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Towards a compassionate feminist society

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Towards a compassionate feminist society
Statement by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) on Reconciliation Day, 16 December 2020

This year, Reconciliation Day presents us all with another opportunity to consider how painfully far we remain from the values and principles adopted in drafting the Constitution of South Africa. It is an opportunity to strengthen our resolve to the values and principles as set out in the Constitution. 

The Constitution of South Africa envisages a country built on the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism, non-sexism, the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law. Over the last 26 years of our constitutional democracy, the experiences of marginalised and excluded persons and communities shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to bring our country closer to these values.

Every day womxn in South Africa face threats to their safety and constitutionally enshrined rights in every aspect of their lives.

  • Violence against womxn occurs at alarming rates without any effective responses from the state or society. Survivors of rape, sexual harassment and sexual abuse are silenced, rejected, and blamed. Our homes and societies are unsafe for womxn and sexual and gender diverse persons because of their identities.
  • Religion, which has deep patriarchal roots in South Africa, is used as a weapon to discriminate against womxn and sexual and gender diverse persons. Conservative voices are emboldened to express hate and inflict harm in ways that resemble the painful past that our Constitution rejects. Heteronormativity and binarism are embraced so firmly in denying identities, personhood, and womxnhood of many sexual and gender diverse persons.
  • Womxn are denied the autonomy to freely make decisions about their bodies, reproduction, and health because of patriarchal notions.
  • Womxn continue to be the face of poverty in South Africa. Professions predominantly occupied by womxn including care work and sex work continue to be disregarded, unrecognised as not being ‘work’ and criminalised. Womxn’s ability to own and control land is limited as land ownership continues to be seen through a patriarchal lens that reserves this right for men despite our Courts declaring such practices as unconstitutional. Cycles of poverty continue unhindered and will increase as our economy sheds jobs mostly conducted by womxn, including domestic and care work.
  • Our social security system continues to violate the dignity of mothers, children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly in need who are made to stand in long queues every month to receive social security protection that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

What does a compassionate feminist reality look like?

Our work shows us that feminist realities can shape social cohesion and reconciliation.

These realities, however, cannot only be sought after by poor and vulnerable individuals and communities. Those in power, with privilege, must also reflect, recognise, and acknowledge the critical need to adopt a feminist approach to dismantling stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.

Every day ordinary South African womxn and their allies dedicate themselves to creating a more just, humane, and dignified life for those around them. To imagine what a compassionate feminist reality would look like we need only turn our gaze to the womxn who feed their hungry neighbours through a pandemic, the activists who stand up to outdated belief systems, the health care workers who dedicate themselves to saving lives even while they must worry about transmitting COVID-19 to their own loved ones, the teachers who strive to educate our children under adverse conditions, and the farmworkers who continue to ensure we have food to eat.

This year our work has highlighted that the experiences of those often violently excluded and made vulnerable by the operation of law largely are informed by the views of those who hold power. Those with power or those who perceive themselves to hold power feel entitled to dictate how identities and bodies should be regulated in accordance with their own individual or groups privilege. Feminist values and ideals towards social cohesion are viewed as a threat to this corrupt power.

Ours is a deeply unequal society where many continue to face intersectional discrimination based on race, gender, class, and various other intersecting characteristics. As such, it is important to reject a zero-sum approach because any gains that are geared to dismantle inequality, prejudice and stigma cannot continue to be seen as a threat to those who long to preserve exclusion, discrimination, and marginalisation.

As we commemorate Reconciliation Day, the WLC calls upon all individuals, communities, leaders, religious and traditional leaders, political parties, all state and non-state actors in their diversity, to renew their commitment to the ideals of human dignity, equality, and freedom that we celebrated when the Constitution of South Africa become our supreme law.

On this day we challenge all people in South Africa to reflect on views, ideas and conceptions of identity, personhood and womxnhood that are harmful to others, our communities, and our country.

On this day we ask that we all reflect on how we can individually and collectively contribute to social cohesion and develop a culture of peace, equality, diversity, and inclusion in all spaces that we all use daily.