- Nov 9, 2005
Failing our women: A tragic loss of human potential
On Women’s Day it is important to look beyond the symbolism of this public holiday, and address the root causes of women’s oppression.
The risk of trinkets, cards and gifts on such occasions is that they disguise (rather than address) the substantive issues.
The vision of an “open, opportunity society for all” faces major obstacles, none greater than the situation facing most women (not only in South Africa, but in many other countries).
The reason is that most women forfeit their opportunities before they begin to use them. Their careers end before they begin.
On Women’s Day, we should look hard at the catastrophic loss of human potential among South African women. For far too many, life’s opportunities have been shut down well before their 20th birthday. Multitudes have dropped out of school. Large numbers have become pregnant by fathers who will never support them or their children, so that both they and their babies are doomed to stunted, impoverished lives.
The South African Institute of Race Relations has recently published statistics on the state of the South African family. They are frightening. By 2007, only 34% of children in South Africa were living with both biological parents. 23% were living with neither. There were 148,000 households headed by a child of 17 years or younger. In 2006, more than 72,000 girls between the age of 13 and 19 did not attend school because they were pregnant. A pupil at a school in Mpumalanga claimed that 34 babies born to school girls were fathered by teachers.
Apartheid bears much of the blame for the disintegration of African family life. But the problem has actually been getting worse in recent years. From 2002 to 2007, there was an increase in the number of children living without a father, and in child-headed families. AIDS explains a large loss of life among young women but does not explain why fewer living men are staying with, and taking responsibility for, the children they fathered.
Since ancient times, women have been subjugated. All traditional cultures - European, African and Asian - are patriarchal. In South Africa, patriarchy is the one truly non-racial institution. All cultures use the same excuses to deny power, leadership and status to women. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the same taboos about women. These attitudes are stubborn and enduring. I believe they are rooted in our biology, on the simple fact that women bear children. This fact has enormous consequences.
Traditional cultures and religions also show both prejudice and great wisdom. While they can display bigotry against women, there are also deep insights about human nature. They have instituted laws and prohibitions that protect women, strengthen family life and advance civilisation. The ancients could be extremely blunt, especially on the subject of male sexuality. You see this, sometimes with a bit of a shock, in the Old Testament.
We must retain ancient wisdom and reject ancient prejudice. Human progress depends both on living by the law and on overcoming deep-rooted bigotry. Probably the single most important marker of a country’s progress is how it treats its women. If women have the same education as its men, and are given the same opportunities and status, the country will prosper and advance. But we need to break down traditional attitudes for this to happen.
When a woman has her babies, and in what circumstances, is of fundamental importance to her, her children and society. Traditional culture dealt with this question in great detail. There were strict prohibitions against children born out of wedlock or some established arrangement (such as lobola). The prospective father had to prove his commitment and responsibility before he was allowed to procreate.
In modern societies, successful women defer childbirth. They have their first baby after completing their education, and usually several years into their career. This is good for them and good for the babies, who have mature and economically secure parents.
Discipline and responsibility are essential for liberation; lack of discipline and irresponsibility can enslave.
In too much of South Africa, we have rejected ancient wisdom and kept ancient prejudices. The ancients knew that adolescent girls are sexually attractive to mature men, and there were stigmas against their sexual union. Today in South Africa, these stigmas have been brushed aside, and mature men are impregnating school girls. It is sometimes said that their sex is consensual, that the girls are seduced by the money and status of the older men, and persuaded that condoms are unnecessary because the older men are trustworthy. But far more often, girls feel they have no choice, and must submit to men’s advances.
In some poor schools, menstruation can end a girl’s education. Lacking knowledge and simple hygienic remedies or sanitation, girls feel scared, lonely and defiled. Girls may stay away from school for their days of menstruation. Often this leads to their staying away forever.
We need a profound change of attitudes. Men must realise that they do not own women. They must know that they cannot copulate with a woman simply because they desire her. Women, especially poor young women, must realise that they are free agents, not beholden to any man, however old, rich and powerful. They must know that having babies young will wreck their opportunities, and often also their lives and their babies’ lives. They must realise the supreme importance of their education.
Indeed, if you had to prescribe in three words the best single solution to a whole range of the world’s most pressing problems - including overpopulation and mass poverty - those three words would be “education of women”.
What can the state do? Here are three suggestions that should be thoroughly debated and costed, to determine whether they can form the basis of public policy in the future.
1. Enforce maintenance payments. Whenever there is a transaction where you need to show your ID (opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, getting a passport etc), networked computers would be able to determine whether male applicants were in arrears with maintenance payments. If so, they would be barred from make the transaction. That would concentrate men’s minds about the consequences of making a baby when they are not able or ready to be responsible fathers.
2. Create incentives for women to further their education, rather than become teenage mothers. One idea to promote this outcome would be to award an educational grant of, say, R25,000 to women turning 21 years old who have a matric certificate and have never applied for a child grant.
3. Bring a charge of statutory rape against any adult man who has sex with an under-aged girl, regardless of whether it was “consensual” or not. This could very well assist in resurrecting the necessary social taboo against such behaviour.
We have had too many Gender Commissions that end up recommending more female executives in corporate management and top government positions, while evading all the big and obvious problems confronting ordinary South African women, of which male sexuality is the greatest. It’s time to face reality on these issues and not be cowed by male politicians who do not want to hear about rape rates or the disastrously high number of children who do not know their fathers. We’ve had enough of the mantra of women’s liberation. We now want the reality.
Unfortunately too much of what happens in this country is merely taken for granted and brushed under the carpet. Sometimes its spewed that because she is Black it is expected; however, as Helen pointed out this Woman's Day weekend maybe we should be looking at the break down of the family and the lack of responsibility of males regardless of race.
She makes some good suggestions which should appeal to all cultures.