Opinion

Women determining the future: A challenge to my sisters

Riah Phiyega

Being a woman means having the courage to stand with dignity and to present the equal but opposite polarity, writes Riah Phiyega.

“The 21st century woman embodies the hopes of her nation, knows the history of her people, exposes injustice and comforts the poor and the unemployed.”

Being a woman means having the courage to stand with dignity and to present the equal but opposite polarity.

“The 21st century woman embodies the hopes of her nation, knows the history of her people, exposes injustice and comforts the poor and the unemployed.”

These were the words of Jamaican university professor, Dr Pat Morgan, at a daylong National Women’s Day gathering, under the banner, The 21st Century Woman Leader.

I stand before you in the name of a woman who represents well-defined and articulated African humility, spiced with intrinsic and audacious internal resolve imbuing who she is and what she stands for. This woman whose name I stand for, displays immense strength, like the mighty Baobab tree.

The Ghanaians have a saying that confirms the largeness of this great symbol: “Knowledge and wisdom are like the trunk of a Baobab tree. No one person’s arm span is great enough to encompass them.”

No matter how you look at it, the baobab tree is one of nature’s truly remarkable creations. The baobab makes optimum use of very scarce resources. It flourishes and produces fruit on the semi-arid savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa.

It survives prolonged droughts, resembling women’s leadership and resilience.

The trunk can be hollowed out to make a shelter or cut into water containers akin to the multiplicity and roundedness of the roles fulfilled by a woman in the family and society at large.

It produces an edible fruit that has the highest concentration of vitamin C of any plant, analogous to the wide nurturing capacity of women.

The shade of the leaves and branches provides cool refuge comparable to the caring qualities of women.

Like a baobab tree, women represent endurance, conservation, creativity, ingenuity and dialogue.

Remember, out of little seeds, great trees can grow — these seeds are our children, as women we carry the responsibility of nurturing these seeds.

Two weeks ago I came across an inspiring story in the local press about a young lady, Thabisa Xhalisa, who was born in prison in 1983 during apartheid and was released, together with her twin brother, into the care of her 13-year-old sister, who was a domestic worker at the time.

By the time she turned 13, Ms Xhalisa had become a domestic worker herself and had to take care of an unemployed mother as well as her siblings. Today, this young lady has, despite these odds, managed to become a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and is a PhD candidate.

Needless to say that on the whole Ms Xhalisa’s experience of incredible human triumph over heavy odds made possible by access to public education is an exception rather than the rule. This was an account shared by our Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in the ANC Today of the last week of July 2011.

This could be you, your cousin, the woman next door or even your mother.

In the words of Kofi Annan, former UN SG:

“When women are healthy, educated and free to take the opportunities that life affords them, children thrive and communities flourish, reaping the double dividend for women and children.”

Today at this special occasion marking the beginning of the celebration of women’s month, there is a message I would like to share.

Yes, the message is that we’ve strayed in society from the values of family, community and hard work.

Thabisa Xhalisa became a professor. We read everywhere in her story the message of the importance of family, no matter how challenging the attributes of the family she was part of are.

The life and story of Thabisa, should talk to us today, her passion resilience and faith touches the lives of many.

Her success and achievements should be celebrated and should equally be a source of guidance and hope for multitudes. She is the modern day symbol of defiance, she is embodies the resilient spirit of conquering and survival.

Sisters of the South, this could well be a story of colossal women who may have touched your life: Albertina Sisulu, Ellen Kuzwayo, Emma Mashinini, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Hilary Clinton, Mother Theresa, amongst many others, to name but a few.

So, my fellow sisters, where do all these lofty thoughts take us, and what are we as women going to do to make this country of ours the best place on earth?

I strongly believe that the key to the restoration of our beautiful country lies in its women

Behind the façade of centuries of male domination, the women of the world have always, against all odds, held the fabric of society together. We were given, by God, the greatest privilege of all: to carry and bear our offspring.

We suckle them. We, more than our male counterparts, should be concerned with the morality and wellbeing of our children; no one is better skilled than us to do so.

We instill good values into our young ones, teach them, admonish them, nurse them back to health, fetch and carry them, play with them, and on top of all this, many of us work to put bread on the table.

In short, the measure of a great nation rests not in its government, but in its people. And the measure of a great people is in its family values.

The core, the centre of that family is you, the woman.

We advocate and choose the path of equality, fairness and access to equal opportunities

The fourth world conference of women agreed among others on certain fundamentals:

  • The denouncement of women abuse
  • It also spoke out strongly for more women in decision-making roles and to balance the rights of children and their parents
  • It strongly supported the issue of equal inheritance and made a stand against on-the-job sexual harassment.

Whilst these profound standpoints were adopted, we continue to face resistance and barriers to change. There is resistance to the loss of patriarchal authority.

As Geraldine Ferraro said:

“We have chosen the path to equality; don’t let them turn us around”.

We need to actively assume the nation building role through our strategic position in the family.

The challenge I put to us all today is to be collectively and individually that rock on which this country shall be rebuilt.

We are going to do it if we fully understand who we are; that we are unique people with a special task in life.

We will do it when we are proud to be women.

We shall do it when as women we play the game according to our own set of rules — not as second-rate males, but as women.

We need to understand ourselves and we also need to believe in ourselves.

“Be more confident and believe in your abilities.”

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

In making your greatest responsibility yourself, you are in essence taking charge of your own destiny as opposed to allowing others to control what you are and who you become. How can you then lead?

Do not be afraid!

Again I quote from that wonderful woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said:

“I gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which I must stop and look fear in the face… I say to myself, I’ve lived through this and can take the next thing that comes along.”

She concludes: “We must do things we think we cannot do.”

Take courage in both hands and shed fear, stand up and raise your voices in favour of values that matter, such as integrity, honesty and responsibility.

True personal leadership is about service, sacrifice and selflessness.

Do not be afraid: Stand up as women in solidarity and fight against the social ills of our day.

Alone you cannot fight evil. In solidarity with one another you can.

Again I say, let them, the evildoers, strike that rock that you are, let them feel the pain, let them feel your power until they cower away like battered hyenas against the lionesses of Africa.

A strong work ethic
China has a huge population billions of people, some 30 times more than our population!

Imagine the potential and power that such a nation can unleash if put to work.

And that is exactly what they are doing!

The Chinese people have a work ethic unparalleled anywhere in the world. Not even Japan, a country renown for its hard workers, can compare to China.

And alongside that work ethic, is a nation where children of three-years-old playing chess in the streets of Beijing, focus on education and personal development.

My challenge to us as women is therefore that we go out there and work, work hard and set an example to those who don’t!

Balancing our rights and responsibilities
I would like to quote John F Kennedy who said in the 1960s to all Americans: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”.

And that brings me to my next point:

Managing eminent dangers
The culture of lawlessness: of disrespect for our fellow man; of greed for money at any cost; of complete disregard for all forms of authority.

We have developed a culture of “I want — I demand”.

In the past we had discipline without freedom — I called it tyranny.

Today we have freedom without discipline, which boils down to anarchy.

What use is it to a 14-year-old to have the right to an education, the freedom to learn and become somebody in life, but he chooses to hijack cars and kills people instead, and where is the mother?

Society is crumbling around us.

My point is therefore, that we need to balance out rights with our responsibilities.

Recognising and celebrating ourselves
Our other failure and real danger is our inability to recognise and celebrate ourselves.

We need to celebrate each other so that we can multiply the number of women who step forward.

Along the way of our self-development, we will find other women with the same quest, and when you do find these, walk together, for in that companionship you will learn much more from each other.

You will give each other support.

Whilst competition is there and given, remember though, that it is not necessary to dwell on comparing yourselves but rather recognising your uniqueness.

As women you are magical beings whose significance seeks expression in the world.

Declaration of Interdependence
by BJ Gallagher and Lisa Hammond

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all women are created equal - but each is blessed with different gifts and talents.
That all women are endowed with certain individual rights - but each must assume shared responsibilities.
For the happiness of all depends on the commitment of each to support equality and individuality, rights and responsibilities.
We declare all women to be mutually interdependent - banding together to support one another, sharing our experience, strength, and hope, that all may enjoy life, love, and the pursuit of laughter.
We agree to encourage one another in tough times and celebrate in good times.
We commit to taking turns leading and following, inspiring and teaching, listening and learning.
We agree to give credit where credit is due – including us.
We commit to loving ourselves first – because we can’t give what we don’t have.
With this Declaration of Interdependence, we set ourselves free – free from old beliefs that are no longer true, free from self-doubt, insecurity, and loneliness, free from self-imposed perfectionism.
We set ourselves free – heeding our intuition in all her guises, loving our bodies through every change, finding our voices to speak our own truths.
We set ourselves free – to create fulfilling work, to form nurturing families, and to build great friendships.
We are strong; we are beautiful; we are generous; we are wise.
We are women – committed to creating a world that affirms us all.

This essay, by Riah Phiyega first appeared in the Mail & Guardian’s Book of Women 2011.

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