Women are particularly good at building peace and creating social change. On August 9, 1956, 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950 – the infamous apartheid-era “pass laws” that sought to restrict where people could live and work on the basis of race.
They sang a protest song composed for the occasion: Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo! – You strike a woman, you strike a rock. These words have come to represent women's courage and strength.
However, 55 years later, women's proven strength and leadership in building the peace and security of their communities and countries win little recognition.
Indeed, rather than playing a key peacebuilding role, women remain disproportionately targeted by domestic violence and violent conflict. Most victims of war are women, both globally and across southern Africa in the various conflicts in Madagascar, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Women constitute most of the region's estimated 470 000 refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers, and are increasingly subjected to xenophobia and discrimination. They compose most of the poor, and have limited access to resources such as credit finance and land.
They often lack access to justice, and are generally under-represented in governance structures. Trafficking of women and children is also on the increase, and traditional law and customary practices often take precedence over formal law to oppress women. Even in the absence of larger-scale armed conflict, women in southern Africa and the Great Lakes region are prey to widespread physical violence and rape, often accompanied by psychological abuse.
The bitter reality that needs to be faced here is that while women suffer like this, true peace will remain a distant illusion.
A society in which the oppression of women is often explained or justified in terms of culture cannot be a peaceful one. Gender equality must form a foundational brick if sustainable peace is to be built.
For the injustice faced is double in relation to conflict: women not only disproportionately suffer violence, they are also excluded from processes of peacebuilding.
However, such involvement not only constitutes a fundamental political right, but also brings wider benefits.
It has often been argued that women help to ensure a focus on critical and broader priorities and needs in conflict resolution processes, leading to solutions that are more likely to endure.
Women have a vested interest in equalising power: because they face discrimination, they are more likely to identify with the concerns of marginalised groups.
Women are also viewed as more practised than men at accommodating the needs of others, establishing relationships of trust, and using a more collaborative approach. They are often decision-makers and mediators within the home and in informal situations and settings, although such “hands-on” experience, developed through daily communications within their families and communities, is often dismissed because of its informal nature.
Efforts to address the exclusion of women from peacebuilding, as well as wider gender inequality, include various policies and agreements at international and regional levels, have emerged.
The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women calls for quotas and other measures to increase the number of women in political decision-making positions.
The AU 2008 Gender Policy sets its member states a target of 50/50 representation of women and men in politics and decision-making by 2020, in line with Article 9 of the 2003 AU Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, Article 28 of the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000.
However, while this mushrooming of gender instruments and policies may be seen as encouraging, not much has changed.
In southern Africa, the issue of gender equality receives little political will.
Gender fatigue and commonly held views that issues of gender and women's rights are boring, unnecessary, or even amusing, seem to dominate.
Some say the problem is that gender equality policies are not adequately contextualised in the feminist frameworks from which they emerged: there is a disconnect between the way these policies are framed, and the realities of women's oppression that they were created to transform.
Also missing in the framing of gender policies and efforts for their implementation are the stories of women and oppression: if policies are to be made real, they must be made meaningful for people in general, particularly for those who perpetuate oppression. So, they should not exist in an academic or intellectual vacuum, but must be linked to the personal; for it is through individual stories of oppression that empathy is created and seeds for genuine transformation are sown.
The resulting gender consciousness helps people to see clearly how gender relations inform and create institutions such as the family and the military, and how power and oppression function through gender and other faultlines such as race and class.
Moreover, telling the “her stories” and revealing the injustice and oppression of women can inspire individuals and institutions to mobilise for change.
Achieving gender equality will not be easy. It requires radical transformation of power relations between women and men.
But this should not alarm men, for masculinity also suffers under the limits imposed by patriarchal systems.
Gender inequality should not be seen as a struggle of men and boys against women and girls, but rather as the struggle of all men, women, and children, against inequality and oppression.
Men will benefit, too. And true equality will be achieved only when women and men work together with mutual respect to make it happen, at international, regional, and community levels.
As a peacebuilding priority in southern Africa, the issue must be taken more seriously: true peace and development will not be attained until women are treated as equal members of society and all structural inequalities, including those of race, class, and gender, are overcome.
Elizabeth Otitodun is a researcher, and Antonia Porter is a project officer, at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.