OPINION: Pay the housewife, free the woman

The political rights that we consider normal today owe a lot to far-sighted veterans such as Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, born when Charlotte Maxeke founded the Bantu Women’s League 100 years ago, who refused to give up the battle no matter what it cost them.

One thing that has not changed in all this time is the fact that in most ways women, and most specifically poor women, are still politically, economically and socially more oppressed than men. Yes, there are women leaders and there are many educated and empowered women, but there are also millions of uneducated, undereducated and impoverished women in South Africa today.

I am talking about women whose daily efforts are not acknowledged or are deliberately ignored. People whose work is often not compensated for, and if it is then it is poorly compensated for despite the fact that they contribute immeasurably to our wellbeing and our performance at work, and therefore indirectly to the economy as a whole. I am talking about domestic workers, otherwise known as helpers, housekeepers and “o-aunty” (aunties).

I am also talking about the housewife who keeps the home going, but is regarded as “not working”. She is the one responsible for child-bearing and child-rearing, family counselling, looking after the sick and general upkeep of the home. Yet her roles are perceived as “not real work”.

Gender analyst Caroline Moser classifies what these women do as “reproductive work”. This is work that goes unnoticed and is mostly unpaid, and if it is paid then the pay is at the bottom end of the economic ladder. Even those who officially have professional or managerial jobs often do this kind of work on top of their official jobs. This happens whenever women are called upon to support others and to help them to be effective and successful in their careers.

In its efforts to empower women economically, especially during this year of Mama Sisulu’s centenary, our government should consider professionalising domestic work by enforcing and monitoring the required minimum wage of R3 500 per month. The state should consider incentivising employers who adhere to the minimum standards, for example, through tax rebates. Such incentives could extend to ensuring that domestic workers are registered with an accredited training provider and offering relevant skills programmes towards a qualification in domestic work.

In government’s stated intention of “leaving no one behind”, I do not remember any strategy to compensate rural or informal settlement women who are categorised as “not working”. I am referring to uMamThembu who works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MamThembu, is the one who ensures that there is water and firewood, who ensures that her home is habitable and that there is cooked food. She sees to the wellbeing of her family and ensures that the family is represented whenever there is a community event like a funeral, wedding or ritual, to which she contributes by helping with catering, cooking and cleaning. Owing to her gender role and poverty, MamThembu is unable to be actively involved in many community development meetings as they clash with her 24/7 job.

The likes of MamThembu are left behind, they get poorer each day and are unable to actively participate in the development of their communities. They miss opportunities to be elected to decision-making positions that could help them oppose gender inequalities and eliminate feminised poverty. If the situation of women like MamThembu is not addressed, the efforts of government to economically empower women cannot succeed.

I want to challenge the government to provide a grant for women like MamThembu who keep the home fires burning. The social protection that such a grant would offer has the potential to heighten MamThembu’s ability to take informed decisions about her future. If, for instance, she is in an abusive relationship, she will not have to cling on to that relationship because of economic dependence.

I do not believe that my suggestion is outside our government’s mandate. It could be a powerful part of the strategy to unite South African women and move our country forward.

- Gysman is the Southern African Development Community parliament gender programme manager