What department of women? For many, it may as well not exist

Susan Shabangu, the minister of women in the presidency, might laud her department’s efficiency in tackling gender issues but the average woman on the street doesn’t know the department exists.

Speaking at a Youth Month event on Monday – an intergenerational conversation between the young women of today and women who participated in the 1976 uprising – she said her biggest achievement has been “redefining” the department.

But Jane Mkhwanazi-Mohlaloga, who uses public transport to travel from Soweto’s Braamfischerville to work in Braamfontein every day, is oblivious to the department’s existence, and spoke about the government’s failure to protect women.

“Our government is not even trying to help women in this country. Many women are abused and hurt but the men that violate us go unscathed.

“We are harassed everyday – even taxi drivers are abusive towards us – but nobody will even intervene to help you,” says Mkhwanazi-Mohlaloga. She says that she fears daily for her daughter’s safety.

Olga Maluleke, a student, said it is unacceptable that Shabangu is not reaching out to people to inform them about the work her department does.

“Everyone knows that Fikile Mbalula is the minister of sports, but many of us don’t even know that there is a minister for us. Why aren’t we being informed about this minister?”

Soweto resident Kelebogile Chauke said she has never heard of the department of women and that safety is her biggest concern. “South Africa is full of opportunities for young woman like me but I would like to see government implement ways to make public spaces safer for women.

“Men on the streets are always harassing us. We walk in Braamfontein and town with the fear of getting mugged, harassed or even raped.”

Although Mpho Khati, the vice-president of the University of the Free State’s student representative council, is aware of the department’s existence and role, she believes it has neglected to tackle many gender issues.

“We need sustainable projects in all communities and the department of women doesn’t have enough of those. We cannot celebrate isolated cases of success in particular places.”

Khati attributes the department’s failure to address the needs and issues of young women to the shortage of young people working for it.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Shabangu said she uses her feminist politics to “advance the cause of women and girls, and make education and job opportunities more accessible”.

“Any woman is a feminist. Your consciousness by virtue of being a woman makes you a feminist. If you are a woman, you are a feminist – you can’t avoid it.”

She also encouraged women to work together to fight gender inequality in South Africa.

Drawing inspiration from the 1956 Women’s March against the extension of pass laws to black women, Shabangu stressed her dedication to “advancing the socioeconomic conditions of women. It’s because of those women we are able to vote today. Young people, especially the girl child, has access to education, which was not the situation in the past.”

During the 2014 launch of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, Shabangu came under fire after she reportedly nodded in response when a fellow speaker branded feminism as “unAfrican” and said that women should submit to their husbands.

That year’s campaign was also critcised by gender activists who said that the language Shabangu used “set women back”.

“Men are supposed to be protectors of society. Men are supposed to be protectors of families. We need to bring back these protectors of society. We need to mobilise our protectors,” Shabangu said at the time.

Despite the criticism, she still stands by the campaign and said it is important to change how perpetrators of violence see women.

“With Count Me In [the campaign’s theme], we were dealing with two groups of people – women and men. We always embraced women but we have never spoken to the perpetrator. For us to be successful, we have to bring both men and women into the discussion about gender-based violence,” she said.

Despite the minister’s assertions to the contrary, young women feel that she has excluded them from a conversation about their lives.

College student Karabo Maluleke said: “Government is not doing enough for women. Most of our ministers and politicians are men and there is not enough effort to represent women and speak about the issues that directly affect us. The minister needs to put women forward. Women need to come first and not after men.”

A second-year business administration student and Soweto resident, Relebogile Pitso, is disgruntled by department’s slow progress in making free sanitary towels available. “I am starting an initiative for collecting pads for homeless women because our government is not doing anything and I want to help. We need to be listened to,” she said.

In response to the call for free sanitary towels, Shabangu said her department would “engage in that space”.

“Our objective is to make sure those who are in need must have sanitary towels free. That’s the process we are working on with discussing, not that we want people to have the donations as it is happening right now, because for us it is not sustainable.

“We need to reach a point where, as a country, whether through government, there is a responsibility given to a particular department, especially in the schools that need the sanitary towels more than any others because we know there are those that can afford.”

The minister would not say when free sanitary towels will be made available.

She said she’s proud of the fact that the government has “recognised that the issues of advancing women are not enough”.

“The department is here and it will have to make sure it changes the lives of women in South Africa by ensuring that they participate in all parts of our economy and social sector.” – Additional reporting by Nadia Omar

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