Question: Can economic, social and political prosperity be achieved if African women are left behind?

Programme Director,
Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and People with Disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane
Co-Founder of the Motsepe Foundation Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe,
President of COSATU Ms Zingiswa Losi,
Resident Coordinator of the United Nations Dr Nardos Bekele-Thomas,
Government officials,
Business leaders,
Civil society,
Religious organisations,
And Youth.

This is a collective moment observed and celebrated across the world, bringing together people of every gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion and country, to drive action and become the generation of equality that truly realizes women’s rights and rights for all – this is the worldwide movement of International Women’s Day.

A global occasion of great consequence, this is a juncture during a time of heightened uncertainty and instability here in South Africa and around the world for us all to stand and work together to eliminate discrimination against women and focus on helping women gain full and equal participation in global development.

It is a critical time to recognise and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political contribution and achievements of women and to make a call to action for accelerating gender parity – it is the hour to turn our promises into actions and to create the equal world we all deserve.

We must commend the Motsepe Foundation and their Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership, who, for four years now, have hosted the International Women’s Day Summit, to bring together a cross-section of society to develop humanity and deepen equality. The Motsepe Foundation’s ongoing hard work reminds us all that individual action, no matter the size, can have big impact in making this collective vision a reality. The Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership places women in the frontline of their efforts to advance sustainable development and growth, and through their commitments they draw attention to the fact that gender inequality isn’t only a women’s issue, but a men’s issue, an economic issue, a political issue, a societal issue. This necessary approach highlights a key understanding: that equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive.

This Summit and the work of the Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership encourages us to focus on the intrinsic link between gender equality and sustainable development to realize human rights for all. Their work extends to: providing access to centres for higher learning to thousands of students; creating a resource booklet for girls and women to empower themselves through knowledge; gender responsive budgetary initiatives; and various academic, sport, dialogue and wellness programmes.

With a gathering of women’s organisations; government representatives; business leaders; religious organisations; NGO’s; communities, sports people, academics and youth here today, we have the capacity to propel these initiatives, share our knowledge, and replicate this experience at home and in the workplace – to spur it forward to the furthest extent of our spheres of influence.

As we zoom into the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day Summit, we begin to understand our individual duty to reinforce and galvanize collective action – our urgent and shared responsibility to play our part. This year’s theme aims to assess whether economic, social and political prosperity can be achieved if African women are left behind within a framework of sustainable development goals. This poignant theme requires us to look at the vast gamut of human life and civilization, and as a result, understand that we are all a composite of humanity’s impact and therefore no adult nor child is exempt from advancing this project of equality – we must all walk forward together.

The short answer to the question whether economic, social and political prosperity can be achieved if African women are left behind, is no. Reaching economic, social and political prosperity is the purpose for our action, it is the objective and ambition that we strive toward as citizens and ordinary people.

In 2015 the United Nations (UN) created a universal set of goals, targets and indicators known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its heart. Adopted by all UN Member States, including South Africa, the SDGs provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for all people and for our planet.

This global partnership urges all countries to recognise that ending poverty, inequality and other deprivations, go hand-in-hand with intersecting and integrated strategies that improve peace, health, education, hunger, justice, and economic growth as well as climate change and the preservation of our natural heritage. This roadmap for prosperity and progress is meant to leave no one behind.

At the same time, the UN distinguishes that gender equality is fundamental to delivering on the promises of sustainability, peace and human progress, and that achieving true women’s empowerment is integral to each of the 17 goals.

And so, the theme of this year’s Summit reminds us that only by ensuring the rights of women and girls across all these global goals, will we achieve equitable and inclusive growth and prosperity within a sustained natural environment for future generations.

However, the question remains: How far have we come in accomplishing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? The Motsepe Foundation and the International Women’s Day Summit compels us to turn the Unites Nation’s 2030 Agenda into results for women and girls on the ground, to investigate what is needed to bridge the remaining gaps between rhetoric and reality and to take decisive action on our commitments.

Precisely because the SDGs act as a compass for us to focus our minds and efforts, they are crucial to galvanizing action, however, is it possible that South Africa and the world has too many goals, that an agenda with 17 targets runs the danger of being too general? Setting high-level goals is only a first step – making progress on these broad goals require a level of coordination between all sectors in society that we have yet to see.

An additional aspect to consider when drafting and embracing global development objectives, is that goals should recognise that each country is different and has different needs, challenges and capabilities. The needs of developed and developing countries, established and emerging economies are very different. Countries with citizens in extreme poverty have contrasting challenges to first world nations and so where to invest precious resources, brainpower, policy and social mobilization is particular to each State.

One could argue that even a very long list of goals cannot be all things to all people and that an international Summit producing many perspectives and proposed solutions cannot be universally applicable nor offer clearer guidance on a way forward to achieve prosperity for all.

One could suggest that a more targeted approach would provide clearer direction, make it easier to control implementation and adjust the applications as challenges and needs change in the future. However, South Africa can be criticised for having an abundance of haphazard, disparate goals that we might possibly achieve with a level of mediocrity. In addition, South Africa also has its own 2030 plan to catch up with the rest of the world in an era where technology and change occurs exponentially therefore making that plan obsolete before we arrive at the cut-off date.

If we were to choose just one goal to focus our attention and resources on, and single-mindedly commit to accomplishing that one goal with all our power and all our might, then perhaps we can achieve that specific target with greatness and inspire our people and the world again.

To understand what this one goal would be for South Africa, we need to prioritise what our immediate needs are. Our people lack their basic needs: water, food, sanitation, housing, electricity, healthcare – they are subject to an inhumane standard of living, to a life of poverty. So, when looking back at the chart of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we should choose “No Poverty” as our primary focus. By realising this, we can change South Africa forever.

The poorest of our nation are the ultimate victims of South Africa’s deep and stubborn poverty, however, the children who suffer poverty’s effects are not its only victims – poverty affects us all.

When our children bear the burden of poverty they do not succeed, and when this happens, all of society pays the price: business and industry suffers; consumers pay more for goods; the health system and infrastructure spend more on treating preventable illnesses; the education system spends more time on remediation; crime increases; the criminal justice system buckles under pressure; taxpayers pay for problems that could have been prevented; and we bury children who never should have died.

Poverty undermines the dignity of the people and therefore our nation.

One of the deepest roots of impoverishment is gender discrimination, which imposes a disproportionate burden on women. Research shows that more women live in poverty than men. While both men and women suffer in poverty, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope: they are likely to be the last to eat; least likely to access education and healthcare, go unpaid as carers, nurturers and community leaders; go unpaid for domestic work; and forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive; women with young children in the household are less likely to join the labour force resulting in female-headed households facing a far higher risk of poverty; divorce, separation and widowhood leave women worse off than men; women living in rural areas suffer an additional burden of the lack of access to social services and the welfare system; and cultural, traditional and intra-household inequalities and biases place women and girls in a further unequal position.

Poverty is a denial of human rights and we should recognise that the women among the poor suffer more from the denial of their human rights – first on account of gender inequality and second on account of poverty. Therefore, programs to eliminate poverty require specific attention to gender inequality and women’s human rights as a priority.

Because of poverty, women also face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change. Due to existing unequal gender roles and responsibilities, rural women are often responsible for gathering and producing food, collecting water and sourcing fuel for heating and cooking. With climate change, these tasks are becoming more difficult. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have a greater impact on the poor and vulnerable with women comprising 70% of the world’s poor.

The assault of climate-related catastrophes is not the only disaster affecting women and girls the most. Women are likely to be the hardest hit by the outbreak of disease as the majority of primary care givers at home and in the healthcare workforce, are women. With compounded adverse challenges of poverty, access to treatment and gender inequality, the world is likely to see women suffer disproportionately the most from pandemics such as the Coronavirus.

Evidence shows that these gender inequities exacerbate the outbreak of disease and that medical responses do not incorporate gender analysis therefore further exacerbating inequities. The response to the Coronavirus outbreak by authorities has the chance to change the way we understand and treat disease by integrating gender analysis into the knowledge of how socially-constructed roles and identities affect vulnerability to an outbreak.

Asking and answering important questions of the effect of gender inequality in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak will improve the effectiveness of the response, promote gender equity, and save lives. Not asking such questions now may bear a great cost— a cost that will primarily be carried by women.

51% of humanity is comprised of women and girls and so the voices of women and girls facing poverty are rarely heard, leaving them more vulnerable and with less agency.

We need more dialogue to enable women to determine their own lives and become the architects of their future – in the last instance womankind knows what it would take to defeat poverty. It is critical that the needs, perspectives, and ideas of women, are included in all decision making and at all levels to create just, effective and sustainable solutions to these enduring challenges of humanity.

South Africa has made great strides to improve the status of women: with an inclusive Constitution that protects the rights of all; with women making up at least 45% of lawmakers in the parliament of South Africa; with women succeeding in the defence force, navy and air force of South Africa; and with women making up more than 50% of employees in the Public Service. However, despite the enabling policies and laws in South Africa there is still a large challenge when ensuring that the legal and regulatory frameworks are effectively implemented, enforced, monitored and evaluated.

The contradiction of our gender empowerment policies compared to the lived reality of women and girls is frightening and disturbing. Violence against women has reached pandemic levels and South Africa is a country with some of the highest rates of gender-based violence and femicide in the world. We need to discover, discuss and strategize how to equitably address the international epidemic of gender-based violence that we and governments around the world have repeatedly failed to act on.

Ladies and gentlemen, to adequately achieve economic, social and political prosperity, we need to tackle head-on the scourge of abuse against our women and girls. The International Women’s Day Summit asks us all to question the resultant system of patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

This socially constructed idea affirms an ideal of masculinity as naturally more violent, less emotional, and ultimately more dominant. These traits are not innate. Men are not born brutal, vicious and with hate.
To that end let us invoke the words by Former President Nelson Mandela:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Violence against women is not innate to masculinity itself. This toxic behaviour is learnt and comes from social settings with outdated ideals of strength, hardness, and sexual potency – these are elusive and redundant standards that society unfairly expects of boys and men. These expectations often force boys and men to feel insecure, anxious and to suppress their emotions in an unhealthy way, which in so many cases prompt them to use force in order to feel dominant and in control: where respect is gained through violence.

Research consistently shows that boys and men who hold sexist attitudes are more likely to perpetrate gendered violence. The question we must ask ourselves, is where do these atavistic sexist attitudes come from and what disservice are we giving to our boys in the way we raise them?

In a new report released on Thursday of this week, the UN Development Programme’s first Gender Social Norm Index shows that almost 90% of people are biased against women. The figures examine changing attitudes in almost 100 countries and how they impact on social and political life. These shocking statistics show that bias against women is growing in some parts of the world instead of shrinking. If we want to achieve economic, social and political prosperity for all then it is paramount that we are conscious of this growing backlash against women’s rights and act swiftly.

In a book entitled, “We Should All Be Feminists”, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers us a lesson:

“But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

We need cultural renewal where society values morals and ethics; where there is strength in empathy; where there is power in understanding emotions; and where there is honour in treating the vulnerable with generous humanity – this is a culture that will allow prosperity for all.

Closing this gap in toxic masculinity will make strides in reducing violence against women and girls but as we firmly stand in an era controlled by digital technology, we are faced with another great void that serves to divide men and women. With the 4th Industrial Revolution upon us, access to information and technology has become a universal human right and this digital inclusion allows people to access the economy, communicate freely, and enjoy the rights to education and freedom of expression. However, the digital gap between boys and girls is widening and this divide is reinforcing socioeconomic inequalities.

We must develop young talent through educational platforms that boost access to technology and develop digital literacy for youth. With this in mind, the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation initiated an Artificial Intelligence (AI) bootcamp to address the systematic exclusion of youth in a variety of 21st century careers by offering a powerful platform to acquire new tools and knowledge – further advancing the prospects of female digital inclusion.

Through our AI programme we aim to bridge the digital divide in our communities by incorporating cutting-edge technologies with the latest methodologies in design thinking and skills.

These kinds of lessons in technology are the keys to unlocking the potential for our youth to create a positive, connected and inclusive future in the digital age. Digital literacy will be our legacy to the youth and in order to achieve any kind or prosperity, we must champion the 21st century skills needed to succeed in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We need a mindset change within all boys and girls, men and women, communities, government, businesses, religious, academia, cultural and civil society organisations that fundamentally lays the foundation in the psyche of all people that male and female human beings possess an equal potential for ideation, brainpower and intellect to create and to lead society.

In fact, we thank the scientific evidence and statistics that show that this scale is tilted in favour of girls and women – that girls and women are better positioned to be the kind of leaders that the world needs to solve our problems.

A recent report by the United Nations shows that having more women in leadership positions could set the world on a more sustainable path: women have proven to be leading the way towards more equitable and sustainable solutions to climate change; women tend to share more information about community wellbeing and are more willing to adapt to environmental changes as their family lives are impacted; and women often take the first step in recognising the power they have to effect change through their roles not only in business but also in their homes, communities, government and environment.

Bringing gender equality to the workforce grows the global economy and so creating inviting opportunities with equal pay and safe spaces for women in the workplace, boosts the private sector and advances the potential for prosperity.

Embracing the possibilities of women innovators in technology is a salute to our talented young girls who will invent the world of tomorrow and courageously take on the future by solving the social ills of their communities.

Equal representation and participation by women in leadership roles is a crucial step in creating a more equitable, sustainable, climate-friendly and inclusive future for all people.

Ladies and gentlemen, for economic, social and political prosperity to be achieved, no one can be left behind and if the research and evidence-based reports are anything to go by, then it is women who should lead and lead from the front.

Thank you.