Fig­ure­heads won’t help women

It takes po­lit­i­cal mo­bil­i­sa­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, laws and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Palesa Lebitse

Irecently watched a pro­gramme on an SABC news chan­nel about a woman who mixed paints for ve­hi­cles. She learnt the skill from her hus­band, who had run a small busi­ness. She said she would watch him work and when he died she was able to pick up where he left off. Be­sides, she had no choice but to keep go­ing. She had chil­dren to feed, she said.

She also had no prob­lem re­tain­ing her hus­band’s clien­tele because she did such an ex­cel­lent job. But, like her hus­band, she has to work from her back­yard, in an in­ad­e­quate workspace, with very lit­tle equipment. De­spite the dif­fi­cul­ties, she said she makes ends meet.

But is mak­ing ends meet re­ally enough? It was clear from the images of her home that the en­tre­pre­neur was still as poor as she had been when her hus­band was alive.

By the end of the pro­gramme I was over­whelmed by her story, which made me con­sider our sys­tems that are aimed at eman­ci­pat­ing women. And although I am no pes­simist, my first thought was that she would prob­a­bly never reach her full po­ten­tial. Not because she lacks some­thing but mainly because the gen­der em­pow­er­ment nar­ra­tive fails women.

Re­ports sug­gest that, although the ve­hi­cle in­dus­try is male-dom­i­nated, forc­ing women work­ing in it to fight sex­ism, dis­crim­i­na­tion and un­equal pay, the ap­point­ment of Mary Barra as chief ex­ec­u­tive and chair­per­son of Gen­eral Mo­tors (GM) is a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment for women.

This is true, to a great ex­tent, because the ideals of gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion re­main stead­fast in the fight for gen­der equal­ity in an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety. But is gen­der rep- re­sen­ta­tion enough? Does Barra’s ac­com­plish­ment in the world’s largest ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer res­onate with the strug­gling ve­hi­cle paint mixer run­ning her busi­ness from her back­yard? Does Barra’s suc­cess trickle down to women right at the bot­tom who face real hard­ships? I do not believe so.

Sadly, sim­i­lar gen­der em­pow­er­ment nar­ra­tives are ad­vo­cated by or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the ANC Women’s League, who believe that a woman pres­i­dent, sim­ply because she is a woman, can bring sig­nif­i­cant changes to the lives of all women.

Jo Row­lands, in her book Ques­tion­ing Em­pow­er­ment: Work­ing with Women in Hon­duras, points out that em­pow­er­ment is a bot­tom-up process and can­not be bestowed from the top down.

Fur­ther­more, it is im­por­tant to note that Barra worked her way to the top. She started work­ing at GM at the age of 18 to fi­nance her higher ed­u­ca­tion. She started by check­ing fen­der pan­els and in­spect­ing hoods. Her as­cent had to do with hard work and ed­u­ca­tion. The truth is, Barra would still be check­ing fen­der pan­els and hoods had she not stud­ied fur­ther.

Ed­u­ca­tion was iden­ti­fied as one of the fac­tors es­sen­tial for real­is­ing gen­der eq­uity.

But to­day the women’s em­pow­er­ment nar­ra­tive is very dif­fer­ent, or at least it dif­fers greatly be­tween non-Western countries and Western countries.

These days, Western de­vel­op­ment agen­cies trust that a chicken or a sewing ma­chine al­lows a woman to take the very first step on the march to em­pow­er­ment, says Rafia Zakaria, writ­ing in The New York Times. Zakaria quotes Bill Gates as say­ing: “Because chick­ens are small an­i­mals, kept close to home, they are par­tic­u­larly suited to ‘em­pow­er­ing’ women.” He was look­ing at eco­nomic pos­si­bilites. And it was only the first step to in­de­pen­dence.

Zakaria found it de­mor­al­is­ing that the “cru­cial part about po­lit­i­cal mo­bil­i­sa­tion has been ex­cised” in the quest to re­alise em­pow­er­ment for women in non-Western countries. “The de­politi­cised ‘em­pow­er­ment’ serves ev­ery­one ex­cept the women it is sup­posed to help,” she ar­gues.

Western de­vel­op­ment agen­cies are able to point to the non-Western women they have “em­pow­ered” by hand­ing out eco­nomic starter packs. But Zakaria says that “re­searchers have not found that giv­ing out chick­ens [alone] leads to any longterm eco­nomic gains — much less eman­ci­pa­tion or equal­ity for half the population”.

She called for a change to the em­pow­er­ment con­ver­sa­tion and I agree.

Women’s em­pow­er­ment is mul­ti­fac­eted and can­not be sep­a­rated from po­lit­i­cal mo­bil­i­sa­tion, le­gal ap­pli­ca­tion and core in­stru­ments such as ed­u­ca­tion, which would pro­vide eco­nomic ad­van­tage, among oth­ers. Prac­ti­cally, when we speak about women’s em­pow­er­ment we also speak about in­de­pen­dence.

What is the point of gen­der equal­ity in the work­place if women are not af­forded ma­ter­nity ben­e­fits or such a right does not even ex­ist? Or is a woman lib­er­ated if she is suc­cess­ful in busi­ness but finds no jus­tice when she re­ports a gen­der-re­lated crime, such as as­sault or rape? If higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions are not safe because sex­ual ha­rass­ment is rife, can a woman stu­dent pur­sue her ed­u­ca­tional rights in a mean­ing­ful way? So what, if women law­mak­ers fill Par­lia­ment, but don’t bother to ad­vance gen­der-re­lated mat­ters, such as school­girls be­ing able to af­ford to buy or is given san­i­tary pads?

Ac­cord­ing to Zoë Ox­aal and Sally Baden in their paper Gen­der and Em­pow­er­ment: Def­i­ni­tions, Ap­proaches and Im­pli­ca­tions for Pol­icy, “de­vis­ing co­her­ent poli­cies and pro­grammes for women’s em­pow­er­ment re­quires care­ful at­ten­tion”.

Re­ports sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment aims to de­velop a ve­hi­cle pol­icy because the ve­hi­cle in­dus­try will have to change to in­clude more black-owned sup­pli­ers in the sec­tor. But do our cur­rent sys­tems en­sure that the strug­gling woman ve­hi­cle pain­ter is fully able to par­tic­i­pate in the in­dus­try?

It’s im­por­tant that we re­visit the what the true em­pow­er­ment for women means.

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