Thandi Modise, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Baleka Mbete. Picture: GCIS
Thandi Modise, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Baleka Mbete. Picture: GCIS

On March 8, we gathered with much fanfare to celebrate international women’s day. As you’d expect, speeches extolled the achievements in advancing women’s rights and empowerment.

On the day, I also gave a speech on women’s empowerment. I highlighted how, for empowerment to be effective, women must be met where they are, and their diversity must be embraced. Women must also be allowed to add value authentically as women — not as distorted versions of men.

But I’m concerned that political parties, particularly in the run-up to the elections, have adopted a one-size-fits-all paradigm that focuses mainly on jobs and land, to the exclusion of such nuance.

When it comes to land, for example, the emphasis is on redistribution; there is seemingly no plan for those who have land but who, through decades of dispossession, have lost the social knowledge required for the productive and sustainable use of that land. What about the innovative women who can’t find markets for their agricultural offerings, for example?

UN member states, in the organisation’s 2030 agenda, have committed to “leave no-one behind” — a call that some of us have advocated for years, and which is at the centre of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). As I write, the UN Commission on the Status of Women is reviewing progress on women’s rights as it does every year at this time.

Women must also be allowed to add value authentically as women — not as distorted versions of men

In my speech, I appealed to business in SA — and on the continent as a whole — to play a more meaningful role in the pursuit of the SDGs, which aim to end poverty and reduce structural inequality by 2030. The empowerment of women is central to this. Women’s full inclusion in the political economy is essential for sustainable development and economic growth in any nation. This is confirmed in studies by institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, OECD and the World Economic Forum.

But we also need to ask deeper questions about empowerment. For example, who are we targeting to ensure no person is left behind? As regards women, for example, which women are we targeting? All of them? Just a few? Is it women who need jobs, or those who want land? Is it women who make beads or sell tomatoes? Is it professional women, including doctors and nurses in crowded hospitals, or scientists and tech workers trying to find their place in the age of artificial intelligence?

What about those women who are prevented from freely pursuing particular occupations because of violence in the family and society? And what about the young girls, LGBTI community, older women, refugees or others who are systematically left behind when it comes to the equal enjoyment of rights and freedoms?

At Stellenbosch University, we have a consultative process called the “M-plan for social justice”. It tries to use data analytics to help policymakers accelerate the process of social justice, meeting the poor and marginalised wherever they are. We do the same in the Thuma Enterprising Communities initiative, in order to empower communities.

It’s time to apply those same principles to women: to meet them in their own spaces to ensure we leave no-one behind; to empower ourselves as a society by adhering to the precepts of ubuntu.

To return to the Netball World Cup: here is an opportunity to dream together and hope again, as we did in 2010.

Madonsela is a professor and the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University