‘I am rural. I am poor. I am black. And, of course, I am a woman,’ explains Sizani Ngubane, the founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) in South Africa. ‘My mother was abused by my father and his male relatives. I grew up knowing I had to be part of the solution.’ Her conviction can be heard in the power of her words, but it’s the twinkle in her eye and the warm smile that has the biggest impact. It feels like Sizani Ngubane can handle anything.
That same sense of power and confidence permeates RWM, an organization that has now grown to more than 500 community-based groups in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
RWM works from the principle that women need economic and political independence from male relatives and partners to guarantee their rights and survival. In theory, the South African constitution does recognize women’s rights; in practice, it’s been another matter, particularly in land ownership. Sizani elaborates: ‘In 1995 when the Government implemented the land reform programme, the majority of people filing claims were men. This was because during apartheid land was seen as a “men’s issue” while health and childcare were seen as “women’s issues”.’ Exacerbating this problem is the continued observance of customary law which is biased towards male land ownership and inheritance rights. As a result women and girls could be forcibly evicted from family land if a marriage breaks down or a husband dies. To make matters worse these cases were often seen as ‘private family matters’. Sizani realized there needed to be public debate on the issues. ‘As rural women we were voiceless in most situations. Women who spoke in public meetings were seen as “unruly” and it was taboo.’
In fact, women who did speak out were often beaten by their husbands for doing so and over 50 per cent of RWM’s membership faced domestic violence. The group’s answer is to empower rural women to speak out in public and to run for local elections. They also take up legal cases for women who have been evicted and challenge discriminatory government policies.
‘RWM speaks for itself – we do not need other people to speak on our behalf,’ Sizani states firmly. The network has racked up an impressive number of achievements – from supporting women set up their own income-generating projects, helping members resist marriages with their brother-in-law after the death of their husbands, to feeding into the drafting of legislation on land rights.
In fact RWM has been so successful that it has begun to connect with women’s rights movements across Africa. At the World Social Forum in Nairobi last January over 40 women’s organizations met to discuss tactics and share knowledge and information. Groups inspired each other to take on new campaigns where none existed before, fostering solidarity between African women’s networks. Sizani’s excitement is palpable. She clearly sees signs that times are finally changing.
‘The very same men who used to beat up their partners when they found out that they had attended women’s meetings are now taking care of the children while we’re attending the World Social Forum.’