Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Phumzile Mashishi

Our journey began at a stage where our union was starting from scratch to reshape and grow. Between 2007 and 2008 our union had experienced a turbulent period and was on the brink of being deregistered. Then suddenly there were rays of hope. The sunshine started to emerge as new leaders were elected at the November 2008 Congress.

It was in this period of putting the pieces together that our union was nominated as one of the organisations participating in the Gender at Work/LRS Gender Action Learning Programme. The theme of the GALP process was Gender Based Violence, HIV/Aids and women’s economic empowerment. In our very first GALP workshop we were introduced to four areas of change and we were asked to decide on the changes we would like to focus on. The four areas of change are namely changing consciousness, changing women’s condition and access to resources, changing formal rules and changing practices of exclusion, norms and values. As a union we decided to work on changing consciousness and making changes in formal rules like laws and policies. And so we took up the work of bringing back consciousness, changing the culture and making members' voices louder.

We wanted our worker members in their different workplaces, and our union staff, to deal more effectively with matters relating to sexual harassment, workplace violence, women’s empowerment, HIV/Aids and TB and rape. We wanted them to understand the  legislation relating to these issues. And we wanted to get buy in and support from the union’s leadership so that we could realise our dreams.

Have we succeeded in realising our dreams? Partly yes - not totally or completely, but we have made a start.

A new culture is emerging

You can’t give something you do not have inside. I mean deep down in your consciousness, and in your heart. If you want to impact on others you should yourself have experienced the impact you want to make. Participating in the GALP process helped us to think more seriously about issues pertaining to HIV/Aids, Gender based violence, Gender inequality and women’s empowerment. We thought more seriously on the role these factors play in preparing women to resume decision making and leadership positions.

Coming back from GALP workshops, we met with our mentor Nina Benjamin and we started engaging formally and informally on our objectives and plans. We were inspired to make our GALP project part of the agenda and discussion in all our staff meetings.  As we made our verbal and written reports we looked at issues deeply with gender lenses. And we started to change our thinking. The action learning programme became part of those of us in the departments of education and gender who were the drivers of the programme –- and it became part of me as a person.

I was assigned to lead the action learning programme and it became my baby, my DNA - but it was the same for my colleagues. We were hungry to deepen our understandings and we started to discuss strategies. When we started to link our general discussions and our experiences at home, in the community and in the workplace with gender inequality, patriarchal domination, oppression for women, cultural practices and justification of power relations – I knew and sensed that a new culture was being born in the organisation. A culture of not being afraid to confront, not being afraid to speak freely about differences, and not being afraid to debate the best solutions with men. Fire started to burn within us and this was to affect others.

We were hungry as we started reading articles on gender equality and HIV, as we found materials and books on leadership, as we visited websites, did research and searched for materials to include in our workshop packs. We did all this to deepen our understandings.

The GALP facilitators forwarded us relevant reading materials. This helped all of us to deepen our understandings, to come up with new strategies and ideas for planning, facilitating and  implementing our programmes. Even now as I am writing this piece my phone rings and it is my leader, the assistant General Secretary of our department, sharing with me how at a workshop organised by our federation FEDUSA and facilitated by the ILO she could feel the voice of a community of women ready to rise and bring about change.

Changing to a culture of reading, giving inputs, and consciousness of policies, acts and rules

We realised the importance of being aware of policies, legislation and regulations discussed in parliament. We realised that when parliament seeks mandates our members must participate and give input. We realised that laws are the kind of back-up we need, they are  tools  our members and our communities can use to advance their rights.

I never in my wildest dream thought I would be able to read a policy document, see the gaps and give input. My chance came when our federation was requested by the department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to give input on the proposed Women Empowerment Gender Equality Bill. I circulated the bill to members of our gender forum structures in all provinces as a way of getting them involved. Normally as people we criticise the law but when given a chance to voice our position, we don’t. They read the bill and we had a telephone conference where gender forum representatives had the opportunity to give their input. I then I compiled our input and forwarded this to our federation.

We also circulated the social accord on youth employment creation discussion paper to the young workers forum in our union. National treasury asked for public comment on this document on “confronting youth unemployment policy option for South Africa”. Our youth were divided on this issue and we are hoping that they will be able to deliberate further in the youth summit being planned by our Federation FEDUSA.

We tried a similar process of distribution, discussion and inputs from our members on the Traditional Leaders Court Bill. As a union we realise that it is important to engage with all legislation, and not only labour related legislation. Knowledge is power. Knowledge makes you brave and confident to stand your ground.


Phumzile Mashishi is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. 

Fabulous Fashionistas is about the style and attitudes of 6 women from the UK with an average age of 80. It tackles gender norms about women in a light-hearted manner. We thought this video was a perfect example of how women can break the 'deep cultures' of social expectation around gender and age. By redefining what women can look like — and behave like — at 80, the women are challenging age-old narratives and notions embedded in our culture. That they're doing this in a stylish and fun manner doesn't make the message any less powerful. In fact, it makes it even more so because it foregrounds something else that's important to remember: that we have the right to have fun, and to be fun, no matter what our age.


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