What it means to be a young woman in southern Africa

Second issue of Buwa! explores young women's welfare and role in social movements

Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

September 20th, 2011

Show me a living formation that does not have a clear strategy for reproducing itself, and I will show you a formation that is dead!

Similarly, all formations – be they political parties, labour unions, churches, social movements and others – that have survived for long, and maintained a healthy level of vibrancy over long periods of time, have had one thing in common: very clear strategies for reproducing themselves, by mobilising new and young entrants around their cause. These youth strategies have taken various formats, shapes and incarnations – from youth leagues to youth wings to youth brigades. However, no such a strategy is clear and apparent within women’s movements in southern Africa.

Many reasons are cited for this apparent lack of a reproductive strategy for women’s movements in the region. The most common one is that women’s movements have, at the strategic level, been battling the deliberate de-politicisation of women’s mobilising and organising, especially through a phenomenon that is often dubbed the ‘NGOization’ of women’s issues. Equally to blame, is the de-politicisation of gender mainstreaming as a strategy towards equality and equity.

This de-politicisation has, over the past two decades, shifted approaches to women’s rights to focus on programmes and projects, which are often run by local and international NGOs and national government machineries. This has been done at the expense of organising to challenge structural causes of gender inequality, since these programmes have tended to focus on the practical needs of women. This has undermined the equally important strategic efforts by movements to collectively push for structural transformation of societies to ensure social justice for women and men. It is only in the past few years that feminists and women’s rights activists in the region have started reclaiming a feminist agenda that is informed by collective strategising and collective action.

Another often cited reason is the apparent disinterest in, and lack of appreciation of, feminist ideologies, principles and values by younger women – especially the post-Beijing generation – who are viewed as being more interested in the jobs that NGOs and other institutions offer, rather than the cause of dismantling patriarchy and other systems that oppress women. The argument here is that younger generations of women lack the commitment and passion that drove their mothers and grandmothers to work and push the agenda forward voluntarily – without any prospects of donor funding and outside of any project framework.

As a result, there are yawning gaps between generations of women in terms of their understanding and appreciation of activism for social justice and women’s rights. This is not a problem that the women’s movements in the region are unaware of. It has been an agenda item of many a forum and the need to attract young and new entrants to the women’s movement is not disputed. It is the ‘how to’ that has often led to heated debates.

One school of thought argues that personal passion is enough to draw younger women to be part of the cause, and so there is no need for a structured strategy of mentoring or coaching for young women to be effective members of women’s movements. But others argue that passion needs to be ignited, and even where it exists, it is often not enough to equip and empower one to be an effective advocate. For this school of thought, cross-generational dialogues are central to addressing these gaps and in turn, ensuring a steady flow of new blood and energy into women’s movements.

This is especially important in a region such as ours, where the majority of the population happens to be female (52.3 percent of SADC’s approximately 250 million people) – and a significant portion of this majority are young women. There are a number of policies, laws and protocols signed and ratified by our governments at various levels, committing them to promoting and protecting women’s rights.

At the regional level, SADC as a bloc has also made commitments – through protocols and pronouncements – to a number of development imperatives for both women and men in the region. What is missing in all these commitments is a specific tool dedicated to young women’s rights and their future, although a number of protocols and international instruments do make passing reference to young women and girls. Is this enough, for the majority of the population in the region? Surely not.

Talking to young women themselves, it is clear that they do not feel that their governments – and even their mothers and sisters in the women’s movement – have done enough to impress upon society that young women matter. “We are often lumped together as one homogenous group that is too impatient to wait for tomorrow to take over the leadership,” said one at a feminist leadership course in Mutare in 2010. “We are a diverse group and this reality has to be reflected in policies and programmes,” she continued. The young women’s position is that they do matter and need to be included in planning and actions today, as these affect them today as well as tomorrow. Most are very much against the notion that young women are the leaders of tomorrow, and would rather be recognised as leaders of today! In my opinion, this is a reasonable demand in a region where (if nothing is done as a matter of urgency) the majority of these young women may never see their ‘tomorrow’ since life expectancy has fallen significantly in most counties in the past two decades.

This issue of BUWA! provides space to explore the state of our young women’s welfare and especially their involvement in social justice movements, as well as weigh the costs of ignoring them in our strategies for fighting patriarchy and other vices that work against the principles of equity and equality. A second cluster of articles in this issue provide insight into the quality of life and livelihoods of young women in the region – exposing the socio-economic, political, and professional challenges, opportunities and threats to their effective participation in social justice movements.

The region cannot afford to ignore the potential that young women carry, and articles in this issue of BUWA! illuminate the need to put young people – especially young women – at the centre of our strategies for social justice.

About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.

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