The 11th AWID Forum: Hopes And Concerns
In one week’s time, the 11th International AWID Forum will begin in Cape Town, South Africa. AWID spoke with two South African women’s rights activists about their work, their hopes for and concerns about the Forum.
By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: Please tell us a little about your organisations.
SIZANI NGUBANE: The Rural Women's Movement (RWM) of South Africa based in KwaZulu Natal is an independent non-profit rural women's land and property rights organization that seeks to eliminate poverty through programs designed to provide training on women's land and property rights, enhance women's participation in local governance. RWM advocates for women's independent land, housing, inheritance and property rights and lobbies for public policy changes. RWM also provides training on how to respond strategically to the AIDS pandemic. While nurturing orphaned children's capacity to deal with the loss of their parents RWM also strives to deepen children's commitment to pro-social values such as personal responsibility, helpfulness, respect for others and kindness - qualities RWM believes are essential to leading humane and productive lives in a democratic society.
NONO ELAND: Treatment Action Campaign is a civil society organisation that is human rights driven to champion the rights of people living with HIV and women. We have a membership of more than sixteen thousand all over South Africa. We have been pro-active in advocating for access to antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV, prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) treatment for women, and reduction of prices for HIV treatment. Currently our strategic focus is on tuberculosis and HIV, gender violence prevention and women's health. We have a focus on HPV and cervical cancer as well as sexual and reproductive health rights for people living with HIV and AIDS. We have major influence on national and international structures when it come to the rights of people living with and affected by HIV. We have branches in six provinces in South Africa, all district based.
AWID: What do you see as the main challenges for women's rights activism in South Africa now?
SIZANI: Knowledge; women do not know where they can access information about government resources for instance. This contributes to high school drop out rates because many young women have no idea about where to find bursaries.
As the Rural Women's Movement (RWM) we are working with more than 25,000 women who have not had the opportunity to have formal education and cannot read and write. Access to information and communication technologies (ICT) is another challenge. In 2006 we were invited to send a delegation of two women to an international conference on ICT and civil society. In our effort to try and find two people who could represent RWM at the conference I was surprised to learn that out of 35,000 women RWM was working with I was the only person who could type a report on a computer, send and receive emails and browse the internet. I came back from conference feeling worried and sent a request for support to MTN, which is a cell phone company, and asked if they could donate refurbished computers. They donated twenty computers. The majority of young women who were trained on ICT said they did not imagine that in this lifetime they would be able to touch a computer – let alone learning how to work on one. Today the lives of forty two young women and one young man have changed. Fifty per cent of them have found jobs as clerks in local schools and as cashiers in shops. Others have moved to big cities like Johannesburg. We work with groups of women who are from the poorest of the poor communities and young women who have dropped out of high school and have therefore very slim chances of finding jobs. As a country we need to develop a strategy on how this sector can be assisted.
Landlessness is another huge challenge which contributes to the high rate of unemployment and poverty. RWM has heard from members about women who are now feeding their families with clay which makes their stomachs feel full for up to four days. Landlessness has also contributed to the spread of HIV.
NONO: There are many challenges, starting with the patriarchal systems that activists have to operate under; the justice system, the political environment, traditional practices and civil society at large. Another problem is impunity for gender based violence including violence meted out against women human rights defenders who campaign against it. Black lesbians and women living with HIV are being raped and murdered. Laws and policies that are supposed to protect women are not implemented in the way they should be. The justice system is failing women.
There is also the lack of a national collective voice of women. This is changing, but still persists to a large extent. We also face a scarcity of funding for women's organisations resulting in strategic organisations closing down. Lots of funding is now going towards programmes working with men and male circumcision.
AWID: How do you hope the AWID Forum will benefit your work and what concerns do you have?
SIZANI: It will raise awareness about the plight of women and children in Africa. Most South Africans don’t even know about these challenges and it would be news to them. Last month I spoke to a young woman from the premier's office and she could hardly believe that there are people who go outside and search for clay, dig it, go home and dish it out to their families. I would really like to share these stories with the entire Forum and be able to request for support.
NONO: This platform will assist in highlighting how women organise in Africa and the challenges they face. It will also provide a space to raise major issues for advocacy. I hope this will facilitate greater collaboration among women's organisations and the sharing of strategies between women activists from all over the globe and enhance how we organise. Rural women, women on farms, lesbians, sex workers, women living with HIV and marginalised women who do marvellous work in difficult settings; women who normally do not get opportunities to go to international conferences will find a space to engage as this conference comes to them, and at least they have been afforded scholarships.
My concerns are that local organisations were not consulted enough for their input in shaping the Forum. Also, the programme as it is still does not accommodate grassroots women who might not have been able to have technical support to write abstracts for their presentations in order to get selected. I hope that the conference will not be dominated by researchers and academics and exclude women who do work that makes effective impact in the lives of women who often go unnoticed. I also hope that satellite conferences and other activities reaching out to marginalised groups will attempt to address these concerns.
AWID invited a range of South African women’s rights organizations to respond to the questions in this interview. If you would like to share your views on the issues discussed here, please send your input to firstname.lastname@example.org.