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Across South Africa today, women are still often the victims of human rights violations, despite their rich historical and present contributions to public life. Clearly, democracy’s unconscious choices has not radically altered Apartheid’s conscious policy choices.

The song of women on the march in 1956 honours the love that ensures the survival of millions of families and communities. One of the meanings of Imbokodo is ‘grinding stone’, referring to the work countless women do to produce food for our world. In contrast to the production of weapons of death, creating food to nourish and sustain life is not counted in the GDP, the measurement of economic growth.

It is no accident that 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, an unequal and unjust spatial geography condemns many to lives of poverty, violence and inequality. South Africa’s capitalist and patriarchal Apartheid state relegated people who were Black, female and poor to homelands, townships and informal settlements. Democracy’s unconscious choices (the lack of consciousness which Biko tried to transform), has not radically altered Apartheid’s conscious policy choices.

Women are patronisingly labelled ‘vulnerable’ – objects of charity, not bearers of rights. This label ignores the macro-economic choices that create unemployment and precarious employment, diminish women’s economic power and deepen vulnerability to rights violations, including gender- based violence. Unconsciousness blinds reporters, researchers and government officials to the contributions women make and the peaceful protests they stage when all their efforts to secure clean water, decent toilets, housing or healthcare receive no response.

Institutional culture and priorities shaped over centuries alienate the newly ascended from the people they are elected or appointed to serve. An example is the city bureaucrat, a young Black man, who explained that the reason there were no lights in a township’s public toilet that had no windows, was because the large lights in the distance provide ‘ambient lighting’. Zanele Muholi’s lens makes visible women killed because of being lesbian— all are located in areas of poverty. The bureaucrat is trained to fragment human life so unlike Muholi, he does not connect the dots.

For centuries, only those who were white, wealthy and male were regarded as full human beings with lives of value. South Africa’s constitution promised to create a society that would ‘address past injustices’ and ‘free the potential of each person’. Instead inequality has deepened. While 64 per cent of South Africa’s children live in poverty and one in four South Africans go hungry, the CEO of SAB Miller, Alan Clark, earns over R122 million a year and Nicandro Durante of BAT earns over R118 million a year.

From the South, a handful of Africans, Asians and South Americans have emerged as billionaires, absorbed into and perpetuating the old patriarchal order. In this order, human rights such as food, water, health and education are commodities to be traded for maximum profit. The global food crisis was sparked by speculation on food by billionaires who blithely ignore the resulting hunger, malnutrition and death.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) focus on the gendered impact of the food system builds on lessons from its water and sanitation campaign. The campaign asserted the fundamental dignity of every human being and the indivisibility of all rights. It linked individual rights violations to the systemic problem and identified structural causes such as the fact that 95 per cent of rural water is owned by less than 2 per cent of the people (those who own mining, agribusiness and other corporations). The SAHRC organised hearings in community halls in all nine provinces, and invited the Public Protector to take complaints of corruption. Government was invited to listen to people worst affected before being accountable for how it would address the lack of rights.

The right to dignity underpins every constitutional right. Yet many policymakers and practitioners seem unaware that human rights are indivisible, inter-related and interdependent. On an SAHRC site inspection of township toilets, a young woman explained that to use the toilet she had to cross a busy road, park her wheelchair at the door and crawl into it. Government could have prevented her daily dehumanisation by ensuring that the business contracted to build the toilet understood and upheld human rights.

This week the SAHRC convened a wide cross section of organisations. Women who are small farmers, farm-workers and traders came together with trade unionists and other civil society organisations who work for peace, equality and social justice, including legal and research institutions, the Foundation for Human Rights, United Nations Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Organisations including the Centre of Excellence on Food Security, Biowatch-SA, Food Sovereignity Campaign, Rural Women’s Movement, Commission for Gender Equality and Finance and Fiscal Commission scrutinised the gendered impact of the food system. From seed to plate, gender-blind policies that reinforce gender stereotypes while undermining women’s contributions were rigorously interrogated.

The estimated 100 delegates agreed to creatively shape an advocacy campaign to involve and mobilise others in their sectors. When corporations corrupt or collude with many elected representatives to advance their interests, a human rights campaign that strengthens solidarity is essential to secure political will. Trade decisions that vest the ownership of seed, including that of South Africa’s staple food, in global corporations like Montsanto, were sold on the myth that genetically modified (GM) seed would address hunger. Instead GM seed has contributed to rising food costs and increased hunger…myths can and must be busted.

The institutionalised violence of the system that brutalises society is directly linked to the prevalence of gender-based violence. The wisdom of those gathered at the roundtable will shape the final report that will be sent to relevant ministers. The campaign aims to secure a recommitment from Government to ensuring that South Africa’s budget (from macro-economic choices to choices on income and expenditure) is gender-responsive (GRB). Such commitment between Women’s Day and the 16 Days of Activism campaign against gender-based violence will represent a concrete commitment to women’s rights and will be more valuable than any amount of rhetoric.

The UN Women’s report ‘Progress of the World’s Women: Transforming Economies, Realising Rights’ illustrates that this is a global problem. The corporate push for governments to deregulate leaves workers, especially women workers, across the world vulnerable to terrible working conditions and slave wages. This campaign is a call to reassert the creative revolutionary potential of solidarity, expressed in the clothing union song ‘Bread and Roses’: ‘we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead, Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread, Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew. Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too’.

* Pregs Govender is a feminist, a former clothing and textile trade unionist, former ANC MP and currently Deputy Chair of South Africa's Human Rights Commission.

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