Sonke goes to the 2011 National Women’s Conference

The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities hosted a national women’s conference to mark the beginning of women’s month celebrations for 2011 under the theme Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for All Women on the 31 July to 3 August.

Ten thousand women from all walks gathered for five days at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Boksburg, Johannesburg. There were fisherwomen from the coastal areas, village subsistence farmers; businesswomen; politicians; executives and entrepreneurs. About 15 government ministers and deputy ministers attended the conference. It was encouraging to see that most of them did not attend only to speak, but stayed for the duration of the event.

We, from Sonke, were privileged to be invited and given a platform to speak in the plenary, and that we were requested to speak on the role of men further affirmed that our work and focus are on track.

Not a lost cause

Although South Africans are often wont to dismiss events such as these as talkshops, the conference rekindled the hope that the quest for gender equality is not a lost cause. There is sometimes a perception that the fight for gender equality is an elitist struggle, and that ordinary women are more concerned about bread and butter issues, but what arose from the conference was an understanding that even bread and butter issues for women are heavily influenced by unequal gender roles.

It felt good to see delegates booing down a male delegate who unwisely and unfortunately tried to lecture women about how they should go about their work. It affirmed that even so-called ordinary women have a clear agenda for the work ahead. And the applause that followed a comment by a young woman that issues of lesbians must not be left out, cannot be forgotten.

Engaging with the government

Government officials reported to the conference about the plans that various departments have in place for women’s empowerment. From the floor, participants engaged and localised the issues raised. Tough questions were raised about energy, the legal and safety system, on culture and customs, the role of women in post-conflict situations, on South Africa’s own commitment to international protocols, on sexual violence, on economic policies, and the likes.

A clear consensus emerged that empowerment is never an either/or question, but lies in every issue in every sector. It is empowerment and gender equality. It is energy and the end to violence. It is access to economic opportunities and good health care.

Men must be involved in women’s empowerment

The consultation was closed by the Deputy President of the country, Honourable Kgalema Motlanthe. In his address, he profoundly made the point that empowerment of women cannot be achieved without the involvement of men. The speech touched the core messages that Sonke is propagating.

Minister Lulu Xingwana and her team at DWPCD need to be complimented on a great event, and be supported when taking the work forward.

How do we take this forward at Sonke?

We can become more embracing of working with women and girls in communities in addition to maintaining strong relations with established women rights NGOs. Women understand their own situation and are best placed to articulate their needs.

As an organisation working with men, we do need to take time out, stand in solidarity with and listen to women discuss and articulate their issues. We should do this at all levels of society.

We need to embrace the strategic role that government should and can play in the attainment of the vision we hold for a society free of gender injustices.