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Research on women, by women, for women

From left: Dr Vuyo Mahlati (President of the International Women’s Forum South Africa), Susan Nkomo (South African Women in 2015: Towards 20 years of freedom research project leader), Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng (Unisa Vice-Principal for Research and Innovation), and Prof Pumla Gqola (University of Witwatersrand).

Unisa’s Research and Innovation Portfolio is not only determined to live up to its name by formulating innovative research, it has also accepted the challenge to do things differently to ensure Unisa becomes a high-performance university.

The South African Women in 2015: Towards 20 years of freedom research project is one example of “doing things differently”. The project, launched on 22 November, speaks clearly to Prof Mandla Makhanya’s transformative vision for the university, resonating strongly with national needs and aspirations, and the important role that Unisa plays in the development of Africa, said Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, Unisa’s Vice-Principal for Research and Innovation.

“As the Research and Innovation Portfolio, we took the Vice-Chancellor’s challenge seriously. Recognising the need for highly skilled women researchers at Unisa who have talent, vision and ability, we did our analysis and realised that Unisa has considerable capacity in research, teaching, physical and human resources; however, there still exist inequalities, imbalances and distortions derived from our history.”

She said while staff composition at Unisa broadly reflects demographic realities in South Africa, most of the staff at professorial level are still predominantly white and male. “Our current data shows only 9% of the NRF rated researchers at Unisa are black and only 14% are female. This is reflective of inequalities that underpinned the legacy of apartheid. This system reinforced male dominance and hierarchical patterns in institutions where women were marginalised and not given the same opportunities as their counterparts. This poses a threat to the career development of women researchers and so we in the research and innovation portfolio have decided to do something about it.”

The Women in Research initiative at Unisa, Phakeng said, was established as a support system for women researchers. Part of that initiative are three focus areas, the recognition of women researchers, the advancement of women researchers, and research on women, by women, for women. The latter is home of the South African Women in 2015: Towards 20 years of freedom research project.

Poet Natalia Molebatsi (Unisa Library) recited some of her work at the event.

Poet and Unisa student, MoAfrika ‘a Mokgathi, was accompanied by a jazz musician.

Project Leader, Susan Nkomo, said the project sought to document South African women’s experiences of 20 years of freedom, and through the project, Unisa would establish an observatory on women’s rights. “We are moving away from only looking at women’s presence, and towards women telling their own narratives. The excitement, the heartbeat is the ability to have this profound moment where we as women, in our own ways, are saying that what happens to us is serious enough to be a matter of research, to be a matter of reflection, to be part of an agenda for change. This is the spirit in which we begin this project.”

The observatory, Nkomo said, would be a platform through which scholars took stock of the promises made to South African women in the constitution and in the various instruments that have been signed by government, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action and the SADC Platform for Action. “The observatory will document the aspirations of women as we prepared for democracy and this observatory of women’s rights will tell us what has happened to ourselves since we started on this journey in 1994 and where we are now. It will show how in some ways, we have journeyed very far, but in some ways we have not moved at all. It is an advocacy tool that will enable us to demand accountability from the promises which have been made to us, whilst also measuring the impact of key policies and programmes in our day-to-day lives…We want to tell our own stories, we want to tell it in our own ways, we want to tell you what we think is important, and highlight areas of focus that we believe are important.”

The way to 2015, said Nkomo, includes the following launches:

  • 8 March (International Women’s Day): Data and an analysis of the South African woman’s situation from 1994 – 2011
  • April 2013: Institutional mechanisms for women’s empowerment
  • 16 June 2013 (Youth Day): A report of the girl child
  • 31 July 2013: Women in poverty, women education, and women in political and decision-making positions

President of the International Women’s Forum South Africa, Dr Vuyo Mahlati, spoke on the Status of women in South Africa today and provided an update on policy developments.

She saluted Unisa for its visionary leadership that creates spaces for the effective participation of women in the knowledge economy as well as for influencing policy formulation locally and globally. The project, she said, comes at an opportune time as the 2011 Census results were recently released, providing an update in terms of the status of women who constitute over 51% of the population. “The country in August also launched its Vision 2030 National Development Plan, now formally the strategic framework of the country as adopted by both the National Assembly and Cabinet. This comes at a time when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is aggressively pushing for gender equality by 2015 with civil society partners.”

Mahlati advised: “As we prepare to celebrate 20 years of freedom in South Africa, it is important that we align ourselves with the processes of the Beijing plus-20 review. The importance of this research project timing stretches to the current post-2015 review of the MDGs. Once again as South Africans and the development world in general, we have a chance to influence the direction of interventions for transformative and sustainable change.”

She said the biggest question with all the initiatives is whether they truly reflected the complexity of women’s issues from personal to social, economic and political spheres. “Do they address the diversity of women in terms of race, class, geographic location, disability, socioeconomic status and women’s dynamic preferences? For instance, do they represent the perspectives of Mme Mokoena in Matatiele, MaSithole in Hoxane, Mrs Lagadien in Mitchell’s Plain, Emily in DeDoorns, Shamila in Verulam and Mevrou Coetzee in Colesberg? Or are we presented with what people think is the problem and solutions form their perspective? In my opinion this points to the importance of today.”

Prof Pumla Gqola from the University of Witwatersrand spoke on normalising freedom. She described the project as an exciting one, which offers many exciting opportunities to do not just research, but also to make some really crucial interventions. “I love that it’s called an observatory. Part of what an observatory suggests is that the information you collect will observe you too. So it’s a remarkable opportunity for self-reflexivity and for thinking about not just what you collect as an archival process, but to really engage with it as a living archive, that isn’t just a site on which researchers apply knowledge. It challenges us and offers knowledge itself, and speaks back to us.”

Gqola added: “I think one of the hang-ups we have as researchers is that we often pretend that sites of knowledge are only those that are straightforwardly presented. It’s also important to think about literature such as the poetry that we heard today, not just as something that celebrates or something that is entertainment, because the creative never just entertains, it is never just background, it is never just about celebration – although it is those things too. We have to begin to think about how the creative theorises because if we are going to be collecting all of these stories, we need to think about how these stories feed back to us, challenge us, and perhaps the frameworks that we use regularly won’t work at all with this project.”

* Written by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester

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