Figureheads won’t help women


I recently 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 representation 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 facie 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” through handing out economic starter packs. But Zakaria says that“researchers have not found that giving out chickens [alone] leads to any long term 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 of women’s empowerment we also speak of 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 or get 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.

Palesa Lebitse is a regular contributor to the Body Language slot

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Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse is a liberal feminist who regularly writes for the M&G.

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