By Pfarelo Brandy Matsila
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. It could not have come in a better year, especially with South Africa chairing the 66th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I was privileged to attend the national consultation session in preparation for the event. The main theme for the session was “Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes”. Throughout the session, gender mainstreaming was recommended as the main solution to solve the problem of gender inequality, which is pervasive in our context. While this is a great contribution, South Africa’s 2022 budget speech did not mention ring-fenced funds for a systemic response to gender-based violence. Such a response requires urgent resourcing for the implementation of reforms and the national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF). Against this back drop, I argue that in order to achieve gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow, we need to draw on the lives of women on the margins whose lives are negatively affected by the multiple layers of oppression and marginalisation including gender-based violence that keep them in the poverty trap. With more women stuck in the poverty trap, we cannot achieve gender equality nor create a sustainable tomorrow as the cycle of poverty perpetuates itself.
In support of the implementation of gender sensitive approaches against gender inequality, I critically engage with Tshisikhawe’s narrative to highlight the challenges that most women on the margins grapple with on a daily basis. Tshisikhawe is a woman I met in 2019 while collecting research data for my master’s degree. The creative ways in which she provides for her family highlight that, while the implementation of gender mainstreaming is necessary, it is important to collaboratively engage with women on the margins and delineate the multiple layers of oppression that keep them in the poverty trap. Furthermore, there is a need to draw on the multiple creative ways through which women earn their livelihoods as a starting point towards empowerment.
In this paper, I first discuss the background and context of the study from which the main narrative stems with a focus on femininity/womanhood construction. Second, I demonstrate through Tshisikhawe’s narrative that within the spatial context studied, motherhood and lack of support from fathers increase the social disadvantage women face while simultaneously constituting a field of female agency. Lastly, it is the aim of this paper to show that in order to ensure a sustainable future for women and young girls, there is a need to support and strengthen the various means they use to manoeuvre within the configurations of the precarity and insecurities of all their life situations.
The narrative centered in this discussion stems from a master’s research project titled, “Intergenerational Constructions of Black Feminine Identities: Mother–Daughter Narratives”. This study focused on the relationship between mothers and their daughters, and the ways in which this relationship serves as a critical site in which black women (specifically from the rural Venda area in northern South Africa) construct their identities. Within the broad framework of qualitative research, this investigation employed a hybrid theoretical model rooted in black feminist epistemology incorporating standpoint feminism, feminist social constructionism, and intersectionality theory. The study draws on 18 interviews with mothers and daughters aged between 35-55 and 18-25 respectively. Using thematic narrative analysis, various themes, such as perceptions of femininity, intersectional nodes of femininity, and tensions between normative and counter normative constructions of femininity, were explored showcasing shifts and changes in gendered narratives of femininity.
The research found that the multiple and varied ways in which identity is constructed is a complex relational process mediated by various social factors such as class, educational status, gender, motherhood, marital status and location (Matsila, 2020). Moreover, the findings of the study show that mothers patch up the holes in social safety nets left by retreating fathers while navigating the intensifying cultural standards for being a good mother, which are strongly tied to respectable femininity. What these findings illustrate is the critical triangle of the self, motherhood and social location that demands complex and dynamic understandings. Furthermore, the findings reveal that in the spatial context studied, motherhood increases the social disadvantages women face while simultaneously constituting an important field for female agency. In simple terms, the analysis shows that mothers are uniquely and unfairly positioned to live precarious lives and to shelter their children from the negative impacts of such lives.
When I met Tshisikhawe in 2019, she was 40 years old and had five daughters. She is a divorcee, does not have matriculation certificates and depends on selling fire wood, doing voluntary work and caring for her elderly father. Her name, fully described in Tshivenda as Tshisikhaiwe a tshi vhavhi, means, “That which is not on you does not hurt”. The name serves as Tshisikhawe’s mother’s protest against her living conditions at the time she gave birth to her daughter. What is interesting is the fact that more often than not, individuals with such names often end up experiencing the same challenges that were prevalent when they were born; they live according to their name. However, that is not the main purpose of the current paper.
Such a name relates to the notion that an individual is most likely to advocate for issues that affect them, resulting in other individuals’ lived experiences falling through the cracks; that only the uncomfortable one would be able to name and advocate for the eradication of such discomfort. For example, urban women in a consultation forum regarding the use of gender sensitive approaches in relation to policy and funding allocations, are most likely to advocate for urban centred solutions targeting urban centred problems and proposing different types of projects. At the same time, the rural woman, who is most likely unable to join the zoom consultation sessions, but with ideas to advance and empower herself and women in her community, will be excluded from such a conversation. As a result, solutions discussed and implemented will be alien to this particular woman.
The lack of support and empowerment will mean that she will raise young women who are most likely going to find it challenging to advocate for their financial empowerment and would probably do a “Ring around the Rosie” or “Ring-a-Ring o-Roses” dance with poverty.
Ring around poverty
A pocket full of challenges
Patriarchy, GBV, and inequality
We all fall down.
Theirs will be a song sung for generations. Years after South Africans were declared free, poverty and the multiple friends it walks with remain tied to rural women’s realities. I find the lyrics of “Ring around the Rosie” to be a useful and powerful way to demonstrate my arguments. The rhyme is often used as a playful courtship game in which children dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, or in some cases fall to the ground. For me, the song represents innocence, joy, relationality, and positivity towards the future. However, for most rural women, the ring around dance is often dark, violent and disempowering. The rephrased lyrics above highlight how poverty is multi-layered, often generational and interlinked with patriarchy, gender-based violence and inequality. Against this backdrop, it is evident that it will take more than two or three zoom sessions with policy makers to address the challenges faced by women in the South African context. In particular, it will take intersectional approaches to ensure gender equality, as rural women are disproportionately affected by inequality.
In the excerpt below, Tshisikhawe narrates how she deals with and navigates daily interaction with precarity.
My name is Tshisikhawe. I am 40 years old. I have five daughters, and I work at a school feeding scheme. I was raised by both my parents in a loving home — something that I wished for my daughters but life had other plans. Growing up in my family, it became quite evident that a mother is someone that is very important. On days when we had nothing to eat, my father and the rest of the family would look to my mother for a plan. That woman would make the impossible happen for all of us. It’s interesting how the father, who claimed to be the head of the household, still saw it fit to lean on this already burdened woman for food. My mom made plans; this is a quality I have observed in myself.
When my husband and I divorced, I had to start a new life with my children. There I was with no matric, no other higher education qualifications and in a barren village away from the city and public services. I am a very resilient person; I stand for my own problems. So, when I walked away from my marriage, I had to learn to fend for myself and my children.
As I mentioned, I cook at school – they don’t really pay us much. In fact, I would not call it a pay but rather a “thank you” incentive. You wake up early and leave your own house and go cook in big pots, and a thank you pay is all you will receive. After work, I still have to go home, clean my house, wash and make sure my children have food waiting for them when they come back from school. The first born is in university; I am grateful that she is doing something valuable with her life. I wish the young ones would follow in her footsteps. I don’t have much, so sometimes I collect wood and sell that for our livelihood. People come with their bakkies and collect the wood and pay me. Sometimes the men in this village try to rob me. Can you imagine someone wanting to pay R200 for a full bakkie of wood? There is no man in this house so they think they can take advantage.
But even when there was a man in my house, he was never physically there. He was abusive, financially and physically. His sisters never supported me, so there was no use staying there any longer. He would come home from Gauteng and leave me with one more child to care for. What is sad is that I was raised to be a good woman: cook, clean, wash and be humble at all times and your husband will honour you. But where is he, where is he now? Yes, he does financially contribute to the upbringing of our four children, but only because I had to report him. The money he sends is too little and some of these children will be cut off from the grant soon. What do I do then? What do I do then? (laughs) But, you see, I did this; I brought this upon myself. My mother told me to go to school. I tried to focus but I think I was just not good enough.
So back to your question. How do I fend for my children? (hmm) If I tell you, if I tell you what mothers do out here for their children, you will realise why a mother is the most important person. I know some mothers don’t care for their children, but I do. After my divorce I learned that I should not depend on anyone but my own hands. So, I use these hands of mine to provide for my children. I go clean and cook for my old father, then my siblings pay me for that. Yes, I should be doing it for free as it is a child’s responsibility to look after their old parents. But the time I spend doing all these things could be used to fend for my children, hence I get paid. Is it enough? Not really, but again, after all the work we do as women, all we get is a thank you.
Reproductive labour is often associated with care giving and domestic housework roles including cleaning, cooking, child care, and the unpaid domestic labour force (Mignon, 2013). Historically, women have performed this labour which has always been precarious. Reproductive labour highlights not only the unstable working conditions marked by continuous loss of workers, but also the forms of living and everyday experiences characterised by uncertainty, vulnerability, and the sense of being disposable imprinted by neoliberalism upon workers and social subjects (Garrido, 2020).
In Tshisikhawe’s narrative above, in preparation for marriage and motherhood, she was raised to be a “good woman” – one defined by the ability to conduct reproductive labour. Outside of the market, this labour remains invisible and unpaid. While she acknowledges that as a daughter she has to care for her elderly father, she expresses dissatisfaction with the money she is paid as this is not enough to fend for her children. Where she tries to be independent by selling wood, she is often underpaid for her hard work. This may be due to lack of negotiation skills, or due to the fact that her customers, who are often men, do not value the hard work that goes into collecting and selling wood. In this context, collecting fire wood in order to feed one’s family is predominantly a female job.
The above speaks to the sexual division of labour as a substructure of gender relations characterised by both the separation between what men and women do, and by the lesser value associated with the activities performed by women. In this way, the sexual division of labour actively constructs the jobs for women as inferior, and therefore, more prone to being precarious. As mentioned by Tshisikhawe, “after all the work we do as women, all we get is a thank you”.
Authors like Gutiérrez-Rodríguez (2014) propose the term precarity of feminisation as a way to make visible how it is not that women participate in precarious jobs but, on the contrary, that women’s participation in these jobs is preceded by them being degraded and therefore precarised. This is visible in the narrative above, as the feeding scheme work that Tshisikhawe does for the local school does not pay enough nor is it recognised as having economic value, whereas the work itself is important and necessary for sustaining the economic system. Reproductive work has always been precarious, invisible and generally without any kind of reward beyond the fulfilment of an ideological normative idea of women serving others.
Imprinted by patriarchal ideologies, the work Tshisikhawe does continues to be precarious even when distributed through the market in the form of paid domestic and care work where not only gender but other axes of oppression like race and class intersect, contributing to the idea of feminisation of precarity and reproductive labour (Garrido, 2020).
According to Arendell (2000), mothering relates to the social process of child rearing, and it is sometimes useful to treat it as a verb – something one does – while a mother signifies a person who has given birth or raises a child. The process of mothering occurs at the centre of the family system that serves as the root of the societal institution (Makiwane, Gumede, Makoae & Vawda, 2017). While reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth are regarded as biological processes, the norms for caregiving after birth are fully defined by society and culture (Hollway, 2001). Mothers play a significant role in families in many impoverished communities in South Africa and their many responsibilities for children and other dependents in the family include providing an income, being present in the household, giving emotional support, and raising and protecting children (Magwaza, 2010). In the South African context, mothering has never been an exclusive task of the biological mothers; instead, the family as a unit and the community have been collectively responsible for child-rearing (Makiwane et al, 2017; Wolf, 2005). For instance, Spjeldnaes (2021:407) posits that “children are traditionally raised in a ‘family community’ and socialized to be parented by grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and to know cousins like siblings”.
According to Collins (1994:56), “mothering takes place within specific historical contexts framed by interlocking structures of race, class and gender”. In South Africa, due to forced removals and dislocation during the apartheid period (1948–1994), many black families were split in ways that weakened the ability of families to provide care (Bozalek, 1999). As the analysis of Cock (1989, in Maisela & Ross, 2018) shows, due to fathers’ migration for work purposes, mothers were left with two options: (1) either leave their children at home to work as domestic workers in white designated areas far from their families; or (2) stay with their children in rural areas designated for black people, manage all the household care responsibilities, sustain livelihood through subsistence farming, and rely on remittances from their migrant labour husbands. Against this backdrop, it is evident that mothering was either done in the mother’s absence through the provision of financial care, or with her present while she endured the burden of farm labour and relied on her husbands’ financial transfers (Spjeldnaes, 2021).
In post-apartheid South Africa, black mothering occurs at the intersection of race, class, ethnicity, male dominance, male absence, and gender. At these intersections, “mothering connects to childbirth, the provision of physical and emotional care, and socialisation into the values of the social (sub-) group” (Spjeldnaes, 2021:407). As these intersections inform the mothering process, it is becoming evident that black women inhabit and navigate different understandings of motherhood. As Reynolds (2020) argues, black mothering signifies a political act of resistance against intersecting inequalities. In addition, Moore (2013:152) argues that South African mothering has been predominantly shaped by “high physical mobility (between urban centers and rural villages) and relationships to the father of the child”.
With the rates of single motherhood and female-headed households increasing, especially in rural provinces where the rates are approaching 50% of households (Statistics South Africa [Stats SA], 2018), it becomes clear that single mothers are uniquely and unfairly positioned to bear the disproportionate economic burden of care and sustenance of livelihoods. However, perspectives of South African rural women and single mothers’ daily negotiations and experiences of precarity rarely find their way into the debate on intersections between precarity and gender. Hence, most avenues to alleviate inequality and empower women rarely reach them.
As a 40-year-old single mother of five daughters, Tshisikhawe’s mothering process is obstructed by poverty and lack of resources to sustain livelihoods. Her mothering extends beyond her biological children to account for the children she cooks for at a local school. The generational link she has with her mother regarding womanhood being linked to provision under precarious conditions puts extra pressure on her to provide where her ex-husband fails to. In conversation with her, I could not help but feel sad that as her daughters age, the social grant, which is barely enough, will be retreating; and with retreating social safety nets, it is women that must carry the torch and continue the undervalued care work.
She spoke of the barren village where she resides. The village is considered barren because it is remote from urban areas; most opportunities rarely reach them. Service delivery is poor as they struggle for basic needs such as water. However, even in the barrenness, she is still able to get enough from mother nature to meet her daily needs. Without sufficient financial reserves, Tshisikhawe does not dare leave her ill paying job to gain the time and resources necessary to advance her education, or search for a new job.
As resilient as she is, I think she would have made the following contributions to the sessions:
Perspectives of South African rural women and single mothers’ daily negotiations and experiences of precarity rarely find their way into the debate on intersections between precarity and gender. It was my aim to mitigate this imbalance by exploring the everyday negotiation of precarity, poverty and inequality as experienced by one of my study’s participants. By centering marginalised women’s narratives, it becomes evident that the precarious lives of these women are marked by the lack of resources that affect the reproduction and sustainability of livelihoods (Garrido, 2020). Marginalised women’s narratives highlight the need for social alternatives where the work of reproducing/sustaining life is not organised based on axes of exclusion, and where the resources needed for these essential tasks are guaranteed for every human being.
Most importantly, the discussion illuminates that while it is important to use gender sensitive approaches to end inequality and create sustainable futures, it is important to draw on experiences of women on the margins regarding the conversation about the feminisation of poverty that contribute to gender inequality. Since gender relations are key aspects of any social transformation, it is not enough to only “add women and stir” (Garrido, 2020:582); it matters which women are part of the conversations. Saying that policies will be enough because they are aimed at women, while women on the margins are not part of the consultations, and their multiple axes of oppression are not addressed for effective implementation of the policies, is insufficient.
In her social role as a mother and breadwinner, Tshisikhawe navigates a highly gendered space that she experiences simultaneously or at different stages in life as both empowering and limiting. I have shown that a field-specific interaction of multiple factors – low-wages, gendered division of labour, and the cultural concept of care and good parenting – shapes her social position and creates both distinct room for manoeuvre and specific arenas of agency. While motherhood increased her social disadvantage, it also emerged as a realm of female agency. Providing for her children enabled her to experience personal fulfillment and have positive expectations for her children.
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 Gender mainstreaming is defined as a strategy aimed at realising gender equality. It involves the integration of a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures, and spending programmes, with a view to promote equality between women and men and combat discrimination. https://eige.europa.eu/gender-mainstreaming/what-is-gender-mainstreaming