A Socialist Approach to the Emancipation of Women

By Sheri Hamilton

The struggle against Gender Based Violence

Women’s month drew to a close after the month-long ritual of renewed commitments from government to emancipate women in general and to fight gender-based violence (GBV), in particular. Ramaphosa has claimed his commitment to the cause by describing GBV as a pandemic. Many will greet such hypocritical declarations with the scepticism they deserve. It was celebrated against the background of the worst economic and social crisis since the end of apartheid. It is on the shoulders of women that the burden of this crisis weighs the heaviest. The most recent crime statistics confirm that despite the slight decline in the overall murder rates, GBV shows no respite from what a 2019 UN Women study found when it singled out South Africa as among the most dangerous countries in the world for women where every hour three women are killed.

Despite the stubbornly high levels of GBV in South Africa, the media attention of earlier years in response to a global outrage following the #MeToo movement which ignited similar movements in many countries including the #TotalShutdown in South Africa, has waned.  Instead, there is a return to promoting beauty pageants, reality shows celebrating conspicuous consumption of rich housewives and of the individual achievements of particularly wealthy women who are held up as models of success for all women to aspire to.

Campaigns against GBV continue and laws are still being passed supposedly to protect the rights of women in the home, the workplace and society more broadly. But domestic violence, sexual harassment and discriminatory practices rooted in the oppression of women persist. What then is the most effective strategy and programme to fight GBV?

We believe that an approach rooted in understanding the origins of women’s oppression, as well as their struggles against it, are an essential first step to drawing the necessary conclusions about what is required in order to mount an effective struggle against GBV today.

Increased labour force participation but in poorly paid jobs

The policy changes introduced in the post-Apartheid transition, enshrined in the Bill of Rights including labour rights in legislation such as the Basic Conditions of Employment and the Employment Equity Acts that offer opportunities for the advancement of women would have been welcomed by most. So also, are specific clauses in the constitution on reproductive rights and domestic violence that promise some protection. However, while labour force participation has increased since apartheid, the majority of womens’ lives have become worse. This is demonstrated by their dominance in precarious, low wage domestic and farm work, as well as in state cheap labour schemes eg the Expanded Public Works Programmes.

The EPWP, presented as poverty alleviation, is based on large-scale outsourcing of ‘non-core’ public sector functions by labour brokers. But more critically, these short-term poverty recycling schemes represent the privatization of services previously rendered by the public sector. They are as precarious as domestic work where there has been a 25% cut in jobs during the pandemic. These jobs have not been recovered because of the chronically anaemic economic growth, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the intersecting local and international crises resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine have worsened the socio-economic conditions for women especially. The economic ramifications of the war have compounded SA’s internal crises of power outages, collapsing infrastructure and services.

Studies confirm that many women are the primary breadwinners in their households. Despite their greater numbers in accessing the pitiful social grants, they are more likely to live in poverty than men. Women are the most severely affected by the cuts in public expenditure that have resulted in deteriorating health services, overcrowded public schools, and dwindling social services. Subsidies to women’s’ shelters, NGOs providing childcare and other forms of support for women and vulnerable households have been cut. They are also the worst affected by the collapse in services due to the lack of investment in infrastructure such as water and sanitation, power, and street lighting.

Violence against women a product of class society

There is a correlation between the deteriorating socio-economic conditions and increasing levels of crime more generally including GBV. GBV is one of the manifestations of the oppression of women in society. Violence against women is a product of their oppression in class society that has been in existence for thousands of years and has been built into religious and cultural practices the world over. The main instrument through which this oppression is exercised is in the control of women’s bodies and their sexuality. Society was conditioned to see women as inferior and their bodies as objects for men to desire, exchange or exploit for profit. As Engels explained in the Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, the ‘historic downfall of women’ came about as a result of the rise of class society. The monumental shift that took place in hunter-gatherer societies based on communal ownership, kinship and a sexual division of labour, to that of private ownership of property, represented a revolutionary change of historic proportions. Until then, women enjoyed an equal status with their male counterparts despite the natural division of labour based mainly on their reproductive function. This determined their role in bearing and rearing children, gathering edible roots and plants, as well as preparing food where they found shelter. Recent evidence shows that women also participated in hunting.

The discovery of the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants, made possible for the first time the accumulation of a surplus that facilitated the settling of communities and the growth of the population. Over time, the surplus accumulated was usurped privately by the development of a new division of labour that freed a segment of society from the actual production of the necessities of life. In these early agrarian societies, this segment of society  had been elevated above the rest of society to devote their time and energy to other activities considered to be of value in the community.

It was from this segment that private ownership of property and the wealth that came with it, developed. Some came to enjoy special privileges and wealth that demanded a line of succession for the legacy that would be left. In order to secure such a lineage, control of the sexuality and reproductive role of women was required. This was achieved by their subjugation and the devaluing of their position, institutionalized through codes and laws that turned them into the property of their fathers and later their husbands in a patriarchal relationship of servitude. These practices developed over thousands of years and have become ingrained in religious and cultural codes and mores throughout the world. The relationship between man and women was reduced to that between master and slave. As Trotsky explained, capitalism enslaves the whole working-class and uses men to oppress women thus women become “the slaves of slaves”.

Women’s oppression adapted by capitalism

Capitalism inherited these forms of oppression and adapted them to distinguish women’s work in and outside the home when it demanded more labour as a result of capitalist expansion made possible through industrialization particularly after World War 2. Capitalism encouraged women to join the workforce whilst maintaining the ideology that a woman’s “natural” role and place is in the home. The family, as the main socializing agent, served to enforce the expected roles of the man as the “head of the home” and the woman and children as his subordinates. The nuclear or bourgeois family was declared normal. Any deviation from this norm was declared, amoral.  Those who did not conform to these strict codes were subjected to the strongest societal censure. Punishment for homosexuality for example, included imprisonment and death. Laws of this type, inherited from British colonialism have enacted in Uganda.

In apartheid South Africa, this ideology was reinforced by the migrant labour system and the group areas acts which separated families from their ‘heads households.’ Women left in the rural areas had to fend for their families as their fathers and husbands earned starvations wages under the cheap labour system, insufficient to sustain their families. This was made worse in instances where they started second families in the cities. They sometimes failed to send remittances home. Many women were forced to move to the cities to work in the main as domestic servants, some in factories while others found ways to survive through illegally brewing and selling beer.

The structural changes which followed the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa led to rapid industrialisation and to many more women joining the workforce. Women attempted to alleviate poverty by reducing their dependency for their survival on their male partners. However, the majority of them were employed in low wage sectors such as domestic work, caring and cleaning, farm work, administrative and some in factories. A few entered the professions of teaching and nursing mostly, but their discrimination continued. This did not only take the form of being subjected to unequal pay. They were also in effect punished for pregnancy through forced termination of their pensionable service in the public sector. Pensionable service had to be re-started from scratch upon return from maternity leave. This raised even greater barriers to career development and the already negligible opportunities for promotion.

Women’s oppression under apartheid and at present

The specific conditions, in which capitalism developed in South Africa, meant that the ideology of an “ideal family” that capitalism in general promotes as the ideal is placed even further beyond the reach for the working class. This reality is confirmed by statistics that show marriage rates among black South African women are amongst the lowest in the world. Yet, marriage continues to be a vital institution in reproducing capitalism. This is irrespective of some modifications to accommodate the rhetoric about women’s empowerment ratcheted up during women’s month.

Whilst SA’s constitution is trumpeted as “the most progressive in the world” its provisions remain on paper for working class women and the poor in particular. The reason is firstly that the capitalist system the ANC collaborated in preserving at Codesa cannot accommodate the social reforms that women in e.g. the advanced capitalist countries were able to win through struggle for a temporary period. Secondly, the pre-capitalist political institutions the ANC preserved such as the House of Traditional and Khoisan leadership is the very same system subverted and repurposed by the colonisers and the apartheid regime to serve their interests – the oppression and exploitation of the black majority. A central feature of this system is the subjugation of women. The combination of the ANC’s commitment to capitalism and its historic aim to create a black capitalist class – the basis of its entire post-apartheid strategy – has come into collision with the lofty equality provisions of the constitution. The ANC government has gone as far as trying to impose the Traditional Courts Bill. Its effect is to reduce rural women – half the population – to second class citizens, excluded from access to the normal courts founded on the constitution. In the original version of the Bill, women had no right to even represent themselves in traditional courts – only men could! Even former President Kgalema Motlanthe was compelled to describe the leaders of these modern Bantustan-like systems as “tin pot village dictators.”

However, for Marxists whilst it is necessary to highlight the inequalities, poverty and violence against women every day and especially on national or international women’s days, the task is to fight it. This entails reflecting on the history and lessons of past struggles such as those that culminated in the historic march on the Union Buildings on 9th August 1956 in SA, and the achievements of the early years after the October Revolution for women in the former Soviet Union. The lessons of these events demonstrate firstly that advances for women come through struggle and revolution.

Equally important as understanding the causes of women’s oppression, is working out the most effective strategy and programme required for the struggle to end the oppression of women. Such a programme must begin by locating the root causes of women’s oppression as originating in the rise of class society. Therefore the abolition of class society in its modern form, capitalism, is the only way in which to lay the groundwork for the complete emancipation of women.

As Karl Marx pointed out, capitalism also brings about its own grave digger in the form of the working class. Women’s entry into the labour force, has not only developed their confidence and freed them from the isolation of the home, but it has also exposed them methods of collective struggle and contributed to raising their class consciousness.

Women’s oppression is a class issue. All women are oppressed because they are all affected by sexual harassment, sexual violence and laws and or practices that restrict or deny their reproductive rights and access to social and economic opportunities. However, how they experience these oppressions differ depending on class, race, caste, religion and their gender orientation. The emancipation of working class women is bound up with that of working class men – both are part of the same exploited and oppressed class under capitalism. In this struggle they find themselves on opposite sides of the class barriers of the class struggle compared to bourgeois women. Their [social class privileges require the perpetuation of the oppression of working class women and the working class as a whole. Neither men nor women constitute a class on their own. The emancipation of women requires the emancipation of the working class as a whole. In this common struggle for socialism working class women and men occupy the same place.

Emancipation of women requires abolition of capitalism

The polarisation between the classes that has made SA the most unequal society in the world has elevated a tiny minority of African, Coloured and Indian women into the ranks of their bourgeois white counterparts. Their “success” has resulted in these women now making up half the top ten wealthiest women in SA.

“Blacks should not be ashamed to be filthy rich” said SA’s former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka – the first black woman to rise to that position. This aspiration is beyond the wildest dreams of the overwhelming majority of black people – men and women. Whereas the fulfillment of such aspirations as Mlambo-Ngcuka’s requires the preservation of capitalism, the emancipation of women requires its abolition. The infinitesimally small minority that the Mlambo-Ncukas of this world are part of, can become rich only by ensuring the overwhelming majority of working class women and men remain dirt poor. Only the working class, because of their central role in production and as the producers of society’s wealth and providers of social services, has a collective consciousness and the power to do so.   

Many of the laws that advance women’s interests such as the right to equal pay, maternity and parental leave, protection against sexual harassment and others that have resulted in greater job security and better working conditions for women have been achieved through working class struggle – not out of the non-existent goodness of the hearts of the capitalist class. However, these gains cannot be sustained for any length of time under capitalism. A system that exists on the basis of booms and slumps – the latter now for longer and longer – means that any gains are temporary and will be reversed during capitalist crises.

The US’s historic Roe vs Wade ruling which won the right to abortion has been overturned by a majority of Trump appointed Supreme Court judges. Similar attempts to reverse rights of women won in the past are now being stepped up worldwide. The rights of women are intertwined with the ups and downs of the class struggle. As the capitalist crisis deepens, so has the offensive against the rights of the whole working class, especially women.

 In SA this has taken the form of cuts in public spending on law enforcement, education, health and social services. These affect women the most harshly. But women’s struggle can be fought most effectively only in unity with the working class as a whole, men and women and people of all genders. Concretely this mean for example that the struggle against GBV has to be connected to the struggle against cuts in public expenditure. This has to be incorporated into the demands of movements involved in the different spheres of struggle of the workplace, the community and institutions of learning.

It is in the interest of working-class women as much as for the working class as a whole, to overcome the weakening of the trade union movement internationally. In SA, for example, this will re-establish the organized working class as the spinal column of the movement that brought down apartheid. We propose below the type of demands that can unite women and the working class as a whole.

We are calling upon community, student and youth as well union locals and workplace committees to take up these demands as part of their own struggles. This will lay the foundations for the unification in struggle of the working class as a whole. For as long as capitalism exists, the rights of women and the working class as a whole will always come under threat. All reforms under capitalism are temporary. To permanently eradicate inequalities, oppression and exploitation, capitalism must be overthrown, and a socialist society established. This requires a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. A mass workers party would be able to connect the demands of the different sections of the working class in different formations to struggle for a socialist society free from gender-based violence and the oppression of women.

A programme of demands to fight GBV

  • A minimum wage of R12500 to end poverty wages of working women
  • A basic income grant for all of R3500 to alleviate the plight of the unemployed
  • 6 months paid parental leave for all workers (men and women); with the option to extend for another 6 months as unpaid leave
  • Free, state-funded and high-quality pre-school education for all including safe transportation of learners
  • Organising and collective bargaining rights for workers in the informal sector to achieve decent work and security of employment
  • Permanent jobs for all EPWPs working in health, education, security and care of children, the elderly and the infirm as well those working to maintain roads and the environment
  • Free, state funded and non-discriminatory shelters and housing to support women to leave abusive relationships
  • Zero-tolerance against secondary victimisation of rape and other gender-based violence victims by police and courts
  • Full reproductive rights for women and free and accessible facilities to exercise these rights
  • No to the Traditional Courts Bill – fight for equality of men and women before the law
  • Decriminalise adult sex work. Support exit programmes involving quality education and job opportunities, support self-organising efforts by sex workers, target trafficking, child prostitution and other profiteering