International Issues

The Sister Must Move On: Overcoming Gender Inequality in South Africa

By: Tshiamo Seate

Conversations are a great way to not only get to know the people you spend time with or an opportunity to express yourself, but they are an even greater way to learn more about the world we live in. With conversations we get to understand the answers to questions that puzzle us and we get to question answers that don’t make sense to us, and one of the many mysteries yet to be solved are black women.

More particularly, South African women as we are from a country of so much diversity and variety. Our issues stem from various events from the past that have somehow forced us to become the women we are today. Like the saying, “You cannot know where you are going unless you know where you’re from.”

I found a picture recently that describes a black woman and the description is written like how you would find it in the dictionary. It says, “1. Female human being of African descent. 2. Subject of extreme abuse and oppression based upon the inaccurate or faulty (racist) perception of inferiority by the oppressor. 3. Scientific: mother of civilization; one from whom all life comes forth. 4. One who subscribes and practices thoughts and deeds which promote unity among people of colour. Synonyms: wife, mother, sister, leader, teacher, warrior. Adjectives: strong, intelligent, beautiful, compassionate, tireless”.

This description is tough to beat because it is so accurate, and I fail to think of any black woman I know who would counter this statement. Although this description may be true in theory, there are practical situations where it is demeaned.

Many years ago in South Africa before the 1956 women’s rights uprising, stereotypical gender roles were practiced. For example, the infamous idea of the men going to work and bringing home the bacon while women stay at home to cook, clean, and look after the children. Thank God over the years, stereotypes to a certain degree have changed, but unfortunately there are some by-products that are still evident today. One example is how a black girl should leave home.

With all the advances happening today and the fact that females can get an education, one would think all black girls have the same chances to leave home and become something. I know someone who counters that notion. Take for instance, the story of *Lindiwe, who grew up wanting to be a qualified nurse but her conditions said otherwise.

Her parents got her through primary and high school, but when Lindiwe reached matric she found out of her unlikely chance to be able to go to varsity. This was not solely because her parents did not have the financial means to help their daughter out, but it was predominantly because they were from the ‘old-school’. They believed in the label of women being the home-makers and men being the breadwinners, so what is the point of spending so much money, time, and effort to get a black girl child through university only to have it wasted because she’ll be at home the whole time?

This upset *Lindiwe immensely but it was a situation where she was powerless. Caught between a rock and a hard place, she opted for the more respectable decision of honouring her parents and neglecting her dreams instead. While spending so much time at home, *Lindiwe met *Thato at one of her friend’s house parties. *Lindiwe and *Thato grew close over the course of the night and she ended up in his bed. A few weeks after the incident, *Lindiwe found out she was pregnant.

The news came as a sort of rescue and answer to how she could leave her parents’ house, and fortunately for her *Thato was willing to let her move in with him. He wasn’t completely thrilled about having a baby seeing that he was a young bachelor who lived in his grandmother’s backyard room. *Lindiwe moved in with *Thato and they fell in love. As the pregnancy grew, they decided to get married traditionally. *Thato took out lobola (dowry) for *Lindiwe and according to their respective families they are recognised as married. Although *Thato has not paid the full lobola amount until today, *Lindiwe is still with him and now has a second child with him.

All this happened because a young black girl from the township felt trapped by her circumstances. Plus, her lack of knowledge about the world outside hers, she was not empowered to see and pursue her dreams beyond what she knows. If only *Lindiwe had someone to turn to. If only she had a support system that believes in more than stereotypical gender roles. If only…

The progression in life and times, one would think more than just stereotypes are broken, but certain practices too. Virginity testing for example is such a practice. According to a recent coverage on one national news report show Checkpoint SA, there are areas in parts of rural South Africa where virginity testing is a significant ceremony where a group of young black girls are tested annually for their purity by the head maiden who is an elderly grandmother.

If they pass the test, they remain members of this “special club”, but for those who fail it is an embarrassment as their village scorns them and become disregarded in society. This custom is so highly held that there are plans to get the girls who pass the test university bursaries from government. The positive end of this idea is that there is a chance at further education, unlike *Lindiwe’s story, and a chance at knowing the whole outside. The unfortunate part however is the violation of human rights.

When one of the girls who had been participating since she was 11 years old was pulled aside by the journalist from the show, she was asked if she realised that her right to dignity and privacy (which are stated in our Constitution) were being abused and she was puzzled as to how to answer. The young black girl has not been taught much about her rights and because of where she lives she has to respect tradition.

Another downside to question is how come the boys in that area are not tested for their virginity? Why is a black girl’s education determined on her virginity, while the opposite sex gets a fair chance either way? Should virginity be something only women should pride themselves in, and not men?

Although it’s almost undeniable that black women are rocks and mothers of nations, unfortunately there are those from this powerful group who suffer behind closed doors. Who are discouraged and battered for wanting to better themselves or who go through life with horse blinkers on.

As young black girls today, it is our job to change all this negativity. We should strive to get out as much as possible just to learn, to grow, and become greater than we imagined. And in the end, we will be rich-minded, independent, self-taught black women who still nurture and care as a natural women should. Like the contemporary indigo-soul artist SZA says, “I plan to become a better me. Not a different me, but a better me.”

*Indicates that names used are not real names of actual people described.

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