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Women! Together organizing for power and change!

 

South Africa, 22 June 2017

Women are involved in social movements that are patriarchal, where women continue to be marginalised. While there are few women in leadership positions, they often do not promote women’s interests. Organisational forms tend to replicate male leadership even in cases where there are women leaders. Women are excluded from decision-making and their reality is not taken into account.

 

Even in cases where organisations take a more interventionist attitude to women’s leadership, this is seen as a project of adding women to power rather than building an alternative to male power within the organisation. Women are blamed for continuing to elect male leaders, and for not supporting female leaders, and thus, for being complicit in the reproduction of patriarchal power within organizations and movements. However, when women challenge patriarchy they often face hostility and violence. Improving women’s representation at various levels of organisational leadership is positive, but it does not eliminate the barriers to women’s leadership. If we are serious about challenging patriarchal power within our organizations and movements, we need to demonstrate greater sensitivity to women’s voices.

 

Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (ESSET) embarked on a women’s leadership and organizing initiative aimed at building activist leadership among poor and working class women through training, political education and collective action. It included reflections and discussions on leadership and organizations, gender socialization and feminist political consciousness. The objective of the initiative is to enhance women’s existing knowledge through promoting and provoking critical thinking on political, socioeconomic and cultural issues, activism, leadership, and organization. A platform (seven women’s circles for conversation) was also created for the participants to apply the knowledge and skills that they acquired and to set in motion a process to organize women in the different communities.
One hundred and fifty-five women participated in the activities from six working-class communities, namely, Meadowlands, Dobsonville, Orange Farm, Benoni, Tembisa, and Freedom Park. The participants were members of various grassroots formations, including Abahlali baseFreedom Park, Women in the Kraal (a women’s cooperative), Robert Sobukwe Youth Club, Bokamoso Youth Group, and female leaders of church organizations in Tembisa, Benoni and Soweto.

 

Some of the main outcomes of the activities are:

  1. The participants were equipped with a basic understanding of collective activist leadership, organizing, and advocacy.
  2. The female members of Abahlali baseFreedom Park used the knowledge they acquired about organizing to plan a march to protest against the lack of land for housing in their community.
  3. Church women in Tembisa were inspired by the discussion on gender-based violence in the needs assessment meeting and organized their own reflection meeting on GBV afterwards.
  4. The participants are equipped with knowledge of how race, gender and class intersect in women’s experiences of sexual violence and socio-economic marginalization.
  5. The participants have used the theoretical tools they acquired in the feminist political education forums to discuss women’s experiences of sexual violence and socio-economic marginalization in the women’s circles of conversation.
  6. The participants initiated a process to organize themselves and other women within black working-class communities through dialogue, reflection, and action.

Many of the participants in all seven circles presented their own stories of sexual violence. It had an empowering effect to the extent that the participants agreed on the need for collective action by women to fight back against sexual violence within their communities. Moreover, the participants in all seven circles of women’s conversation agreed to organize regular group discussions in their various communities and to meet once a month in dialogue forum. They would like ESSET to conduct regular political education sessions on the economy, gender politics, and other relevant subjects. They also asked that ESSET develop skills training activities that can support the livelihoods of unemployed women in working-class communities. The monthly dialogue forums will be used to identify and organize collective actions that women will undertake to address socio-economic and cultural problems in their communities.

 

ESSET is currently in the process of developing a plan to sustain the initiative in consultation with gender activists and the participants. We are exploring activities that will support the organizing efforts of women in the above-mentioned communities, their courses of action, and livelihoods practices.


by Xolelwa Mshubeki
Theology and Social Justice Programme Officer

 

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