Equality for women is progress for all? Unpicking resistance to equality in a South African informal settlement

Guest post:

Dr.Paula Meth, Senior Lecturer in Town & Regional Planning whose interests include: gender and violence (men as well as women’s experiences), informal housing, crime management, inequality and injustice, governance, local politics and everyday power relations, all focusing on the global South, particularly South Africa, and also qualitative methodology

“Men are not equal with the women… It is the culture for the men to [be] above the women. Women are always under the men. If I will get a chance to speak in public about [those] rights I [am] going to tell the public [that they] mustn’t confuse the women about their rights…Those rights are contributing to … increasing the number of people who [are] experiencing domestic violence”

Philani, ♂, Life History Interview, Durban, 2007

Convincing some marginalised men in Durban, South Africa that ‘equality for women is progress for all’ is not an easy challenge, but it is one I am passionate about and would like to push forward as an ‘organising principle’ of my own work, and the work of my colleagues and students.

It is easy to react to Philani’s patriarchal statement with a degree of horror and to sweep it aside as irrelevant conservatism. But his attitude seems to typify that of his male friends and neighbours in his informal settlement and it highlights how entrenched ideas of inequality between men and women are in certain parts of South Africa (and I’d suggest far more widely too).

Are Philani and his friends the problem? Are they the barrier to achieving equality for women? I’m going to explore some ideas here around poverty, inequality, and marginalisation and consider how they help me to think about gender equality more broadly.

Before I do this, I’ll clarify what forms of equality I am referring to here (drawing on those outlined by UN Women) and also how these relate to the ‘rights’ for women that Philani is rallying against. UN Women is concerned with empowering women, working to eliminate discrimination against all women and girls as well as the “achievement of equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security”. This broad definition allows us to think about equality in relation to all aspects of women and men’s lives, and I find it helpful to further pin down this definition (or spell out its nitty-gritty elements) by relating it to ‘real’ individuals or groups of individuals.

So, in my mind now are some of the women who were living in the same informal settlement as Philani in South Africa in around 2007. They are all black South Africans, mostly unemployed, nearly all Christians, most are mothers or grandmothers, they live under extreme threats of violence, and reside in very poor quality shack housing; but many are neighbourly, they encourage their children to attend school and they try and secure a living through informal trading.

Cato Crest, in Durban South Africa

Cato Crest, in Durban South Africa

With them in mind, I’m imagining the need for equality in relation to the following: their employment opportunities and security, their leisure activities, their interactions with society, their health, their political rights and representation, their mobility within their neighbourhood and the wider city, the safety, privacy and control over their own bodies, their mental well-being, their nourishment, their capacity to be lovers, mothers, grandmothers, friends, and sisters in ways that are positive and fun.

So this might be what equality means for women, but how does this relate to the rights mentioned above by Philani? Basically, Philani and his male friends are specifically concerned about the rights they see that women in South Africa have gained in terms of domestic violence legislation, which has improved in its scope and implementation with the change in government since 1994 (although see advocacy authors such as Lisa Vetten (2005) who explore the challenges of this legislation).

What I’m interested in here, and what ties together the issue of equality and rights for women back to the idea of “progress for all” is the fact that when Philani and his male friends are discussing women, they are not referring to the whole raft of other ‘rights’ which were introduced with South Africa’s progressive constitution including rights to a healthy environment, food, safety, employment etc. – and one might ask is this because neither Philani, his friends nor the women in their settlement, are actually experiencing these rights in practice?

Philani and his friends’ anger over the state providing more support for women relates not only to their fury at being told how to manage ‘their’ women in ‘their own’ households – it has to be seen more broadly in relation to these men’s own frustrations and desperations about their own lack of equality, in relation to South African society and economy more broadly: they are poor, unemployed, some HIV positive, living in shacks, and the fact is, many of these men feel ‘Nqwayilahle’ (useless). They don’t live up to their cultural ideal as male household head. They live in a situation of severe inequality compared to the massive wealth evident in other parts of South Africa. They epitomise inequality too. But being poor doesn’t justify embracing inequality towards women, does it?

I can’t answer this final question satisfactorily, but I think the emphasis on inequality is key, and this is both the inequality between the rich and the poor in South Africa, and inequality between men and women. In a paper on development in South Africa, Dutch academic Erik Bähre (2007) points to “fierce struggles over resources… [as being]… at the core of development in South Africa” (2007: 99) and I want to keep on reminding analysts that these struggles are often gendered.

Much of the tension between men and women relates to these desperate struggles over resources, especially jobs and housing. Men are witnessing few improvements to their lives by the state (although to be fair, this area has now received mass investment in housing). One of the few interventions they do see is in relation to domestic violence legislation, which they interpret as being against men. So, there is much work to be done.

Mobilisation by all men and women to fight for more equality, and for rights for those who are marginalised is essential. Then there is supporting work which challenges cultural ideas of patriarchy, evident across black and white South Africa, and we should support the work of local feminists (male and female) who challenge these entrenched views through activism, teaching, community work and politics. Perhaps then, Philani and his friends will see that equality for women does really mean progress for all.

This post appeared on The Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) Blog