Women picket during the #TotalShutDown march against gender-based violence in Cape Town. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/BRENTON GEACH
Women picket during the #TotalShutDown march against gender-based violence in Cape Town. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/BRENTON GEACH

The 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence starts on November 25 every year and runs until 10 December — Human Rights Day. These 16 days give us the opportunity to reflect on the structures and behaviours that give rise to gender-based violence, and also the policies that are intended to tackle this scourge.

Gender-based violence is sadly not an anomaly anywhere in the world, but in SA especially, it defines our normal. It is part of a myriad harms directed at women, which include intimate partner violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, rape and femicide.

There is a growing body of literature that shows the relationship between gender inequality and civil conflict, and gender inequality and gender violence. Building a more equitable society is the best chance we have of addressing gender violence. The conundrum, of course, is that there is a patriarchal dividend that is hard to break.

The people with power throughout society are overwhelmingly men. There are enormous benefits to men in having and perpetuating patriarchy. Women take on the bulk of low-paid, insecure work, do an enormous amount of unpaid work — managing households and taking care of the young and the elderly — and are more likely to sacrifice career growth because of these responsibilities.

The gendered culture of public and private life — who speaks, who decides, how meetings are run, who is heard and who is seen — is enormously beneficial to men. And so it is no surprise we do not see men rejecting salaries that are anywhere between 27%-45% higher than their female colleagues; why men are more likely to start a campaign against e-tolls (however legitimate that may be) than a campaign against the unavailability of safe, affordable public transport at night

And perhaps it also why, when we saw people coming out in their thousands across the country to protest the high levels of violence against women in September, the men were conspicuous by their low numbers. I personally don’t know a single man who went to any of the protests.

So, assuming those in power aren’t quite as committed to the gender equality project as many of us are, what can we reasonably expect from a leadership still so firmly dominated by one sex?

The power of silence

Since the beginning of time, women have had to fight to be heard. Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, telling his mother to “go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of me, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household”.

Not too much has changed in the nearly 3,000 years since. In every public sphere of society, men are visible; women far less so. You only have to look at the media and the academy to see who is considered intellectually valuable.

I recently explained to a well-known political analyst that I could not attend a panel discussion he was on because there were no women on the panel. I found this particularly egregious because political analysis is hardly a scarce skill — there are women all over the place willing to share their opinions and research on national interest issues.

All-male panels illustrate the power men take for granted — they never have to question their public voice, or wonder about getting access to a public platform. It calls to mind Simone de Beauvoir’s description of men as the subject and women as “other”. We are the add-ons, the necessary for optics afterthought.

Men cannot, on the one hand, call themselves progressives and, on the other, be blind to the fact that they strengthen the patriarchy project by continuing to accept quite dodgy practices such as all-male panels. The power of having a public voice means if you don’t see us and don’t hear us, we don’t exist. The system perpetuates itself because women remain unrecognised, so are not given public platforms, so do not get recognised.

A woman at the August 2018 #TotalShutDown march in Pretoria protests for a seven-year-old girl who was raped. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER
A woman at the August 2018 #TotalShutDown march in Pretoria protests for a seven-year-old girl who was raped. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER

When those in power (men) open doors and create opportunities for others, they almost instinctively do it for other men because these are the people they see. And so these men become the people who have value. It is common practice throughout the public and private sector when groups of any importance are established (commissions, panels, committees, interviewees) that women are more often than not the add-on for political credibility.

It is barely surprising, though no less infuriating, that Esther Duflo, the youngest recipient of the Nobel prize for economics, was described by numerous media houses as the wife of her fellow prize winner. See this gem from the Economic Times: “Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife wins Nobel in Economics”.

The power of money

As things stand, the global gender gap will close in 61 years in Western Europe, 70 years in South Asia, 74 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, 135 years in sub-Saharan Africa, 124 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 153 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 171 years in East Asia and the Pacific and 165 years in North America.

A recent study by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research and the Agence Francaise de Développement highlights some disturbing facts about the gender pay-gap in SA. Women with no education earn only 54% of what their male colleagues earn; women with a high school education make 68%; and those with tertiary education still only earn 63% of their male peers’ income.

So, even with a degree, women in this country are essentially working for free until May 9. And even without the gender wage gap, the general wage inequality in SA is in itself a feminist issue because the majority of those at the bottom end of the earning scale are women. So women dominate the poorest group of earners, and even there they earn less than men.

Women with no education only earn 54% of their male colleagues, women with a high school education make 68% and those with tertiary education still only earn 63% of their male peers.
Kim Jurgensen

In addition to women earning less than their male colleagues, and being hit hardest by the wage gap, women take on far more hours of unpaid work than men.

Black women spend 2.5 more time on household work than their male partners; Indian women four times more. Women do about three-quarters of household work. If we had to put a monetary value on this work, it would be about 27.3% of GDP. Women’s double-job burden — much of which is spent on caring for the young and the elderly, which in itself is energy-intensive work — further disadvantages them in labour and political advancement.

While men are more likely to have time for after-work educational pursuits, or political work that requires meetings in the evenings and on weekends, women are restricted from these pursuits because of their care responsibilities. This is evidenced in the leadership composition of all trade union and political parties across the country.

Despite the naysayers on both the Right and the Left (noting that “Left” is not a synonym for progressive) against the national minimum wage, it is the one policy that has transformative potential for working-class women. There are a myriad reasons why women in this tier have been earning slave wages: the government lacks inspector capacity to ensure domestic and farm workers have been paid the sectorally determined wage, trade unions have not invested in this female-intensive area to organise and empower workers, and to monitor wages and working conditions. The high unemployment levels mean people will often work for extremely low wages, even if most of that salary goes to transport costs.

Women’s double-job burden — much of which is spent on caring for the young and the elderly — further disadvantages them in labour and political advancement. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/BRENTON GEACH
Women’s double-job burden — much of which is spent on caring for the young and the elderly — further disadvantages them in labour and political advancement. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/BRENTON GEACH

When the national minimum wage (at a rate of R20/hour) was proposed in 2016, 4.6-million workers earned less than R2,500 a month. Notably, almost 80% of domestic workers earned less than R2,500. The latest reports show there has not been the massive employment bloodbath predicted by the Freedom Foundation and other anti-minimum wage commentators. We should note that domestic workers are so poorly paid that the legislation stated their salaries should be raised to R15/hour.

And even though we know inspection levels are low, if we assume  most employers have complied with the new levels, this will make a significant difference to many poor women in our country. We have seen domestic workers say that the difference from R2,000 or R2,500 or R3,000 to the new levels (some employers might even pay them R20/hour) might literally mean they can have food on the table until the next payday.

The power of management

But even without great intentions and a feminist consciousness, even if the men in power took their management roles seriously, that would help. On tertiary campuses we are calling on management to make sure the campuses are safe; that the lights work and security guards are available and visible. It is the difference between female students being able to use the libraries late at night and having to make the choice that it is safer not to do so because the walk back to the residences has some dark, unsafe spots.

At workplaces we are asking that parking areas be well-lit and access controls be working so women can be at the office late at night or on the weekend and not be vulnerable. We are asking that shift-work managers think progressively about placing women in night-time shifts where they may be vulnerable or may struggle with public transport. We are asking managers to take the labour legislation seriously and adopt a zero-tolerance approach for flouting of any gendered policies — particularly policies around sexual harm.

Lastly, as we watch the frenzy around the fourth industrial revolution, we can ask researchers, tech-people, innovators and businesses to do their research & development in a gendered framework. Here’s what we know from past developments:

  • Work-related cancer research continues to be conducted on The Reference Man (Caucasian, 25-30 years, 70kg). Women’s smaller bodies, thinner skins and higher fat levels mean they may be more predisposed to absorbing cancer-causing chemicals. This would especially affect workplaces such as beauty salons and cleaning companies, which are overwhelmingly dominated by women of colour.
  • Everything from protective vests to safety masks and gloves; from smartphones, to bricks and building tools, is designed for the body of the average man.
  • Voice recognition — that great technological development that was supposed to make life safer and easier — is still highly criticised for often not recognising women’s voices because of their pitch. Remember how Margaret Thatcher hired a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice so she would be more respected when she spoke?
  • Artificial intelligence has been designed with men in mind, which explains why Siri can find sex workers and Viagra suppliers and can help you if you have a heart attack but does not recognise the phrase “I was raped”.
  • Interactive maps are able to tell us the fastest route to a place, but not the safest.
  • Women are 47% more likely to sustain serious injuries in a car crash because cars are designed for men. Shorter legs means our driving position is generally wrong (because we have to sit closer to the wheel) and the seat belt is higher than it should be. A lower percentage of lean muscles in our upper bodies means women have a higher chance of serious whiplash if the car they are driving is rear-ended. No-one has yet developed an effective safety belt for pregnant women.

This world is designed by men, for men, and continues to be run by men. While we applaud programmes that teach young children to be more gender-sensitive, until these progressive feminist men grow up to take over the world, we are stuck with the world we have. We may not be able to get men to join us on marches against gender violence, but we can surely get men to at least take measures to address the glaring structural inequalities that keep women marginalised and disempowered. It’s a tough world out there if you’re an other.

• Kim Jurgensen is a PhD candidate at Rhodes University where she is researching gender inequality in the context of conflict-related sexual violence and previously worked at Nedlac, managing the process that brought about the national minimum wage.