Women and movement building

KC JOURNAL NO 31 November/December 2012

Maria van Driel* discusses women’s participation at Khanya and argues that mass struggles are needed to bring about major shifts in the consciousness of women (and men)

Women’s participation at Khanya

One of the key aspects of developing women is through representation and democratic participation. The average participation of women at all Khanya College events is 57% while it rises to 87% in the work with home based care workers. Women form the majority in most Khanya programmes including the Community Legal Clinics (60%), Tsohang Batjha (78%), the Winter School (55%), the Working Class History Project (63%) and the Forum for Activist Journalists (54%). Men’s participation is only higher when it comes to training and capacity building (56%), the regional farmworkers project (53%), and the We Are All Marikana Campaign(65%).

Based on our Participants’ Review of the Winter School (see article in this edition), many organisational skills are learnt and transferred into organisations together with individual developments.

In the context where women comprise the majority in community struggles and social movements, women’s average representation at Khanya programmes is decent, but not proportional to their numbers within organisations and community struggles. On the one hand, this reflects the status quo within organisations where despite women constituting the majority, the leadership is often largely male dominated and men make the decisions, including who participates in particular activities. While Khanya has tried to struggle against this together with organisations, insisting that representation is a least 50% possibly contributes to the problem of limiting the number of women and it is not necessarily proportional to their participation and focusses too much on ‘representation’. This also reflects a particular unintended compromise in a context where the college has formally had to request the withdrawal of male-only delegations from social movements who refuse to elect and include women in their delegations to workshops and Winter Schools.

Women vs. gender

While representation is an important signal reflecting the struggle for gender equity, it is not the only one. For, representation does not necessarily reflect the consciousness of women (and men) in an organisation, or the gender relations within an organisation. The focus on gender is important in terms of ensuring equity in the relations between men and women. But, it also diverts attention away from the tasks and the need for women’s emancipation, and the struggle against women’s oppression that still exists in society today. However, as Khanya we are also interested in deepening women’s understanding of their role and position in society, not just as activists in general, but as women activists with a particular understanding of society, social and class inequality, and women’s location It is therefore important for us to put back on the agenda the important struggle for women’s emancipation that must be led by women.

That is, taking up struggles and developing perspectives and awareness of women’s position within society, within organisations and within all our struggles and how this is perpetuated on a daily basis. The struggle for women’s emancipation must be taken simultaneously as part of our daily struggles. This also means the struggle to develop a critical awareness, as women, of our lesser citizenship even as the constitution provides for equal rights; the subtle ways in which male dominance is reproduced; and how we as women, although often unintended, collude with this.

Developing a ‘woman’s consciousness

The struggle to develop a critical anti-capitalist consciousness as women in its totality cannot occur outside of struggle and is part of developing a new layer of activists. But, for women it also means going beyond that to become self-conscious and purposeful activists as women. This consciousness cannot be imposed, and while reading and raising awareness contributes to this, it needs to be struggled for in practice. It is through the struggles that women engage in in their families, their organisations and communities for equity, to have a voice and to participate in decision-making as women, that this consciousness is informed. As one woman activist from the Eastern Cape said:

‘The men they don’t like us in the village, because we threaten them by supporting women against domestic violence.’ Coming to terms with this kind of ‘dislike’ because of one’s support for women is a reflection of this woman’s consciousness we refer to. When the Marikana strike started on 10 August, women mine-workers on strike were not allowed to sit with the men on the mountain. This was related to culture and traditional considerations and women’s place in society. However, as the strike continued and especially after the massacre, the women participated in the meetings and the marches as the strike spread. While there are not many women mine-workers, and one cannot make claims about the transformation in consciousness of the strikers, this was a visible change.

Similarly, the mine workers initially refused to speak to women journalists, but this changed after the massacre. This change in consciousness is not far-fetched as it is during major (and little) struggles that major shifts in consciousness takes place. While we cannot substitute for the historical process and mass struggle to bring about major shifts in consciousness and provide the groundswell for a grassroots women’s movement, we need to patiently build movements through organising and raising awareness, and women must be part of this movement building.

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