Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)
“The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. 
The status of women is a test of civilisation. 
Measured by that standard, South Africa must be considered low in the scale of civilised nations.” 

(The Women’s Charter, 1954)

This year we celebrate the lives of two icons of our Struggle, Mama Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu and former president Nelson Mandela.

As we enter national Women’s Month how do we keep Mama Sisulu’s legacy alive? 

How do we take forward the struggle of the 20000 women who stood on the steps of the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956, to protest the extension of the oppressive pass laws to African women?

How do we honour the message of their powerful words pronounced that day? “We shall not rest until all pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom have been abolished. We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security”

Mama Sisulu was there on April 17, 1954 when the founding conference of the Federation of South African Women adopted the Women’s Charter.

The charter expressed the philosophy and aims of the then newly established federation, which organised the historic women’s march.

In the face of the deepening crisis of gender-based violence, unemployment and deep-seated patriarchy in our country today, some have said we have nothing to celebrate.

I would say the #TotalShutDown march is a continuation of the struggles women have waged since the beginning of the last century. The best way to celebrate Women’s Month is by honouring the legacy of the brave women who marched and by intensifying their Struggle until we are truly free.

#TheTotalShutDown march was an intersectional women’s march against gender-based violence that took place countrywide. It also kicked off Women’s Month.

We celebrate with admiration in our hearts and tears in our eyes. We celebrate with admiration for those brave women who took the initiative in 1956 to march to the Union Buildings. Admiration for the women who spoke up in this century and said #MeToo.

Admiration for women like Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge, who left nursing to study law and take over her slain husband Griffiths Mxenge’s legal practice, where she defended the human rights of Struggle detainees. Victoria also joined and led the women’s movement. She made the ultimate sacrifice when she was assassinated on August 1, 1985, 33 years ago. 

Tears that the #MeToo campaign of the women that called out their abusers have not yet changed the patriarchal structures and attitudes that control our society. Tears that Victoria Mxenge’s attackers have not yet been identified and charged.

The trade union movement has a slogan: “Don’t mourn, organise”. A gathering organised by the South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) in Cape Town last Thursday, vowed to continue the Struggle and be part of rebuilding the once powerful South African women’s movement.

Organised under the theme Localising the Women’s Agenda: Agency, Voice and Solidarity, the purpose of the dialogues is:

* To gather the assessment of SA women on the status and evolution of the women’s movement.

* To collectively discuss what to do to address femicide and gender-based violence, discussing root causes and three key collective advocacy points.

* To empower women to claim their spaces and refocus the women’s movement around their needs and a stocktaking on socio-economic priorities.

My organisation, Embrace Dignity, is pleased to be part of this new initiative to revive the women’s movement in our country. This is in line with our mission, to challenge the gendered power inequalities that continue to oppress women and girls through the system of prostitution, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

We are proudly feminist and abolitionist. 

An element of the abolitionist agenda is to challenge the system of prostitution, which entrenches and perpetuates patriarchy.

We aim to address this by strengthening support systems for women who want to leave prostitution, examining men’s demand for prostitution and creating a social consciousness about the economic and social conditions of women and girls through law reform and community advocacy programmes.

Some people have asked me what drew me to this work. My answer simply is that the Struggle is my life. After years in the women’s movement, I have learned about the importance of solidarity.

I remind myself of the words of Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Long Walk to Freedom.

Today in South Africa, years after Mandela walked out of prison, women are faced with a wide range of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/Aids, unemployment, gender discrimination, xenophobia, homophobia and poverty. These factors are at the root of women’s vulnerability to human trafficking.

According to the UN, the vast majority of all human trafficking victims – 71% – are women and girls, who are predominately trafficked for marriage and sexual slavery. Of all sex trafficking victims globally, 96% are female.

So, how can we be silent?

Fuelling this serious human rights abuse is the prevalence and accessibility of adult services websites. According to the NGO Equality Now, “the internet has enabled sex trafficking to become the fastest- growing criminal enterprise in the world, worth a stunning $99 billion (R1.3trillion) a year.”

The rising unemployment rate has opened the floodgates for human traffickers, with several cases in courts in the country. Picture: Matthew Jordaan

Our focus at Embrace Dignity is to break the cycles of prostitution and sex trafficking through a law that tackles the demand.

We advocate for the Equality Model Law or the Nordic Law pioneered in Sweden in 1999. It has been adapted by a growing number of countries including most recently Ireland and France. It has shown the most promise in curbing sex trafficking by focusing on ending the demand.

As we enter Women’s Month and in memory of Albertina Sisulu and all the women who struggled for our freedom, let us wipe our tears and gather our strength to challenge gendered power relations, inequality and gender-based violence.

For their tears and triumphs, let us each vow to continue the legacy. 

Let us echo their words: “We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security”. 

Let us shout at the top of our voices: “Now that you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.”

Nozizwe Madlala Routledge

* Madlala Routledge is the executive director of Embrace Dignity