114. Women’s Day: African Women in Activism

Author: Terri Maggott
Date: 18 August 2020
Publication: Cape Argus
Image courtesy of:  “Celebrating 40 Years of Women’s Day, Durban 1980 Exhibition” from South African History Online, www.sahistory.org.za

Historically, 9 August became synonymous with the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria where a group of about 20,000 women, led by activists such as Lillian Ngoyi and Sophie Williams de Bruyn, descended on the Union Buildings to protest the apartheid pass laws that had been extended to black women in 1952. 

The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) heralded the protest as the largest ever march by women at the time. Established in 1954, FEDSAW was the first mass-based women’s organisation to unify women across the racial, economic, and social spectra.

By linking their experiences to larger structural issues, these women showed how oppression was gendered and multifaceted — almost three decades before black American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the theory of Intersectionality, which argues that people experience oppression from multiple, interlinked structures in society including race, class, and gender.

Without the struggles advanced against apartheid by women and groups such as FEDSAW, many of the rights that South Africans enjoy today would be non-existent.

Despite these important advances, women are still subjected to diverse abuse, oppression, and violation of their bodies and rights.

According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey released by Statistics South Africa in the first quarter of 2020, the national unemployment rate is 30%, while for women it is 32%. This reflects the structural inequalities experienced by women, despite their generally higher levels of education than men.

In the rest of Africa, women and girls also face exclusion from education and formal employment due to political conflicts and socio-cultural institutions such as child marriage.

Furthermore, in an April 2020 policy brief, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women,” the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, António Guterres, noted how women’s economic livelihoods are being disproportionately impacted by the current global recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is therefore unsurprising that women continue to shape political landscapes in both South Africa and Africa by actively resisting oppression.

In July 2020, women organised a number of protests across the country in response to sustained gender-based violence against women and girls. 

Elsewhere in Africa, women are spearheading movements for change. In Sudan, women were central to the 2019 pro-democracy protests that ended former dictator Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, and 22-year old Sudanese protester, Alaa Salah, became a global symbol of women’s defiance.

In 2020, Nigerian women continue to unite against gender-based violence, forming alliances such as the #WeAreTired movement. On 23 July, women boldly staged a naked protest to challenge ethno-religious violence in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna state. In Uganda, women activists such as Stella Nyanzi have been central to protesting the slow distribution of food relief during the COVID-19 lockdown.

So this month, we remember the spirit of the 1956 marchers by honouring the contributions of women to the socio-political development of African society, as well as women’s emancipation in the past, present, and future. Womandla! 

Terri Maggott is a Research Coordinator at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.