Speech delivered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the occasion of the 9th Congress of the Pan African Women’s Organisation, Friday 15 February 2008, Birchwood Hotel, Benoni
Thank you very much programme director. President of the ANC Women’s League, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. And also I’d like to salute the founder members of PAWO coming from all the regions of our continent, represented by Algeria, Mali, Tanzania, Cameroon and South Africa.
I’d like to salute our stalwarts Mama Winnie Mandela, and ofcourse Madame Secretary-General of the Pan African Women’s Organisation, Comrade Assetou Koite, who has really kept this organisation going over a long period.
And also to salute all of you delegates, ministers, comrades,
Ladies and gentlemen.
I know you’ve been welcomed to this country especially those coming from outside, but I think it is also my responsibility to welcome you to our beautiful shore once more.
I was not here with you yesterday, as the President of the Women’s League and the programme director have said, because I was at the Russian Federation. As a result I am at a disadvantage because I’m sure lots of things have been said by all the speakers who spoke yesterday. So maybe I’ll take just a slightly different view.
Let me say to you when I was in Moscow I was waiting for an Ambassador to come and pick me up to go to a meeting and I picked up some publication that was on a coffee table. This looked attractive from outside, it had beautiful women and it was entitled “Passport” and was this month’s issue. It was talking a lot about Valentine’s issues. There was an article that caught my eye, sub-titled Wedding Traditions of the old Slavs.
Now I want to share some parts of this article with you and I’ll start by quoting some part that says that very little is known about weddings of the pagan Russia. According to the famous Russioan historian N. Karamazin, the old Slavs usually bought their wives and the standing of the wife was almost like that of a slave. She was obligated to take care of the household, the children and husband, and could neither complain about her husband nor argue with him, but had to show utter obedience to him. Then it goes on and talks about plural marriages that were common and so on.
As I was reading this I thought that maybe for most of us here this situation does no longer apply but for millions of women in our continent and even in this country, this situation described here still applies. And ofcourse it is at the core of power relations in the family, community, society, at work, in our political parties this is at the core and at the base of patriarchal society and it defines women’s lives.
But it’s not only about what the woman did in the home, who she took care of, but it’s about her very life. If you take this situation then you’d also know that for many women, even when it’s about her own body this situation still applies. She has to show utter obedience. She doesn’t decide in many instances when and how to have
Sex. In many instances she doesn’t decide when and how many children to have. In many instances she doesn’t decide whether to practise safe sex because if the man doesn’t want, that’s it. And ofcourese it means she cannot even determine how she deals with her own health. Because as we know safe sex these days is not just about mild sexually transmitted diseases, it’s also about AIDS, which is a very serious problem. But this is what happens.
But unfortunately this then also defines how she relates to other people. It defines how she relates to her children. A lot of women raise their children, boys and girls, differently: Boys like princes and girls like little slaves who have to make sure that she transfers her own duties in the home to the little girl. And ofcourse the little boy grows up knowing that girls have to show utter obedience to him, and this creates a vicious cycle.
Because as women we are the ones who are supposed to be custodians of our traditions, and so we pass these traditions on.
It is us women who allow our sons to treat their wives as inferior and sometimes it is us women who tell the newly wed bride how to behave, to persevere even if life is unbearable. And so the vicious cycle continues.
So what is PAWO going to do about that? That’s what we have to decide. What is going to be PAWO’S role in mobilising force in gradually changing this situation. As PAWO was very active in the struggle for liberation it has to be central in the emancipation of all women on our continent.
I’ll go back to the article about wedding traditions of the Old Slaves.
It says, around the end of the 10th century after Christianity took root so did the traditional Russian wedding ritual start taking shape. A 13th century birch bath document from Nov Goron for example contains the following message:
From Mihita to Uliiantsa, Marry me. I love you and you love me…”
However this was quiet unusual because the most popular way of getting married as in most Medieval Europe required negotiation of parties with parents, which also sounds familiar to our own situation.
The young people played little or no part, they rarely even saw each other prior to the wedding itself. As a popular 17th century saying went: “A maiden seen is copper, but the unseen girl is gold”. So you didn’t have to know your wife before hand. The rather romantic notion that two lovers elope was strongly ruled out by these customs.
The major innovation that Christianity brought about to the wedding ceremony was its obligatory church, consecration or crowning. A complicated symbiosis of Christian rites and pagan beliefs existed for centuries. So this is also very familiar.
Before I go on let me just say why I am quoting this article because you may be wondering why. I think for two reasons:
- Firstly, just to demonstrate what similarities there are in the patriarchal societies whether in Africa, Europe or elsewhere where women position is concerned.
- The second reason maybe much more important for me, is that culture and tradition is dynamic. It changes and adapts and therefore it should tell us that culture should not be used as an excuse to keep us in bondage, because culture can change and adapt.
I hope we are going to be as PAWO members a catalyst in mobilising to remove those elements in our various traditions that oppress women, and assist women not to perpetuate their own oppression.
Let me go back to the article about Russian weddings for the last time. It goes on to say: “While the church remained silent on the issue of dowries, they were very important to the people themselves because they gave the woman an independent means of support. In Russia a woman kept full control of her dowry. This situation allowed her tremendous autonomy.”
Now I’m not about to advocate for dowries but I’ll come to why it’s very important but it says the dowry then consisted of one quarter of the woman’s father’s wealth. And this was given to her half in currency and half in valuables like gold, silver, pearls, dishes, clothes, whatever the family owned. And if she didn’t have brothers it also included land.
Now as I said I’m not advocating for dowry but this illustrates how access to resources or control of resources gives women a degree of autonomy. That’s for me the importance of this.
And so in the 21st century we don’t have to go back to paying dowries if we don’t have dowries but I think what is important is that every woman must have an independent means of support whether they are married, single, divorcees or widows. That’s very important. If we can achieve this by the end of this century, we would have liberated women on our continent.
But ofcourse this means we have to do things now. This means girls should go to schools. They should have skills and tools of their industry. They have to be in the professions. It’s not for them to only have resources, it’s for them to reach their full potential of their development. And I therefore hope that PAWO will be at the forefront of the campaign for the education of girls.
I now want to touch on the media. The media is very important, firstly in disseminating information that we want to spread. But ofcourse our media, maybe there are exceptions, but on the whole they still portray us not as equal human beings. They portray us as sex objects. When they describe a man they don’t describe his looks, they talk about what he does professionally. When they describe a woman they say she is obese or not, trim or whatever.
It is up to us as women to stop this. We are human beings. We should be accepted for what we are. We should be recognised as such. This is important because it has an impact on our fight on violence against women. Because if you are seen as a sex object this is why when a woman reports a beating, she is asked ‘what did you do to annoy your husband.’ It doesn’t matter what you’ve done you don’t deserve to be beaten up, as long as you didn’t beat him up. No one deserves to be beaten up.
And when a woman reports rape, how you look, how you are dressed, how you behaved, did you entice this man or not. It is the way we are portrayed. We must fight this portrayal.
PAWO should be mobilising the media to portray women as human beings equal to males and not as sex objects. It should promote women’s rights as human rights.
Let me touch on something else, I know you are going to talk about it later. Those who came in from outside would have noticed that you landed at OR Tambo Airport. OR Tambo is a hero of our people. He is one of the late presidents of the ANC. He is the architect of the modern ANC and kept the organisation together when it was banned and worked out a strategy of how we’ll come out of our conflict, worked out the Harare Declaration which embodied how our negotiations and how the transformation was to be handled.
I want to quote him speaking at a women’s conference in 1981 said that “Women in the ANC should stop behaving as if there was no place for them above the level of certain categories of involvement. They have a duty to liberate us men from antique concepts and attitudes about the place and role of women in society and in the development and direction of our revolutionary struggle.”
What O.R said then is still true today and it is a message relevant to PAWO. It is still important for African women to stop behaving as if there was no place for them above the level of certain categories of involvement within the corridors of the African Union and its structures, our communities, our political parties, our governments and even professionally. So women must stop behaving like that. We must know that we have a place and we are capable of holding a place anywhere.
So it is therefore impressive to note that the AU through its gender parity approach has started to seriously look into the gender composition of is structures, including its commission.
But if I were to be provocative, even in the commission it says there should be five women commissioners out of ten. That’s fifty-fifty. But the chair and the deputy chair of the commission are both men. And that’s where it matters, the leadership of the commission. As we speak the leadership is led by men. The leadership tomorrow is going to be men again.
OR was right, we are behaving as though there are categories where we don’t belong. We must struggle and PAWO must be at the forefront of that struggle.
Women must also be at the centre of development. All development policies and programmes must be defined as though women matter. Because at the moment they are defined as though we don’t exist, let alone matter. These are things PAWO has to pay attention to. And who is PAWO, it is us. So its something we have to pay attention to.
If we look at Sub-Saharan Africa we are told that we will not attain the MDGs unless something drastic happens. But if you look at those MDGs, they center around women. But women are not the driving force around those MDGs and we have to make sure that women become the driving force.
We are talking about the integration of the continent. I haven’t really heard what the position of PAWO is on this matter. I haven’t read it maybe it’s there I’ve missed it. But if it’s the integration of our continent women are more than 50% of this continent. We should be the ones at the centre deciding on how this integration should happen, where it should happen, why it should happen. I’m just flagging that and I hope PAWO will assist us in making sure.
We talk about fighting poverty. Who is poor? It is us. The poor of the world are us. But this fight against poverty is decided somewhere else by other people and we play very marginal roles in it. I think we should leave the margins and come to the centre and hope that PAWO will assist us in coming into the centre of this whole debate about fighting against poverty.
NEPAD is about development, about development on the continent. Where are women in all that? These are some of the things PAWO should be looking at in shaping the agenda of women for the 21st century.
But ofcourse the struggle for the emancipation of women is difficult. We can’t claim that it is easy. That’s why it is called the struggle. Struggles are never easy. But it has to be led by us. Progressive men can only help us, they will never lead that struggle for us. We have to lead it.
We have to put fear aside. In the struggle you do sometime become afraid but we hope that PAWO will give us the courage. As a collective we can be courageous, and PAWO’s revival will give us strength because indeed the struggle needs our collective strength and our wisdom.
It has to be continuous. I think its one of the most difficult struggles because sometimes it has to be waged at home where we sometimes don’t feel PAWO. You feel you are alone and PAWO is not there to assist. And its easy to say ‘well let me put the women’s struggle aside for now, I’ll see it tomorrow.’
But it has to be continuous. It has to be fought permanently at all levels at all times, otherwise we’ll never be able to transform this continent. We’ll never be able to transform the position of women and we’ll never be able to put women at the centre of social, cultural and economic transformation.
PAWO needs to inspire women as agents of change in the protection of our environment, continent and the entire globe.
PAWO has to ensure the full participation of women in all AU institutions, not just the commission.
PAWO should mobilise women to participate in NEPAD.
We need to come together and say we’ve had enough of these conflicts in our continent. Because at the end of the day, we are the ones who have to bear the burden of these conflicts. But we are not the ones who start those conflicts. When they try to end those conflicts, they leave us out. When they cut deals we are no where to be found. And those agreements impact on our lives, families and children. We must be at the centre of conflict prevention.
We must not be afraid to rock the boat if we have to rock the boat to protect our children and future generations. It is not a comfortable thing to rock the boat but it is something that has to be done if we are to succeed.
PAWO also needs to consolidate and defend our gains. We shouldn’t look as if we have not made any gains, but those gains can be lost if we don’t consolidate and defend them and move forward to make more gains.
PAWO has to be the pass of the role of women’s shaping the future. We have to shape our future by doing things today.
PAWO also has a role of networking not only among women on the continent but outside the continent. As I was showing through that article, struggles of women are similar. Therefore PAWO must have a wide network across the world, east, west, south and north in order to be able to galvanise all of us into action.
With those few words I welcome to South Africa.
I thank you.