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Southern Africa Report Archive

Marlea Clarke describes the visit of two very impressive women (from Mozambique and from South Africa) to Canada who gave first hand information about the efforts by women's organizations to broaden the process of democratization and to ensure that women's interests are not compromised during this period of reconstruction.

vol 10 no 5

Gender field workers: A Toronto visit
Marlea Clarke

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 5, July 1995
Page 20



Marlea Clarke is doing graduate work in Southern Africa politics at Toronto's York University. Her particular interest is gender in politics.

Despite the important role played by women in national liberation struggles and the promises made of greater gender equality, the emancipation of women has been a secondary issue in the struggle for independence in both Mozambique and South Africa. Nevertheless, women have organized and mobilized and have brought about the development of explicit policies on gender equality in both countries, policies that are sadly lacking in other countries in the region.

Canadians were privileged to meet recently with two visitors from southern Africa who could given first hand information about the efforts by women's organizations to broaden the process of democratization and to ensure that women's interests are not compromised during this period of reconstruction. Mampe Ntsedi of South Africa and Terezinha da Silva of Mozambique brought hope that lessons learnt from past practices of sidelining gender issues, combined with the new political context in both countries, may now transform social relations.

Ntsedi, a Gender Field Worker for the Farmworkers Research and Resource Project in South Africa, works primarily with women labour tenants and farmworkers. In contrast to this more specific work on gender and land reform, Terezina da Silva's work with the women's organization Forum-Mulher extends across a variety of sectors, issues and communities. Forum-Mulher is an umbrella organization for women's groups, trade unions, agricultural organizations and other governmental and non-governmental groups in Mozambique working on gender-related issues. Both women focus their work on organizing women and supporting the extension of gender training within various groups. Their aim is to advance women's participation in the new forms of political mobilization and participation emerging within civil society.

Organized by Alternatives, a Montreal-based NGO as part of an ongoing effort by Canadian NGOs to "keep Africa on the map," they provided Canadians with an opportunity to hear first hand of the efforts women are making to ensure that general equality remains central to social transformation in their countries. They focused attention on the particular challenges facing women in the region and the strategies they are using to address these challenges.

Women and land reform

Ntsedi emphasized the importance of mobilizing rural women and promoting women's rights in the context of land and agrarian reforms such as restitution, redistribution and land tenure. According to Ntsedi, each of these offer both promise and pitfalls for women.

The promise springs from the land redistribution programme which represents the first step in the government's five-year plan to parcel out 30 per cent of the country's arable land to the rural poor. Furthermore, the Restitution of Land Rights Act promulgated last November provides for land to be restored to communities who, since 1913, lost their land rights because of race-based laws and forced removals. This Act created a Land Claims Court and a five-member commission to provide information about who qualifies to make claims, to hear cases and to negotiate with the contending parties to resolve claims. While the Act addresses land claims made by those whose land was taken away, and by their descendants, Tenure Reform will re-examine the property clause in the constitution, thereby providing the basis for constitutional and legal challenges to land tenure, and rights to land.

However, Ntsedi pointed out, while these measures do represent an important step in redressing apartheid injustices, they may not be enough to ensure women equal access to land. Structural factors including customary law, current land ownership and poverty could limit the impact of redistribution for women. Farmworkers, labour tenants and other potential claimants may not have the opportunity to lay claims to land. While the Restitution Act covers all "vulnerable groups," and women are included in this category, the Act does not distinguish among the various types of tenure women had in the past. Further, Ntsedi critiques the Act for its treatment of women as a homogenous group. It doesn't consider the different conditions under which women live; for example, some women lost farmland, while others were victims of forced removals from shantytowns. As long as women can have access to land and land management only through their husbands or other male relatives, many women will be unable to benefit from land reform.

Although the land affairs minister points out that those who do not qualify for restitution can attain land through the redistribution programme, Ntsedi is not optimistic. Land reform will be meaningless, she says, if women's economic position is not first taken into account. Influenced by the World Bank, South Africa's land available for redistribution is being sold. This limits the prospects for redistribution to women and the rural poor. This type of land reform is not repatriation; it is a market-driven scheme which presupposes that people have the resources to buy the land. Although individuals can apply for government subsidies when purchasing land available for redistribution, Ntsedi points out that there are many hidden costs that make land unaffordable for many women.

The Farmworkers Research and Resource Project has recognized the marginalization of women and works to promote women's rights on farms in the Eastern Transvaal by organizing women farmworkers into committees and by supporting capacity building activities. It is this work, Ntsedi believes, that will be key to channelling women's issues into broader processes of land and agrarian reform.

Women in politics

As in South Africa, women's rights in Mozambique are protected in the Constitution. However, with the majority of women living in rural areas and relying on subsistence farming for their families' survival, women's needs and interests are often not represented in formal politics and in policies. Terezinha da Silva, Vice President of the Forum Mulher, says that the persistent economic and political crisis in Mozambique is serving to perpetuate gender inequalities. Two trends have emerged, she says.

First, more and more households are being headed by females. Women make up about 52% of the population but head up over 60% of households. Second, although women have been most affected by war, drought and structural adjustment programs and are playing an ever important role in their families and communities, only 16% of the seats in Parliament are held by women. As da Silva notes, both national and community level decision-making structures have continued to reinforce women's exclusion from political and economic structures.

While South African women have rejected the establishment of a "Women's Ministry" as an effective way to address women's needs , `women's desks' have been established in Mozambican ministries as part of a broader strategy to redress gender inequality. Terezinha da Silva suggests that these desks, along with active women's groups throughout the country, are critical in advancing development and reconstruction that transforms social relations rather than entrenches gender inequalities.

Forum-Mulher was established in 1990 to co-ordinate activities by women's and other organizations that share a common interest of promoting women's equality and empowerment in Mozambique. The Forum currently has almost fifty members. The organization is still in an early stage, but the inclusion of international agencies and foreign NGOs as members does not appear to result in what Alexander Costy, writing on NGOs in Mozambique on other pages of this magazine, views as a foreign-aid directed agenda. On the contrary, the participation of community level groups has been important in defining Forum-Mulher work. This diverse membership suggests there is more of a base at the grassroots than Costy fears might be the case.

To facilitate the exchange of information and experiences, the Forum has set up communication networks, assists in training members of participating organizations and other groups, and lobbies for policies to advance gender equality and women's rights. Overall, these activities aim to increase organizations' and government's knowledge of gender issues and raise the standard of efficiency of their work in support of women.

While training for government and non-governmental organizations is open to both men and women, groups have been set up to train women. Da Silva was not phased by criticisms of reverse discrimination, arguing that setting up and expanding groups that target women specifically represents an important and critical step in realizing gender equality.

Despite the formidable challenges facing women in these societies, the gendered nature of economic and political restructuring has often been ignored, even in the post-independence period. Indeed, despite the important role women have played in within movements in southern Africa during the wars of independence, gender inequality and oppression have been entrenched rather than reduced or abolished in the post-independence period. Further, international attention from the media, NGOs and others has too often perpetuated this silence by uncritically supporting `progressive' sectors in society which were slow to articulate and advance policies and programs aimed at transforming women's place in society. Da Silva and Ntsedi's visit to Canada has served two purposes. It has increased our knowledge of the activities in which women are engaged, both in South Africa and Mozambique, and it has contributed to "breaking the silence" providing insight for Canadians into lives, struggles and victories of women elsewhere.

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Printable Version

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