Issue #5: Empowerment is not a slogan
All month, we’ve seen congratulatory messages about the strength of women, reminding us that women are strong, resilient, multitaskers, even unbreakable rocks! We appreciate the recognition, of course, but there is a growing cynicism around what South Africa calls Women’s Month. It’s a pity.
On the 9th of August 1956, women from varying cultural and economic backgrounds came together to demand freedom of movement. In a brilliant show of solidarity, thousands of women walked to the houses of power, carrying signed petitions and risking their lives in the process. To amplify their call, they stood silent but defiant, before all joining in song. Their power was undeniable.
Now, 63 years later, a new generation is grappling with the idea of what real empowerment means today. We now enjoy the kinds of freedoms that those women only dreamed of but in so many ways our freedom remains restricted, whether it is the ability to walk home at night or move up the corporate ladder. Even worse, we find ourselves impeding on our own freedom, by not demanding a seat at the table or failing to choose what is best for us, putting ourselves last.
Our marches may not be to the Union Buildings anymore, but they are figurative in our homes, workplaces and even within our own bodies. We are not yet free to make the kinds of decisions that will truly make us feel empowered. It’s why we at The Thread did not join the chorus of Women’s Day messages.
We want real empowerment, in all aspects of our lives, and it starts with us. We want the kind of empowerment that will honour the sacrifices of the women who led that fateful march, and our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and many more who walked their own path, despite its limitations, opening a way for us. So as the month ends, we hope each of you will ask, what does real empowerment look like to you?
What is the balance of power in your relationship? And what does it mean to feel empowered in a relationship? As women, we may be professionally more empowered, but that does not necessarily translate to our personal relationships. While our empowerment in the workspace comes from our education, or a job title, the markers of power in a relationship are far less tangible. They’re the ability to speak up and ask for what you want and to make decisions that are not only right for the relationship but also right for you as an individual. The office and the bedroom may seem worlds apart but the same gender disparities that hinder our professional progress hinder our personal fulfilment. What’s more, while we focus on professional equality we haven’t even begun to fully explore the power disparity in relationships in part because of how women are socialised to be self-sacrificing wives and partners. You already know what empowerment looks like to you in the workplace, isn’t it time we applied the same principles to our relationships?
In the last five years, we’ve seen several studies, both globally and locally, showing that women are better savers than men. It should come as no surprise, given that many women have been responsible for their households, even in a patriarchal society. We also know this from the stokvels and collective savings schemes worth billions annually. The latest study found that women out-performed men at saving because they had a long-term outlook compared to men, and were less risky. Despite this, another study found that women were not saving for retirement, meaning women are not saving for ourselves, even as we live longer and are increasingly the head of the home or an equal partner. Savings are essential in empowering women, giving us the financial freedom and freedom of choice. Women may possess all the financial savvy, but we are not yet using it to empower ourselves. Perhaps it’s time to make yourself a line-item in your budget.
Women are not small men. In the last decade, this has become something of a slogan among health practitioners and fitness gurus. It dismisses the notion that women require the same treatment as men, but in smaller doses. For decades, medical science has centred on men, ignoring the unique biological needs of women. This goes beyond sex, it’s about gender too. In many cases, women do not have access to proper treatment and if they do, they do not have access to proper communication. In many cases, women feel that they cannot speak up about their own treatment or that they are simply not taken seriously. It’s also why so many of us are turning to the wellness industry or alternative treatments, where we feel heard. We can’t avoid traditional medicine, so we must change it so that it empowers women. We can start by demanding more from our healthcare providers, and being unafraid to seek a second, or third opinion, until we get the help we need and deserve.
The late, great Toni Morrison reminded us that “when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Your real job is therefore to rise to the occasion and empower someone else in your workplace. But empowerment is not something that we should sit around and wait for – we can also empower ourselves by leveraging off the experiences around us; asking questions and looking for opportunities to get involved in various projects. If we keep waiting for someone to take us by the hand and show us the ropes, we may be stuck for a long time. Take the initiative – read up on something new; attempt to do something new and empower yourself. And then, empower someone else.