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  • Writer's pictureMarina Kontara

8M SOUTH AFRICA: International Women’s Day: Working Class Unity to Defeat Gender-Based Violence

Today, the 8th of March, is International Women’s Day, a day commemorating the historic struggle for women’s rights. As the world looks back on the conditions and events that have given rise to various liberation movements, we take a look at the conditions women currently face. Internationally, historic gains for women are on the line in the context of multiple world crises. South Africa currently faces two pandemics that directly impact on especially working class and poor women: the coronavirus pandemic and the second, equally nefarious, pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV). We have to rebuild and strengthen working class organisation and struggle to fight back on all fronts.

Written by Ferron Pedro, WASP

In a 2010 survey that covered Gauteng Province, 51% of women said they have experienced gender-based violence, while 76% of men admitted to having perpetrated GBV at least once in their lives. The 2019/2020 report from the South African Police Services (SAPS), covering reported sexual offences, indicate that GBV is on the rise from the previous year’s report of 2018/2019. Reports of rape increased from 41 583 in the 2018/2019 period, to 42 289 cases in 2019/2020 – this is a shocking 116 reported cases every day. The increase in rape cases reported could also be explained, to an extent, by an increased awareness amongst victims and a growing confidence to take a stand.

However this would also just underline the extent to which the severity of the GBV pandemic has been undocumented for decades. It should be noted that in spite of an apparent increase in awareness around GBV in the last few years due to protests and movements such as #TheTotalShutdown, we still see victim-blaming, cultural stigma and lack of victim-sensitive training and support in SAPS as serious obstacles to reporting. And so we can confidently assume the numbers above are nowhere near the full extent of the ongoing GBV pandemic.

In addition to sexual assault, the 2019/2020 period saw 2 695 women murdered in South Africa. This is the equivalent of one woman murdered every three hours. According to the World Health Organisation, this is five times higher than the global average. Even though globally women and children are murdered at a much lower rate than men, the rate of women and children murdered due to intimate partner/domestic violence is far greater. In South Africa, 50% of women murders (femicides) can be attributed to intimate partner violence.

Like in many parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe lockdown initially imposed in South Africa made the situation even worse. In the first three months of the lockdown, 21 women and children had been killed by male partners or members of their families in this country. Within the first week of the lockdown, the South African Police Service reported receiving 2 300 calls related to gender-based violence.

Working class women in South Africa face the brunt of both the COVID-19 and GBV pandemics, and the lockdown period has had a disproportionate impact on them specifically. Two out of three job losses (totalling two million) in the first stage of lockdown were those of women. Surveys during this time showed household income was particularly vulnerable – half of all people surveyed revealed that their households ran out of money for food in April 2020, and more than one in five reported that at least one person in their household went hungry at the time. With two million women losing their incomes in this time, it is hardly surprising to see the impact on households across the country.

Added to these already grim circumstances, the most recent cuts in social spending place working class women in an even more precarious economic position. This will have the very real consequence of making women more vulnerable to gender-based violence. The latest austerity budget increases the burden of childcare, care of the elderly and disabled. The meagre R10-30 per month increases in social grants is below the rate of inflation, making it a cut in real terms. Cuts in social spending – including health, education and social services – will result in decreasing access to the services desperately needed when facing GBV. Instead of expanding counselling, shelters, decent housing, childcare, access to justice, etc., the ANC government is diminishing them.

What is to be done?

Protests have been ongoing since 2018 in a much-needed feminist awakening. In September 2019, public outrage at the brutal murder of student Uyinene Mrwetyana triggered nationwide protests against the rising tide of gender-based violence in South Africa. There continues to be sporadic protests and outrage at new cases of femicide and gender based violence particularly in working class communities. It is clear that young people are angry with the status quo and are ready to fight as part of a mass movement in the struggle against GBV.

Worldwide we have already seen what such mass movements are capable of when taking up the struggle for women’s rights. In Argentina for example we saw thousands of “Green Tide” activists mobilize at the end of last year to cap off three generations of feminist struggle to pressure the Argentine senate to vote to legalize abortion. After years of denying women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, Argentina now sees a movement continue to gain momentum as effective implementation of the right to legal, safe and free abortion takes focus. Meanwhile in Poland, right wing efforts to implement a total ban on abortion have been met by thousands taking to the streets as women’s right to choose receives more support from broader layers of society than ever seen before.

The last few years have shown what a formidable force this generation of young and overwhelmingly working class women are. Not only in the reawakened feminist struggles such as the examples mentioned above but in the mass revolts in 2019 that swept from Sudan to Iraq, Hong Kong to Chile, young women were at the forefront. This has also been a strong feature of the mass struggles in 2020 and 2021 for example in Belarus, Indonesia and Myanmar. The growing confidence and fighting spirit of women workers – who make up the vast majority of “frontline” workers during this pandemic – has also been seen in South Africa. Women shop stewards at Nature’s Garden & L’Oreal have led the struggles for living wages, PPE, hazard pay, and against retrenchments. Young women in particular have also played decisive roles in strikes such as at Cell C against retrenchments. There can be no better evidence of the energy to harness among the youthful layers of working class women who are ready to take up the fight against both gender oppression and capitalist exploitation.

There is an immense opportunity for the labour movement and the left in South Africa to mobilise radicalised young women willing to strike and protest to change society. Our task as Marxists is to raise the level of consciousness of working class women and youth to recognise that in order to eradicate GBV we need to eradicate class society altogether. Radicalised layers of women, LGBTQI+ communities and young people are recognising the need for collective action to transform society. In one protest where WASP intervened in Johannesburg in 2020, many of the young people interviewed said they were prepared to strike and occupy to put an end to gender-based violence. The Lanxess mineworkers strike against sexism in 2019 showed workers are also taking up this struggle. It is vital that trade unions actively turn to these layers, and take part in these protests and movements, as part of reviving an energised youth-led working class movement for socialism.

As WASP we are campaigning within SAFTU for a general strike to take place in the next three months. This action should bring together unions and working class formations that came together at the historic 2018 Working Class Summit, as well as new layers that have entered struggles in the context of the COVID19 pandemic. It is vital that we consciously link workplace struggles with community struggles – the high rates of violence against women happen in communities as well as on the shop floor.

We support the launching by SAFTU of a National Gender Commission which has the potential to serve as a powerful mobilising platform of working class struggles against women’s oppression. It is crucial that this structure takes up the role of agitating for socialist feminist perspectives in the labour movement. It must reject and expose the illusions of bourgeois feminist propaganda we are bombarded with in mainstream media and politics – getting women into management and leadership positions will not end the oppression of working class women. It must also work to connect with militant women in the trade unions, including the likes of Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) and others to connect the struggles of public sector health care workers with the issue of gender based violence in the country.

It is high time that the labour movement of South Africa takes up the banner of international socialist feminist struggles – honouring the militant working class origins of International Women’s Day and adopting it as a day of organised protests across the country would be an important step in this direction. In order to overcome the exploitation of workers, racism and the oppression of women and LGBTQI+ communities, we must abolish capitalism. To abolish capitalism we must unite the working class across gender, sexuality, race and nationality. To win genuine freedom for all, we need to build a mass movement with revolutionary leadership and a clear socialist programme to challenge the economic system and the capitalist state. As WASP we continue to put the mass workers party on the agenda and push for radical action by the trade union movement which will include community organisations and youth and women activists fighting for a South Africa and a world without gender based violence. Only a socialist world can be free from all oppression.

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Nov 10, 2023

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