Real solutions needed for gender challenges
Zingiswa Losi reflects on the abuse of women and children, and on their emancipation. She says it would be a mistake to treat this matter as if it was apolitical and to engage with it without interrogating its class content.
I want to declare right from the onset that as Cosatu we consider the abuse of women and children a class issue and, in our engagement, we must treat it as such.
Our task is not only to establish facts but to explain them, to understand the reasons behind them, so that we can use that information to effect change. Karl Marx said that others have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it. We must find real solutions to the problems confronting our society.
• The United Nations estimates that, between 133-million and 275-million children experience violence at home annually, with the largest proportion in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
• Boys and girls are equally subjected to child abuse by family members and are equally victimised by child labour exploitation. However, globally, girls make up 98 percent of children who are sexually exploited. Child abuse is a major risk factor linked to future criminal behaviour.
• The trend shows that while this is an international phenomenon affecting all classes and strata of our society it is more visible in under-developed and developing societies.
• According to a study by the World Health Organisation many women said that their first sexual experience was not consensual. Twenty-four percent said this in rural Peru, 28 percent in Tanzania, 30 percent in rural Bangladesh, and 40 percent in South Africa).
• Between four and 12 percent of women reported being physically abused during pregnancy. Between 15 and 71 percent of women reported physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner.
• Forced marriages and child marriages are widely practised in many countries in Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
• Worldwide, up to one in five women and one in 10 men report experiencing sexual abuse as children.
• Children subjected to sexual abuse are much more likely to encounter other forms of abuse later in life.
• Every year about 5 000 women are murdered by family members in the name of honour worldwide.
• Trafficking of women and girls for forced labour and sex is widespread and often affects the most vulnerable.
These are the facts, but how do we use these facts as a base to establish and develop our strategies? We cannot develop a proper strategy if we do not clarify the theoretical bases of this challenge because even though we experience the problem in the same way, our understanding of the root causes is not the same and therefore our strategies to deal with it differ, even before we start to tackle the problem itself.
My view is that the root cause of all forms of oppression is the division of society into classes. For many feminists, on the other hand, the oppression of women is rooted in the nature of men – not a social but a biological phenomenon.
This is an entirely static, a historical, unscientific and undialectical conception of the human race from which pessimistic and flawed conclusions will flow. If we accept that there is something inherent in men which causes them to oppress women, it is difficult to see how the present situation will ever be remedied.
If we continue with this logic the conclusion will be that the oppression of women by men has always existed and therefore, presumably, will always exist.
If we resolve to wage a heated war against men, the effect will be to produce a reciprocal siege with a likelihood of mutual destruction, because we will not be dealing with the cause of the problem but the symptoms and manifestations of the problem.
So, I differ fundamentally with the view that simply presents men as the cause of the problem. Our understanding is that along with class, private property and the state, the bourgeois family has not always existed, and that the oppression of women is only as old as the division of society into classes.
Its abolition is therefore dependent on the abolition of classes, that is, on the socialist revolution.
As proletarian women, we must have a different attitude. We do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, we think of men as our comrades, who share with us the drudgery of the daily round and fight with us for a better future.
The woman and her male comrade are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life. It is true that several specific aspects of the contemporary system lie with double weight upon women, as it is also true that the conditions of hired labour sometimes turn working women into competitors and rivals to men.
This does not mean that the oppression of women will automatically vanish when the proletariat takes power. The psychological heritage of class barbarism will finally be overcome when the social conditions are created for the establishment of real human relations between men and women.
But unless and until the proletariat overthrows capitalism and lays the conditions for the achievement of a classless society, no genuine emancipation of women is possible.
There is a parallel between the Marxist-Leninist position on women and the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question. We have an obligation to fight against all forms of national oppression.
But does this mean that we support nationalism as the be all and end all of our struggle? The answer is no. We see the struggle against national oppression as integral to the struggle for socialism.
We hold the same logic towards the struggle against the oppression of women, while fighting against all forms of discrimination and oppression. In South Africa, for an example, the oppression of women is also at the same time integral to the process of coercing them to provide their time and energy as cheap labour.
This happens both at a domestic and national scale, and the intensity differs according to the social standing of the women on which it is imposed. Women from working-class backgrounds bear the brunt of this oppression, but that does not mean that it does not happen to other women.
As Cosatu, we are clear that in order to bring about the socialist revolution, it is necessary to unite the working class and its organisations, cutting across all lines of language, nationality, race, religion and gender.
This implies, on one hand, that the working class must take upon itself the task of fighting against all forms of oppression and exploitation, and place itself at the head of all the oppressed layers of society, and on the other, that it must decisively reject all attempts to divide it – even when these attempts are made by sections of the oppressed themselves.
Actually, the whole history of our struggle shows that the class question is primary, and that there has always been a sharp struggle between women of the oppressed classes, who stood for revolutionary change, and well-to-do women “progressives” who merely used the question of the oppression of women for their own selfish purposes.
Because the level of education and exposure to resources by women is not the same, it is those who are better educated and have more resources who end up being the voice of working-class women.
As this happens, the class content of the women’s struggle is watered down and you get, for example, a women’s presidential working group that says they want a separate pension fund for women when, in fact, they want to carve out a stake for themselves.
It is in this context that as we engage in the emotional struggle for the emancipation of women, we must decisively reject bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism, which sees the essential problem as a conflict between men and women, and not as a class question.
As women, we must understand that we have common class interests with the rest of the working class.
We must, however, not lose the dialectical interconnection between a gender struggle that includes males and the need to have such a struggle led by the women themselves.
The logic is the same as the dialectical relationship between the principles of non-racialism and the African leadership in the National Democratic Revolution.
I have noticed with interest that while we have the same approach in seeing the National Democratic Revolution as integral to socialism, there is a tendency, even within our movement, to ignore the same approach when it comes to gender struggles. Women are refused an opportunity to assert their leadership in matters that affect them directly.
Through the experience of the women who took part in the march to the Union Buildings in 1956, and through our own experience, we have learnt that equal rights with men would mean only an equal share in inequality. But for the “chosen few”, the bourgeois women, it would indeed open doors to new and unprecedented rights and privileges that until now have been enjoyed by men of the bourgeois class alone.
To a great extent I do share the concerns of women in questioning exclusive rights of males. For example, there is a need to challenge the stereotypes of the male counterparts within our ranks that see women only as voting cattle who serve the purpose of advancing factional battles, only to be discarded after elections.
Sometimes I am worried by the extent to which women in our own structures get treated like minors by our own comrades.
The fundamental question that we must ask as a trade union movement is: are we building capacity and confidence in our female comrades, or will they remain voting fodder in our meetings? Even if they are elected, they are treated with disdain and patronised.
Are we really non- sexist unions that do not see female comrades as sex objects, as individuals who cannot think independently, whose views must always get the approval of male comrades? Are we linking our bargaining strategies to gender equality?
How many times do we hear comrades saying this or that woman comrade is not fit for this or that task and needs to be developed, when the same question does not arise when it is a male comrade.
Comrades, I do not know what it will cost me but I will fight this mentality with everything I have. Who decided that the only people who can occupy strategic positions in our organisations are males?
The reality is that women are still grossly under-represented in the world’s boardrooms. In particular, in the developing world, women continue to make up the majority of the working poor, earn less income, and are more often affected by long-term unemployment than men.
This is due to women’s socio-economic disadvantages caused by gender-based discrimination and their double roles of being both a worker and a caretaker.
Women often have less access to productive resources, education, skills development and labour market opportunities than men in many societies.
Largely, this is because of persistent social norms ascribing gender roles, which are often slow to change. Furthermore, women continue to undertake most of the unpaid care work.
This has become an increasing challenge to them in their efforts to engage in productive work, both in subsistence agriculture and the market economy, especially in countries which are negatively affected by environmental change and HIV and Aids.
If the struggle against the abuse of women and children is to be won, one of the things that must happen is to have women in positions of leadership in all organisations that lead the struggle for freedom, such as unions and the South African Communist Party, in the liberation movement as a whole and in government.
This is not to suggest entryism, but it should happen in the context of the participation of women in these formations.
I would like to challenge the view that says males must support this struggle. A call to have men support the gender struggle is premised on a narrow view that gender struggles are just for women.
I hold the view that both men and women need to broaden their understanding of gender struggles. This will not happen automatically, but leading cadres should open space for education and the sharing of views on this matter.
Men must not be reduced to external stakeholders in the process, but must be seen as part of the movement that also stands to benefit from the freedom of women.
In March 1921 Lenin made a very important observation that “the working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly – and this is the main thing – they remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household.”
It is here that society must challenge social relations which suggest that by virtue of being a woman you are a possession that can be beaten at the slightest provocation and on which the owner can always vent his feelings.
Comrades, it is in this current configuration of social relations that a girl child will mistakenly learn to accept the superiority of men, and it is in these social relations that a boy child will mistakenly think it is acceptable to be rough with women and that it is acceptable to use physical power against them.
Our strategic point of departure must be to create the socio-economic conditions in which the patterns of ownership will not be defined in terms of gender, but where the resources of the country and the world are available to everyone.
In the immediate term, we must struggle to ensure that every girl and boy child has an opportunity to go to school, as far as university, without being hindered by a lack of money, a condition that is imposed by the socio-economic situation of their parents.
We need to ensure that we break the cycle of poverty while we deepen the gender struggle.
We must strive to ensure that we impose a decent work agenda in our country, because it is mostly women that are exploited as domestic workers, as farmworkers, and in the hospitality industry.
It is women who must determine the conditions that will allow our full emancipation. We need to be clear that the type of freedom we want can only be achieved in the context of the working class struggle as a whole.
In the words of Alexanders Kollantai: “Only the working class is capable of maintaining morale in the modem world with its distorted social relations. With firm and measured step it advances steadily towards its aim. It draws the working women to its ranks.
The proletarian woman bravely starts out on the thorny path of labour. Her legs sag; her body is torn. There are dangerous precipices along the way, and cruel beasts of prey are close at hand.
“But only by taking this path is the woman able to achieve that distant but alluring aim – her true liberation in a new world of labour. During this difficult march to the bright future the proletarian woman, until recently a humiliated, downtrodden slave with no rights, learns to discard the slave mentality that has clung to her, step by step she transforms herself into an independent worker, an independent personality, free in love.
It is she, fighting in the ranks of the proletariat, who wins for women the right to work; it is she, the ‘younger sister’, who prepares the ground for the ‘free’ and ‘equal’ woman of the future
“The working woman guards her class interests and is not deceived by great speeches about the ‘world all women share’. The working woman must not, and does not, forget that while the aim of bourgeois women is to secure their own class interest the real answer lies in socialism.
Zingiswa Losi is Cosatu 2nd deputy president