenous group of sexist men; I know that isn’t true. A lot of the sexism was propagated unintentionally, but lack of awareness is not a sufficient excuse.

That being said, I’m horribly disappointed in myself for not speaking out sooner. But it’s hard to go against a group dynamic and sometimes it’s hard to realize how problematic a situation is until you’ve had some distance to reflect on exactly what it was that made you uncomfortable. And it’s also important to remember that even though I didn’t speak out enough at the time, those who propagated the wrongs and I are not equally guilty.

Sometimes people aren’t receptive to being called out and can get ugly and defensive. Don’t let someone intimidate you as they try shift blame from their own discriminatory actions to your uncomfortable silence.

We are the future leaders of this country. Our interpersonal relationships have to be conducive to the society we want to live in. No sexism, or racism or homophobia can ever be tolerated for a joke. Let’s not write essays about a just society and then act in a way that destroys that future in our next social interaction.





Why the casual sexism at UCT matters

Dela Gwala
Dela Gwala

By Dela Gwala

“The girls here are all sluts man, is it any better at Rhodes?”. I overheard this question on Jammie plaza last year. The unidentified dudebro essentially ruined my lunch and made me vow to continue hiding out in the postgraduate corners of this institution.  Against my better judgement, I continued to take tea breaks on those pigeon-infested stairs. One day, I came across a poster promoting UCT’s netball team. It was basically a full-blown shot of several pairs of disembodied legs with the catchphrase “UCT netball team revealed”. Strange I thought, whenever I see a poster that concerns the rugby team their legs are attached to the rest of their bodies. A few days later, walking back to the dingy postgrad labs, I noticed another poster. This one was advertising a College House party. In the bottom right corner it said ‘R 20’ and underneath that ‘Puss ‘n Pint.’

I’m not the only one that continuously bumps into UCT’s culture of casual sexism. The First Year’s introduction to life in a campus residence seems to be a training ground for misogyny.  A recent Facebook post that popped up on my timeline spoke of the questionable war cries sang by members of some of the male residences. Apparently, in recent years, the Smuts Hall boys sang that they could go to Fuller House and get some free vagina…And they sang this to the Fuller girls. Also, the Kopano boys had been heard listfully wishing that women’s buttocks were like buns.

Opening up the latest edition of SAX appeal, the editor started his letter with the sentence “Nabeel you’re going to get all the bitches”. It’s satirical social commentary they said. Sian Ferguson, UCT alumnus and current Rhodes student, tweeted “good satire should make the oppressor feel uncomfortable, not the oppressed”. The common denominator in all of the above examples is that a group of people that are often socially, politically and economically marginalised due to their gender are thrown under the bus for the sake of humour.

“When we live in a world where street harassment is just a normal part of life it sets up a culture where even worse things happen behind closed doors.” These were the words attached to a piece of street art whose image made its way around social media a couple of months ago. The same goes for casual sexism. When you create an environment that is accepting of gross objectification of women then you are fuelling a culture that will ignore the violence committed against them. If we’re all just skanks, sluts, hoes and bitches then what happens to us is inconsequential – we had it coming anyway.

I wonder if the unidentified dudebro from the beginning of this article is aware that the language he uses comes straight out of the mouth of a sex offender. Words that demean women because of their sexual past/activities are always the first port of call to rationalise what they’ve done. Policing women’s sexuality allows for a social space where they get blamed for sexual crimes committed against them. If you think our worth or respectability is determined by how much sex we are or aren’t having or the amount of clothing we wear then those will be the first questions that come up when you’re trying to determine whether an act of sexual violence has happened or not.

Being on a campus where judging women’s sexuality is part of everyday conversation means we don’t ask important questions. We don’t ask why we’re not sure of the procedure/policy of reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus. We don’t ask why we don’t know the statistics of how many of these incidents occur on campus. We don’t ask why DISCHO, the body in charge of dealing with these cases, is underfunded and understaffed.  We don’t ask these questions because we’re too busy blaming women for going about their lives the way they see fit. We don’t ask because we don’t really care. When women are only vaguely human – owners of body parts we mock and objectify – then why should we?

Gender and local government: What needs to change

Nicole Graham, DA, women, councillor
Nicole Graham

By Nicole Graham

I became a local government councillor on 18 May, 2011. At the time, I was a 21 year old university student and wasn’t sure it was something I would do for any length of time. I was studying a post-graduate LLB and had been active in the DA since I was 17 years old.  The opportunity seemed to be a good learning experience and so I took it. I came into the eThekwini Council at number 21 on the DA’s proportional list; not high, but not unimpressive.

Immediately, I was struck with how unsuitable the environment was for young women. I was called ‘girly’ and ‘kiddo’ by colleagues and faced endless comments about my outfits, looks and body. Continuous sexual harassment only came to an end when colleagues realized I was serious about pursuing charges. I received general disdain from politicians and municipal officials, despite my increasingly solid performance in my committee and council meetings.

After a colleague resigned in 2013, I applied to stand in a ward. I had begun to enjoy the challenge of local government and the close relationship with communities. Ward councillors are the only directly elected politicians in South Africa- the rest are effectively elected by their political parties using a list system. I wanted to work on the ground in the community I lived in and loved, and was fortunate enough to be elected to do so. It is a wonderful ward, but a very tough one to work in, plagued by numerous difficult challenges and governed by a municipality that is often unable to tackle them.

Despite improved gender representation in South Africa, women often find themselves moved out of the competitive political space. Democracy and the ANC’s 50/ 50 policy has definitely seen the overall picture improve, with far more female councillors, MPs and even Ministers in office from 1994. This is significant. The political landscape, however, remains overwhelmingly better suited than to men that it is to women. I don’t think a single political party and their policies could have changed that alone. There is definitely room for improvement regarding gender issues across the political spectrum- which is too extensive to discuss here- but I think this issue runs far deeper than elective politics. It is symptomatic of our society, and a broad reflection of how our communities continue to operate.

eThekwini has almost 100 female councillors, but less than 20 are directly elected ward councillors like myself. Men are the ones with their faces on the posters and the women are used to cushion the PR lists.  In the Zimbabwean Parliament, 60 seats are reserved for women that are proportionally elected by their political parties. I once asked a young female MP why she held one of these seats and didn’t contest in her home constituency. Her reply was simple: she didn’t have the money to pay for her campaign. That is real barrier in many of our neighbouring countries that lists and quotas alone cannot change. It is an improvement to have more women in their parliament, but still a massive problem that they can’t always compete in the same way.

Pervasive attitudes, often attributed to liberalism, seem to think that the barriers to women entering local government aren’t real. They seem to think that the problem lies with women, who should be more willing to enter the arena and fight it out with the boys. I am a liberal. I am a liberal who believes that attitudes and barriers that prevent people from operating as equals in any given environment should be tackled, especially when they relate to race, gender and sexual orientation. I am perfectly able to fight it out with the boys, (and regularly do), but I shouldn’t have to. I should be able to function as male colleagues do – without the extra drama, without having to regularly explain to men why they cannot talk about my dresses, without having to face undue criticism because I am young and female.

I do not think all criticism of me is invalid or unfair. Being a councillor is difficult, and I am bound to sometimes drop the ball or say the wrong thing. I accept that criticism when I do as best as I can. Even after many years in local government, I still will not know how to solve everything and may sometimes be confused or disillusioned. It is par for the course. I try my absolute hardest to be available and accessible, to resolve queries and to represent the interests of my community as best as I can. Still, I am often bombarded with strange rumours, bizarre claims and downright rude comments about things that do not affect my politics at all. Often, these come from people who have never met me or asked me for any kind of assistance.

Patriarchy is a complicated thing. It makes women more likely to see other women as threats or competition in a way that does not happen to men. It makes men and women more likely to question the credibility and abilities of women in all levels of government, as well as corporate and academic environments. It also makes women open to intrusions about their private lives that often supersede their actual work.

To this end, I am trying to establish some kind of support and mentoring structure for young women who wish to follow the same path that I have. I will continue to do my work as best as I can, and continue to confront gender-based challenges head on. I will make it a priority to raise matters related to women in the eThekwini Council, even when they are not supported. Local government is a difficult political space, but more so for women. It is vital that we acknowledge this, and move towards meaningfully correcting it.


Female State of the Nation: The health issues we should be concerned about

By Rebecca Hodes, Marion Stevens, and Jen Thorpe

Marion Stevens
Marion Stevens

Marion: The State of the Nation speech happened last week and despite a number of health challenges continuing to face South Africans, far less was said about this than would have been the ideal. In fact, more was said about the Rhino protection programme.

Within health the broad epidemics of HIV, Tuberculosis (TB), Violence against women (VAW) and substance abuse were noted and plans to remedy these through antiretroviral Treatment (ART) and TB treatment programmes, speaking out against VAW and tobacco control were proposed.

As I was digesting this input the face of a black woman with a bruised face surfaced repeatedly on my media platforms, following her expulsion from the House in the EFF scuffle. This disconnect was jarring.

In my area of focus (reproductive justice) women, and in particular black women, continue to bear the brunt of ill health in South Africa. We need leadership and the implementation of our good policies in order to truly transform the lives of women accessing reproductive health services. Schools need to provide comprehensive sexuality education and provide condom access (both female and male). We also need to continue Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programmes to reduce the risk that women will contract cervical cancer late in life.

Women and girls need information about the range of contraception options available and to be able to have a conversation with a health provider and choose the method that is most suitable for them. Should contraception fail and a pregnancy takes place women should have access to HIV testing and also have access to a safe and legal abortion and not have to have to resort to an illegal provider. Maternal health programmes need to continue to welcome women and to provide them with good information about their pregnancy and planned delivery.

The Department of Health needs to strengthen it’s work on sexual and reproductive health and rights and the leadership needs to refrain from using misinformed language that suggests that women use abortion as a form of contraception. Commodities, supplies in relation to reproductive health from female condoms to IUCDS need to be strengthened. These suggestions are not new, our Department of Health has fabulous policies, but little leadership and stewardship to implement them.

Are Rhino’s more important than the health of women in South Africa?

Rebecca Hodes
Rebecca Hodes

Rebecca:  There is good news and bad news.

The good news:

By the end of 2010, over 1 million people in South Africa had been initiated on ART (Republic of South Africa 2010). By 2013, this figure had escalated to 2 010 340 adults reported to be receiving ART in South Africa’s public health services (UNAIDS 2013: A86). The expansion in ART provision was testament to the efficacy of a broad-based alliance of healthcare workers, patients, activists, researchers, government officials, donors and other partners who continue to collaborate in the expansion and improvement of the national HIV response. South Africa’s ART programme has begun to reverse the precipitous decline in life expectancy, wrought by AIDS mortality, that came to characterise South African demography in the late 1990s. Due to the provision of ART, life expectancy in South Africa has increased by six years, and mortality among children and adults has declined by 43% and 20% respectively (Mayosi et al, 2012). By 2010, the life expectancy of patients initiating ART was around 80% of normal life expectancy (Johnson et al. 2013: 5).

The bad news:

The structural factors that increase vulnerability to HIV infection and transmission pose persistent challenges to the progress in South Africa’s health sector, and to the democratic transition more broadly. These factors are manifest in enablers of HIV infection, including unemployment, alcohol abuse and gender violence. While health and social interventions to diagnose, treat and manage HIV have provided some of the services necessary to address the needs of patients, the deep-seated determinants of risk and resilience towards HIV infection in South Africa have remained largely intact.

In South Africa’s struggle for public access to treatment, the attention of health care workers and activists was focused on initiating patients onto antiretroviral treatment. Now that South Africa has the world’s largest cohort of patients on antiretrovirals, we must confront the challenges posed by sustaining a massive public health intervention at a time in which resources for health are declining and there is donor fatigue for funding HIV treatment programmes (Mills et al., 2010).

The stigma surrounding HIV remains prohibitive, preventing the vast majority of HIV-positive people from disclosing their status openly and publicly. While antiretroviral treatment has saved the lives of many, recent studies have shown that, contrary to the expectations of public health specialists, the public provision of treatment has not alleviated HIV stigma in South Africa.

While the fight for public access to ART has won numerous gains for women, the primary focus on their health outcomes as mothers, and the related prioritisation by public health specialists, donors and activists of Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) initiatives, has shifted attention away from other reproductive health rights. Health interventions that have prioritised treatment for women as mothers has placed primary value on their reproductive capacity rather than their individual health outcomes (Eyakuze, Jones, Starrs & Sorkin, 2008, p. 33).

In spite of the requirement in many healthcare settings that HIV-positve women accept contraception as a pre-requisite for access to ART, social sanctions and individual factors compelling people to become parents continue to play a formative role in the reproductive choices of people with HIV. If the roll-out of ART is to continue to improve the health outcomes of women in Southern Africa, sexual and reproductive health must be repositioned at the centre of HIV prevention and treatment programmes.

South Africa has among the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the world, but research has shown that very few women report rape or seek healthcare services after being raped or assaulted.[i] Survivors of rape and sexual assault have the right to free medical advice and medications, as stated in the Sexual Offences Act (2007).

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

Jen: In terms of mentioning women specifically, the 2015 SONA limited itself to describing the fact that ‘some progress had been made in fighting crimes against women and children.’ Whilst that can be debated in other platforms, what is important to consider for women’s health is the very strong linkages between violence against women and HIV and sexually transmitted infection contraction.

In addition to what Rebecca describes above, the links between violence and HIV have been well documented by the World Health Organisation and can be summarised as follows:

  • rape and sexual violence usually result in trauma to women’s genitalia, increasing the likelihood of contracting HIV and other viruses;
  • sexual abuse in childhood has been linked to risky sexual behaviour in adulthood, increasing the chances that an individual will contract HIV;
  • violence or fear of violence can reduce the likelihood that a woman feels safe or empowered to negotiate condom use;
  • violence or fear of violence, in addition to societal stigma and the gendering of disease, can make it less likely for women to go for HIV and other STD testing; and
  • violence can make it less likely for women to go for antenatal testing when pregnant, thus reducing the efficacy and reach of programmes designed to prevent mother to child transmission.

Sonke Gender Justice recently called for a National Strategic Plan on violence against women, and this is a call that bears serious consideration.

Another element that was left out of the State of the Nation was South Africa’s extremely high maternal mortality rate, and the fact that over the past years this has only reduced marginally. South Africa is far off from achieving the maternal mortality rate set by the Millennium Development Goals as made clear in Part 1 of this series. The leading causes of death were non-pregnancy related infection (most often HIV related illnesses) and high blood pressure. It seems essential then that the outreach of maternal health services should be widely expanded.

Our teen pregnancy rates also remain high. Early pregnancy has long term impacts on the lives of girls, and because of patriarchal gender norms continues to impact on girls education and life choices far more than it does on boys. In addition, the number of pregnancies that happen in school should be a serious concern as many of these are legally rape. Where healthy consensual sexual activity happens between adolescents, problems with the legislation around sexual offences have the impact of limiting adolescents access to sexual and reproductive health services, making it more likely that they will not seek treatment for sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. Possible amendments to this legislation are currently before the Portfolio Committee on Justice. This must be addressed as soon as possible.

The State of the Nation will never be the speech that will solve all women’s health problems. However, there was certainly more space available to address these significant challenges than was used.

Female State of the Nation: Part 4: Crime and Human Rights

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 ‘Where are We’, Part 2 ‘Women and the Economy‘, Part 3: ‘Energy and the Environment

As South Africans it seems that it is impossible to go a day without seeing a news headline of a violent attack in some form. Between 2006 and 2013, more than one million crimes were committed against women. Common assault was the most common contact crime, followed by assault with the intent to commit grievous bodily harm. The Table below provides a breakdown of the SAPS statistics.

But before you get there, statistics of this scale are often hard to process. It’s difficult to imagine what more they represent. So when you see these numbers, I want you to think of the images you know of the 1956 women’s march that changed our history. In that march, there were roughly 20 000 women.

Crimes against women 2006 – 2013[1]

Year Murder Sexual Offences Serious assault (assault GBH) Common assault Total
2006/7 2 602 34 816 69 132 100 390 206 940
2007/8 2 544 31 328 64 084 94 286 192 242
2008/9 2 436 30 124 61 509 91 390 185 459
2009/10 2 457 36 093 62 143 94 176 194 869
2010/11 2 594 35 820 60 630 89 956 189 000
2011/12 2 286 31 299 57 345 87 191 178 121
2012/13 2 266 29 928 55 320 83 394 170 908
Total for crime category 2006 – 2013 17 185 229 408 430 163 640 783 1 317 539

It’s unfortunate that the crime statistics are not reported in a gender-disaggregated way each year that would allow us to track what types of crimes women are reporting. In 2012/13 however, the SAPS did report in this way, as detailed in the table above. In that year, adult females were more likely than adult males and children to be the victim of sexual offences and common assault. In terms of the total number of crimes, sexual offences against adult females represented 45 percent of all sexual offences, and common assault against adult females represented 48 percent of all common assaults.

So it’s clear that women are more likely to report certain types of crimes – namely sexual offences and common assaults. It’s possible to conclude that these common assaults represent some of the domestic violence statistics which, although tracked daily by the SAPS, have never been reported on.

It is important therefore for those listening to SONA to consider what commitments have been made to women in terms of protecting them from crime both outside and within the home. In the 2014 SONA the only commitment made was that the Government would ‘work to reduce levels of crime’. Following the deaths of Anene Booysen, Anni Dewani, and Reeva Steenkamp, a great deal of noise was made by many Government representatives from all parties about the need to address crimes against women. But now that noise has become an almost inaudible murmur.

Two years ago the Government via the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities launched the National Council on Gender Based Violence (NCGBV). This council was formed to address and monitor high levels of violence against women, as well as to consider strategies to prevent further violence. During 2014, after finalising its identity, the Council seemed to disappear. Another commitment made was the development of new sexual offences courts and the refurbishment of existing courts to become sexual offences courts. This is another development which seems to have disappeared from the agenda. There is also an inter-ministerial committee on violence against women. Yet, the relevant departments are not working together to improve the lives of survivors in a way that is evident, efficient or speedy enough. If these commitments are not discussed tonight, why not? If there is not sufficient budget for these important services, where is that money being redirected to?

Of course, as I explained in Part 1 a useful term to understand is intersectionality. That is, the intersection of various forms of oppression on different people. With crime and violence, it is true that certain categories of women are more vulnerable.

Sex workers currently face a number of human rights violations because of the criminalisation of the sale of sex in South Africa. These have been well documented by organisations like the Women’s Legal Centre and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Excellent arguments exist for decriminalising sex work, and ensuring that sex workers are able to perform their work without fear of violence from police, and from perpetrators.

Violence against Lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women is also prevalent, and there has unfortunately been a move away from South Africa’s active championship of LGBTI rights on the continent. The National Task Team on Hate Crimes was formed in 2011, and since then the Department of Justice has made several commitments to introduce new legislation to support LGBTI victims of violence. However, four years later this has not happened. This failure to amend existing legislation to enhance sentences for hate crimes, or to introduce new legislation that will effectively allow for the tracking of these incidents and the prevention thereof, is an indication of a lack of political will to really support the right to be free from discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation. South Africa’s failure to criticise other African states for ‘anti-gay’ laws indicates that we have moved back from the leadership role on these issues. In 2014, a transgender woman undertook a hunger strike after Home Affairs repeatedly failed to assist her in changing the sex status on her ID document.

This is not the time to be inactive or complacent about violence against women. There is a need to identify this as a core issue in tonight’s SONA, and if not, to question how the problem will be addressed in the 2015/16 period.



[1] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 770.

Female State of the Nation: Part 3: Energy and the Environment

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 – ‘Where are we’ here, and Part 2 ‘Women and the economy’ here

It seems important that I’m sitting in my living room in the dark during load-shedding trying to finish this portion of the SONA analysis on the environment and energy. It couldn’t be much clearer to me that the decisions that the State makes about how we produce and distribute our energy impact on women, particularly those that are already facing other challenges such as poverty.

What does it mean for women when the lights go out, or to have never been connected to electricity in the first place?

In public, it means dark streets, intersections, public transport routes, and footpaths. Any woman reading this does not need any further detail about the sense that this darkness is inherently dangerous, and limits women’s ability to enjoy their Constitutional right to move freely, and to be free from violence. Part four of this series will deal with crime and human rights, and so I will not belabor the point further in this section.

As noted earlier in this series of posts, the NDP makes clear that access to basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” As already discussed in the section on women and the economy, women’s economic empowerment is critical to the development and well being of the entire family.

Across South Africa, around a third of households do not have access to electricity. When there is load shedding or no electricity, households must use alternative energy sources to prepare food and heat water. As of 2011, according to the census, only 26 percent of households in informal settlements used electricity as their main form of energy for heating, 39 percent used electricity for cooking, and 43 percent used electricity for lighting. In 2011, 57 percent of all households classified as “informal dwellings” (shacks not in backyards) had no access to electricity at all.

According to the 2010 survey of time use, women were twice as likely as men to spend time on food preparation and where electricity is not available, this is likely to take much longer, placing further domestic strain on women. In addition, a Housing Development Agency Report noted that female-headed households in informal settlements are more likely to be overcrowded and house skip generation families, as well as non-family residents, creating an even more extensive burden on these women.

There are multiple risks of using these alternative sources of energy to cook and heat the home. A 2009 World Health Organisation bulletin noted that because paraffin is highly flammable, this can lead to fires either from malfunctioning appliances, placing appliances too close to curtains, or accidents. In addition, the use of paraffin in wooden or cardboard structures, as well as in population dense areas means the risk of fire is further escalated

The energy crisis in South Africa is at the forefront of many of our minds because of the inability to flick a switch and turn on a light. What may seem a more distant issue is the impact of our energy decisions on women in the long term. I think it’s important then to explore what climate change means for women, and how South Africa’s current energy decisions are likely to increase our contribution to climate change and are already affecting the health of many South Africans.

It is well documented that in times of environmental crisis women are often hardest hit. This has been recognized by women’s organisations and institutions for many years: Women and the Environment was one of the 12 areas of critical concern acknowledged in the Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1995. The document states that:

“Awareness of resource depletion, the degradation of natural systems and the dangers of polluting substances has increased markedly in the past decade. These worsening conditions are destroying fragile ecosystems and displacing communities, especially women, from productive activities and are an increasing threat to a safe and healthy environment.”

In South African policy this has also been acknowledged. The NDP notes that climate change will have a negative effect on the health of communities, and that this will disproportionately impact women and children.[1]

It was positive that the 2014 State of the Nation speech called for

” a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.”

And yet, simultaneously there continued to be investment in coal power at the expense of our renewable electricity infrastructure, and at the expense of the health and livelihoods of many South Africans, many of whom are women.

The impact of these decisions on the health of the population is not something that will only happen in the future. It is already happening. The environmental impact is not only a long term, but current. Witbank in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air. In The Poisoned People Greenpeace Africa details the stories of the people who live around coal mines, many of whom who are already suffering from respiratory problems as well as other health conditions.

There continues to be this push for coal despite the fact that it already results in hundreds of deaths per year as a result of air pollution, and this could increase when (if) Medupi comes online. This could be as high a figure as 20 000 premature deaths. Eskom has consistently exceeded air quality limits on pollution, and yet in 2014 applied for the right not to comply with Minimum Emission Standards. There continues to be this push for coal despite it becoming a massive financial burden for the State, and it being well over budget. Eskom continues to get State bail outs that could be invested in renewable energy which is labour intensive, will reduce South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and will not have the same devastating health impact that coal is having. It is important then, to listen to SONA tomorrow to consider whether

The decision to continue to invest in environmentally damaging energy production methods such as fracking, rather than redirect investment towards greener energy will impact on women. Other than the aesthetic destruction of environments, fracking is an incredibly water intense activity. Even if the well-documented risks of groundwater pollution do not happen in South Africa, we are a water scarce country. Where water is not readily available, or in times of drought, again the impact on women’s domestic responsibilities is significant.

In addition, around 16 000 women are involved in the formal agricultural sector[i], and many more are involved in informal agriculture in order to meet the food security needs of their families. Women already face additional obstacles to becoming involved in agriculture (such as access to technology and finance), and climate change will only heighten these challenges. Thus, a drought or an impact on the ground water because of pollution will have a profound impact on women in terms of job losses, and food insecurity. This is already happening in countries bordering and near to South Africa.

Our future energy decisions, proposed and discussed in the State of the Nation, will continue have a profound impact on women. As you listen to the speech tomorrow, consider how the decisions about energy and the environment could impact on women.

If women are not mentioned at all in this regard, as has frequently been the case, it is likely that their interests will not be considered. It is clear that any further decisions about our energy future should be made only with specific consultation with women’s interest groups, in order to ensure that our energy and environmental policies are gender-sensitive, and in line with the Constitution which provides every South African with the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have it protected for future generations to come.

[1] NDP

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253

Female State of the Nation Part 2: The Economy and Women

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 here.

State of the Nation Speeches often begin with a discussion of the economic situation. So that is where Part 2 of this series will enter the discussion.

Women make up the majority of the unemployed across all age categories, but particularly amongst the youth.[1] What is interesting about this figure is that whilst unemployment in general has grown, and simultaneous the number of employed people has grown (as the population grows, this happens), the percentage gap between the number of employed males and females has remained the same.[2] Essentially, what this statistic tells us is that there continue to be barriers for women entering the job market, and these barriers affect men less than they do women.

These barriers are complex and differ for women from different backgrounds. Whilst the official SONA is likely to refer to the infamous triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, for women there are often more than three factors affecting their ability to find employment, and to remain employed. Academics use the term ‘intersectionality’ to explain how different forms of oppression intersect to create different lived experiences for women, and I think this is a useful term to use here.

The NDP itself notes that patriarchal attitudes remain a barrier for many women. In the old days this might be reflected in a saying like ‘why hire a woman to do a man’s job’. Currently, economic chauvinists are required to keep these opinions to themselves. However, there remain sectors of the South African economy where women are the minority, and often women encounter a glass ceiling to their progress. Most women who were employed in 2013 were involved in trade or in community and social services (including government).[3] As of 2012, only 3.6 percent of Chief Executive Officers were women and 5.5 percent of Chairpersons were women.[4]

Patriarchal attitudes also reinforce stereotypical gender roles meaning that women remain responsible for the majority of household work, even when they are employed.[5] The annual average income figures indicate an even more significant gap between men and women. When the 2001 and 2011 annual income figures of men and women are compared, it is clear that the annual average income of a female in 2011 remains only slightly higher than the annual average income of a male was in 2001.[6]

The NDP also recognises that the provision of basic services to women improves their ability to be healthy and supported workers. The NDP notes that basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” I would further suggest that the development of better transportation infrastructure that is safe, well-lit, and regular would mean that women would not have to brave violence in public on their way to and from work. In addition, I strongly suggest the consideration of equitable paternity and maternity leave so that the gendered division of child care is reduced, allowing new mothers and fathers to raise children together, and support one another during their careers.

We can all agree that unemployment is a bad situation for everyone and that solutions are necessary for both men and women, so why should we care specifically about unemployed women? For a number of reasons. Evidence suggests that around 38 percent of households in South Africa are headed by a single mother.[7] The education of women also affects women in the future – educated mothers are more likely to have healthier babies, and their own children are more likely to attend school.[8] Women’s education and resultant economic empowerment not only affects women, it profoundly changes the gendered functioning of the economy and society.

Furthermore, ensuring that women have access to their own income can mean the difference between leaving a violent relationship and staying. In a response to a 2013 Parliamentary Question, the Department of Justice reported that around 50 percent of women who dropped their domestic violence case did so because they were financially dependent on their abusive partner. Where patriarchal norms remain the norm, and where violence is readily used by many partners to ensure women are ‘put in their place’, the decision of the state to ignore the feminisation of poverty will mean that they relegate women to remain punching bags for the crisis of masculinity.

So women’s economic empowerment is essential to the development of democracy, and to a more equal situation for many people in the country. This is certainly something the Government has recognized, given the fact that the Department of Women in the Presidency has shifted its focus exclusively to this topic as announced in the 2014 State of the Nation Address. Whilst it is positive that more emphasis will be put on this element of women’s lives, it is certainly not the only topic that requires the attention of the Department, and the assumption that other Departments are mainstreaming women’s issues is problematic. In addition, it is not clear that any real progress in this regard has been made by the new Department from a casual observation of the Department’s work since May 2014. In the 2015 SONA it will be important to consider how women’s issues are being dealt with by other departments, and if they are not mentioned, whether any action will happen on them at all.


[1] Statistics SA (2014a). National and Provincial labour market: Youth. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[2] Statistics South Africa (2014b). Gender Series Volume 1: Economic Empowerment 2001 – 2014. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[3] South African of Race Relations (2013). South Africa Survey. Page 240.

[4] Businesswomen Association of South Africa (2012). Women in Leadership Survey.

[5] The 2011 household survey.

[6] Statistics South Africa (2012). Census.

[7] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 660.

[8] UNICEF (2014) The State of the World’s Children 2014

Female State of the Nation: Part 1: Where are we?

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

This State of the Nation is one that asks you, for a few moments, to consider to some information about the majority of South Africans. Some information about the biggest population group that is not a racial or religious group. This State of the Nation asks ‘what is the problem’ and ‘what can we do next’. This State of the Nation is about women.

If, at this point, you are not convinced that women make up a significant constituency, let me present you with some very simple facts. Women made up 51.3 percent of the population at the time of the 2011 census that was some 27 million females across the country. At that time 55 percent of females in South Africa were under the age of 29 years. African women make up the vast majority of women in South Africa, with 21 676 341 recorded in the 2011 census.[1]

So when you think about what the President says tomorrow, you need to be asking yourself, what does this mean for women? Have the decisions about budget, and planning considered the needs of this group? How are women being included or excluded?

It is typical to begin speeches like SONA by acknowledging whereabouts in our democratic process we are. I think this context is important not only to reflect how far we’ve come but to remind ourselves to ask where we are going, and whether we are taking steps forward or backwards.

On 11 February we celebrate 25 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from Prison. Nelson Mandela once said

“freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”

This remains true today.

In 2014 we celebrated the 20th year since our first democratic election, in addition, with the elections in May last year, we ushered in the 5th democratic government. In 2016 we will celebrate local government elections, as well as 20 years since the Constitution was drafted.

The South Africa Constitution forms the foundation for the many pieces of positive and empowering legislation that have emerged both to actively promote women’s rights, and to protect women from those who wish to infringe on them. It is celebrated around the world as a law that is progressive, and prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender and sex. Without this powerful and brave commitment it is almost certain that the lives of all women in South Africa would be worse.

The Constitution also establishes the critical Chapter 9 institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. These institutions, once empowered oversight bodies with the power to recommend changes in the various spheres of government have, sadly, in the recent past have begun to be hamstrung by a political culture that sees criticism as an attack, rather than as something which helps inspire growth and improvement, and has failed to act on the recommendations of these bodies, and failed to allocate them sufficient funding to perform the massive tasks they are required to. Institutions supporting democracy are not add-ons, but part of the very core work of building the country that was envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution, and all those who worked to end apartheid.

2015 is also the year that the Millennium Development Goals targeted as their year of completion. Goal 3 relates to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. South Africa’s performance in the goals that relate to women has varied. We have met the goal of achieving universal primary education (Goal 2), but lack information on the attendance ratio and survival rates of girls. The second indicator for this goal is the share of women in wage employment, outside of the agricultural sector. In South Africa, women outnumber men in the occupations of clerks, technicians, and domestic work. In all other fields men outnumber women. Thus, the share of women outside of the agricultural sector remains lower than the target.[2] The third indicator for this goal is the proportion of seats held by women in National Parliament. As of the 1 May 2014, South Africa was ranked 5th in the world in terms of gender representation at a Parliamentary level.[3] However, it is worth noting that the number of women in the National Assembly has decreased since the 2009 – 2014 administration (the number of women in the National Council of Provinces has increased slightly).[4] In addition, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are both women.

Millennium Development Goal 5 was to improve maternal health for women with two primary goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent and achieving universal access to reproductive health care. In fact, between 1990 and 2015 South Africa’s maternal mortality ratio has only decreased slightly, with the Department of Health estimating that 176 women die per 100 000 live births.[5] Of serious concern is that most of these deaths are determined to have been preventable by the Department of health.[6] In terms of achieving universal access to reproductive health this is often measured by contraceptive prevalence and adolescent birth rate, among other indicators. Both of these measures do not paint a good picture for the achievement of these goals, with couple year protection rates around 31.4 percent in 2009.[7] Between 2001 and 2011 the adolescent birth rate declined by a mere 1.7 percent, and a total of 113 240 babies were born to mothers between 15 and 19 years old in 2011. [8]In terms of successes, the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel has increased[9] though this does still vary between rural and urban areas.[10] Since 2003, great improvement in the coverage of antenatal care has been made.[11] By 2005, 97 percent of all women across South Africa accessed antenatal care when pregnant.[12] By 2011 this figure was 100.6 percent and thus South Africa met the target of at least one antenatal visit.[13] The percentage in excess of 100 percent reflects non-South Africans using antenatal care services.

Although we have made progress, we will not meet all Millennium Development Goals that will improve women’s lives. It will be important then to consider the State of the Nation in terms of the Post-2015 agenda, and how South Africa as a country will ensure that these goals are met, sooner rather than later.

The National Development Plan (NDP), South Africa’s blueprint for how things will look fifteen years from now, makes commitments to women’s rights in a number of sections. One of the six priorities of the Plan is to reunite South Africans around common values, especially those of the Constitution. It recognizes the progress women have made, whilst also acknowledging that patriarchal attitudes continue to stymie their progress.

The NDP makes a number of recommendations to address this persistent inequality[14], including the transformation of the economy, the celebration of women leaders; addressing social, cultural, religious and educational barriers to women entering the job market; making South Africa safer, ensuring security of tenure for female farmers; improving the health of pregnant women; improving the coverage of antiretroviral treatment to all HIV-positive people, and offering microbicides to all women 16 years and older. These are not small tasks, and the NDP allocates them to the Department of Women and to the Commission for Gender Equality. I will return to a critique of the Department of Women later, but what is important in considering these commitments is that as you listen to the State of the Nation tomorrow, you listen out to hear whether any of these commitments are mentioned, or any plans to support them are introduced.

The broad commitments made by the NDP have, for the next five years, been refined in the Medium Term Strategic Framework 2014 – 2019, the MTSF. In terms of Outcome 14, by the 2015/16 policies aimed making families better able to foster values such as tolerance, diversity, non-racialism, non-sexism and equity via the development of a draft strategy to strengthen the family should be drafted.

The truth is that despite the beautiful laws we have on paper, the policy commitments that originate from Government, and the fact that things have improved since democracy came into effect, twenty years in, many women are feeling short changed. Many women are feeling afraid. Many women are feeling angry. As I continue now, I would like to say that I think all of these feelings are legitimate.

This State of the Nation will take a number of parts, the next one being the State of the female economy. I hope that you read them all, and use them to consider whether it is sufficient to exclude women any longer.


[1] Statistics South Africa (2013). Census.

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations 2013. South Africa Survey. Page 252, 253

[3] The Inter-Parliamentary Union (2014).

[4] Levendale, C (2014).

[5] Department of Health (2012).

[6] The World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, UNFPA, The World Bank, and United Nations Population Division (2013)

[7] Ibid.

[8] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 47.

[9] The National Coordinating Committee for the Millennium Development Goals (2013).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] NDP Overview, page 43.

For any clarity on any references here, feel free to contact us on feministssa@gmail.com

The other half of the conversation: Osrin and daily violence

Dela Gwala
Dela Gwala

By Dela Gwala

Last year, Tim Osrin made the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town infamous by attacking Cynthia Joni because he thought she was a sex worker. Five UCT students cemented this new found infamy by assaulting Delia Adonis on the pavements of Claremont. “ Racially-motivated” attacks is what the headlines cried. But in both these cases that was only part of the conversation. Adonis’s attackers were reported to have called her a “coloured cunt” and Osrin seemed to have drawn his conclusion about Joni simply because she was black, female and standing on a street corner in Kenilworth. The gender politics of both these stories just about got a cursory mention.

If walking is how you make your way around the streets of Cape Town, then open air incidents of gender-based violence are often a part of your daily commute.  During the weeks that accusations of racism dominated discourse about Cape Town, I walked into three incidents of physical and verbal violence taking place on the pristine pavements of the Southern Suburbs.  In Newlands, I watched a man grab a woman around her throat and scream threats at her as she walked away. Back in Claremont, I saw a man drag a woman down the street by her braids. Further along main road, I witnessed a gaatjie (taxi door operator and fare collector) pull a knife on a woman for talking back to him.

There is no headline here – no newsroom would ever report on these incidents. We live in a country where rape is calculated per minute and femicide per hour, but gender has still not quite made the national agenda. The furore around the racist attacks last year collided with 16 days of activism against violence against women. Parliament was in the spotlight as the country’s new source of entertainment but not even that brought eyeballs and eardrums to the 2 hour joint sitting when gender-based issues were debated.

To give a quick recap:  ANC MPs complained about opposition MPs taking photos in parliament. Then MP Mandla Mandela complained about a DA member chewing chappies then later on mockingly referred to another DA MP as “ Miss South Africa”. After that Opposition MPs accused the Chairperson (Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli) of not being consistent because MPs took pictures of EFF members last time. Later on, DA Chief Whip complained that Minister of Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu had called him “mad”. A he said, she said ensued. Then the DA Chief Whip said that another ANC MP had called him a liar. Between eruptions of laughter, calls to retract statements and heckling, the chairperson called this grown up playground a “disgrace”.

Where are we now? Tim Osrin is expected to skip off into the sunset thanks to a plea bargain – it’s likely that he will take part in a community programme instead of serving jail time. On a national scale, there is still no comprehensive plan of action to tackle gender-based violence. There is basically no national policy or programme to fund even though it’s costing the country R 28.4 billion  to R 42.2 bilion to ignore this issue.  In Johannesburg, a restaurant manager has been accused of being racist for shouting at two black female patrons and telling them they need a “good shagging” or a “ fuck”. Barely anyone noticed or acknowledged that these statements were also deeply sexist.

Gender issues have been treated like an unwanted add-on to the national conversation since the TRC days.  Statement takers who were on the frontlines of uncovering truths about apartheid era abuses often didn’t think that incidents of sexual violence or any other form of gender-based violations were even worth recording. These issues were not considered politically significant or worthy of a spot in the national dialogue. Two decades later, It’s why no one flinches when the department of women in the presidency suggests prayer and candle vigils as the plan of action to combat a pandemic that ruthlessly claims the lives of women. It’s why police vans can simply drive past while women are being assaulted on the streets of the Southern Suburbs. It’s why South Africans hardly notice sexism and misogyny even when it’s the not-so well hidden subtext screaming at them from national headlines.


Dela Gwala is a full-time feminist and post-grad student at UCT. She has an honours degree in International Relations but has jumped ship from the politics department to take on an MA in Creative Writing. She spends a ridiculous amount of time on social media moderating a Facebook page called Guerrilla Feminism South Africa. Find her on Twitter @indie1activist and read more of her writing on her blog https://genderspecs.wordpress.com/.


Confronting Birth Violence in South Africa

Rachelle Chadwick
Rachelle Chadwick
Marion Stevens
Marion Stevens

By Rachelle Chadwick and Marion Stevens

We know that gender and sexual violence are major problems in South Africa. We know that we have shockingly high rates of rape, domestic violence and femicide. What is not always recognised however is a different form of violence against women. This is violence that is perpetrated predominantly by women and which targets other women when they are in one of their most vulnerable moments. We are talking here about birth violence that happens to women during labour and when they are giving birth to a new life. While reports of abuse in maternal health services have been fairly widespread since the early 1990s, these incidents are often not framed as a form of violence against women. Some view these incidents as the work of a few bad apples and not indicative of wider attitudes. We know from writing on the issue that the factors involved are complex and multiple, including an over-burdened public health system, lack of resources, highly stressed staff and health-care providers and a long apartheid legacy that still marks our healthcare system. We appreciate the point made by others [i] that healthcare-workers, nurses and midwives need to be validated, supported and cared for so that they can do the work of caring for women during labour and birth. This is important. At the same time, however, we feel that something about this issue is being squashed and silenced.

Shouting at and insulting women, engaging in forms of physical violence such as slapping and rough treatment and deliberately shaming, humiliating and neglecting women during one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives is unacceptable. It is unacceptable regardless of work-loads, lack of support or difficult working conditions. That our healthcare system and society at large continues to largely ignore, and in some cases tolerates these abuses, is indicative of a much wider problem of gender relations in South Africa. Of course it is not simply women in general who are the recipients of such abuse. Privileged and middle-class women, protected by their resources and cultural capital, usually escape gross mistreatment. Other forms of obstetric violence (such as unnecessary caesarean section) however do still occur in the private healthcare system. However, it is predominantly poor and marginalised women (including teenage and HIV-positive mothers) that are targets of violence.

Abuses often seem fuelled by normative ideas about who is a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ mother. Being poor and coming to a public health clinic without appropriate baby clothes and supplies often automatically marks a woman as a ‘bad mother’ who is then sometimes punished by healthcare providers through insults or deliberate shaming. [ii] Other forms of violence, often not recognised or reported, are institutional in nature and involve the shoddy treatment of women in general in public sector health clinics. Examples include dirty toilets, spatial arrangements at maternal obstetric units which do not allow for any privacy during birth and which often preclude women being allowed to have a partner or companion with them during labour, lack of basic supplies such as blankets, pillows and cutlery (one woman told of how all the women had to share one mug) and not being offered any food after going through the exhausting process of labour and birth [ii].We have to ask serious questions about this mistreatment of women. Why has the National Department of Health (NDoH) been so reluctant to address these problems despite evidence of abuses reported since the 1990s? What does this mistreatment and abuse say about how our society sees and values women?

Thankfully there are signs that efforts are being made to begin to address these issues. There have been calls for increased accountability and institutional reform by some academic obstetric departments (such as the University of Cape Town). The Human Rights Watch also pulled no punches in their report on maternal health abuses in 2011, which was tellingly titled, ‘Stop making excuses’ [iii]. Pressure on various fronts has led to some notable recent actions, including the passing of a policy in 2013 by the Western Cape Department of Health (WCDoH) called the ‘Code of Practice for Patient-Centred Maternal Care’. There has also been the introduction of a new national mobile health programme, ‘Momconnect’ which will enable women to directly report abuses. A hotline has also been set up in the Western Cape to make complaints (0860 142 142). At the same time, however, the NDoH has not widely supported or allocated funding for attempts being made in the Western Cape to address these problems. There thus still seems to be a shocking lack of will by governmental bodies to tackle abuse and violence in maternal healthcare settings.

We have to begin to ask why? Perhaps it is difficult or disturbing to recognise a form of violence against women that is perpetrated largely by women ‘caregivers’. Perhaps wider societal attitudes and discriminatory stances towards poor and marginalized women regard the ‘care’ received in public health settings as ‘good enough’ for them. Maybe wider society and government just don’t care about how low-income women are treated. Maybe society in general fails to value women’s reproductive labours and life-giving efforts. Maybe we just don’t value mothers or the precious new lives that they give birth to? One thing is certain – the ways in which women are treated during the vulnerable time of labour and birth says a lot about wider societal and governmental attitudes towards women. We need to confront and expose these unacceptable attitudes. As a nation we can no longer simply ignore or tacitly tolerate these abuses.



  1. Honikman, S . & Meintjies, I. ‘Nurses are stressed, ill-treated, burdened’, Cape Times, 9 September 2011.
  2. Rachelle Chadwick, ‘The right to dignity in childbirth’, National Research Foundation Report, 2013.


  • Human Rights Watch, ‘Stop making excuses: accountability for maternal health in South Africa’, 2011.



Rachelle Chadwick is a lecturer and Research Career Fellow in Gender Studies (School of African & Gender Studies, Anthropology & Linguistics) at the University of Cape Town. She has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Cape Town. Rachelle is a recipient of a National Research Foundation Research Career Advancement Award and is currently working on a new research project titled, ‘Intimate ethnographies of giving life: the bodily-emotional worlds of childbearing for low-income South African women and their partners’. She has published research articles and book chapters in the areas of qualitative methodology, gender theory, sexuality, childbirth, embodiment, narrative resistance and reproductive health.


Marion Stevens has a background as a midwife, in medical anthropology and in public and development. She has worked in the area of sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS for some 20 years. She is currently the coordinator of WISH Associates (Women in Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health) a network of nine South African consultant activists and a research associate at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town.