Women Making Rights Real: Women Building Power

womin“I didn’t expect that women will come to listen to us and be open to share their testimonies,” says Yvonne Sampear [pictured right], a co-founder and chairperson of Greater Phola Ogies Women’s Forum. The forum first met in November 2016, bringing over 50 community women together. “After the meeting, young and old women came and still come to my house to share their challenges with me. These first meetings opened [our eyes]. There had been no platform for us as women to share, network and connect to the struggles we are facing daily.”

Before the forum started, many women had not made the connection of the environmental degradation caused by mining in their area to challenges they face in their daily lives. This lack of awareness energised Sampear and others to claim a space for learning and information-sharing.

The women’s forum is a critical initiative for this community at this time. A new power station, Kusile, uses an estimated 17 million tonnes of coal per year, generating increased air pollution and straining already-scarce communal water resources. The community was promised jobs and access to energy as a benefit of the power station but they have received neither, “Almost every week in my area there is a protest, you people demanding jobs at the PowerStation.” The Greater Phola Ogies Women’s Forum is trying to support women to understand the links between the power station and climate change, which will hit women hardest.

Claiming a Space
“For me it was just a wish and I didn’t realise that it could be turned into a reality. We as the women we felt that it is high time we claim our voices, we claim our spaces, we protect our dignity, lives and we challenge patriarchy. We want to shift the burden of caring for the young, the sick and the elderly onto women without financial compensation for their time, and without effective back -up by government.” – Yvonne Sampear

Organising in Phola Ogies community has never been easy – especially for women who face many challenges. From men dominating the space and conversation, often attempting to “lead women’s struggles” to the constant battle for women to “prove [their] intelligence and commitment”, it has been, according to Sampear, an uphill journey. “As women, we are only considered good when coming to cooking, childcare, and the emotional labour of supporting community well-being are largely borne by women,” she explains. Sexism is a major challenge for the women in her community, felt most strongly through harassment and disrespect for women’s voices in discussion issues of oppression and rights.

“Feminism is not seen as a collective [African] struggle in our communities, it always seen as a western idea and for rich white women, gays and lesbians or some bad man hating women.”

This situation has energised women’s strategies through spaces like the Women’s Forum. Women are working together and mobilising in strong numbers to cross cultural barriers of privacy and respect, renegotiate cultural and traditional practices and redefine social roles. One key issue the women in Phola Ogies are confronting is women’s political participation in political processes. They are determined to be a vocal and influential constituency, and demand that local governments take note.

“We demand to break down the barriers to equal political participation.  We want to change the unequal power relations that gives men privileges in all areas of our lives — social, economic, institutional, cultural, political, and spiritual.

”WoMin’s national and regional campaign on fossil fuels, climate justice and energy, Women Building Power, is working with the women of Greater Phola Ogies to grow and sustain their collective solidarity and organising efforts. Supporting grassroots women’s collectives like the Greater Phola Ogies Women’s Forum is a critical part of cultivating a broader women’s movement. Up next, the women’s forum wants to sharpen and develop women’s analysis of patriarchy and climate change so that they can continue to equip themselves to take action at the local level.