Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / October 12, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Ray Gordezky

We're working with Oxfam America Cambodia to address gender injustice in Cambodia and Vietnam and the vehicle for this work is a Gender Action Learning (GAL) Process with four organizations that work in natural resource management and extractive industries. These organizations are as diverse as Oxfam America Cambodia, People and Nature Reconciliation (Vietnam), Highlanders’ Association of Cambodia, and Save Cambodia Wildlife.  

We started in February and recently, we held the second of three gender action learning workshops in Hanoi. The question that framed our work was: How can change teams (in Cambodia & Vietnam) accelerate their ability to integrate gender equality into their organizations and their programs so that they increase women’s’ participation in decision making at home, in their communities and concerning the protection and use of their land?

What emerged was interesting. These are some of the things participants said: 

  • I gained a deeper and practical understanding of how gender identify and gender power relations are socially constructed, and are fluid depending on the circumstances.
  • I’m beginning to understand how the power you have is both what you see as your own power within, and is conferred on me differently by different people. So while I see myself as powerful in certain circumstances, others see me as powerless.
  • Asking questions and heart listening deepens learning and makes new action possible
  • I learned some practical ways of using questions to help analyze how gender is playing out in various situations.
  • I learned that gender inequality is more deeply ingrained and harder to change than I originally thought.

My own lessons were as surprising to me as perhaps the participants’ lessons were to them. First, the Gender at Work Framework and other Gender at Work processes (such as peer learning and body work) are most useful when used to create a field of play for conversation and meaning making, rather than as a way to get to the answers. Whether using the framework or peer learning, these approaches provide opportunities for people to go deeply into their own thinking and cultural norms, traditional practices, gender power relations and so on. Coming up with a gender analysis based on the Gender at Work framework, or a polished plan for an initiative to address gender-based violence in the home, are important. 

Perhaps more important is people beginning to make their thinking clear to themselves and to others so that they can collectively accelerate the achievement of results they want around gender inequality. Conversations about gender, identity, sexuality and so on create a field participants step into when they leave the workshop, in their homes, in their organizations, in their communities. It is from this field that they can open up explorations with others about the tough problems of changing traditional beliefs that keep women from, for example, gaining decision making power and ultimately seeing themselves as having the power to create a better life for themselves and other women. People leave these conversations with greater clarity on what gender inequality is, and they start thinking and talking differently than they did before. Together they create a field where better results can happen, though specific results may take more time than we have for the project to become visible.

At the beginning of the workshop is when it's important to create a shared understanding about the terms we use. For example, when people talk about future-oriented ideas for action they are frame these ideas as about something they can actually test, as something that is specific and doable. Getting to a shared understanding about ending gender-based violence in the home, for example, involves questioning what people mean by gender-based violence, offering competing ideas on what gender-based violence could mean, and refusing to accept fuzzy language or generalizations. Getting clarity on terms is an art – the way an artist uses their tools while carrying out their particular craft or art. 

Ultimately, the greatest power people gain from these workshops is learning the art of learning. This goes beyond correcting errors or injustices by applying a framework; it goes beyond surfacing assumptions and recombining elements of a solution in a way that addresses the current context. Both are important, but they are not enough to change patriarchal norms. My hypothesis is that if we are to achieve lasting positive change for gender justice, it is critical to both increase a group’s ability to accelerate the achievement of gender justice and to use their learning in addressing gender justice to learn how to learn so that they can effectively address new problems and opportunities.

By Bongani Dlamini

This is part 2 of a two-part blog post. Read part 1 here.

The lessons from our peer learning experience

Our involvement in the Gender at Work peer learning process was through the LRS. This was part of being in interaction with other groups from the different communities and trade unions from federations like FEDUSA and COSATU.

The facilitators created space for the participants to share our views and experiences. It felt like learning was made easy. Before we started a session, we did Tai Chi something that I have started using in my workshops as well as in my daily life. I have had to learn to handle my stress levels differently by using my fingers and exercises throughout. You can help yourself and another person by holding your fingers if you are angry or upset. I can now support my granddaughter when she is not feeling well. The breathing spaces of in and out, the sitting with your feet flat on the ground – are all very important. My challenges and frustrations are now contained and better addressed. It feels like some comrades do not understand me now and think that I am a changed man.

Our contact sessions are fruitful as we learn and support each other in our struggles. I feel that through the peer learning I have been inspired. The pressure of fearing the unknown has been removed from my space. As one of my previous peer learning participants put it, the silent killer is when people find joy in someone’s misery. I found happiness as there is so much information we are sharing, things we can use when I go back to my daily life and workplace.

Learning about power was very important, especially how we can use the different kinds of power. The power over, the power within, the power under – I can use and balance power now, but this has been a very excellent space that I will use in my life going forward and as I continue to learn.

Our question?

A key question we asked ourselves as we engaged in the peer learning was ‘Why does a trade union not lead by example in becoming a champion of transformation and empowerment of women in our structures?’

As an organisation and for me as head of our union’s department of education we felt that we needed organisational change, that our union cannot be doing things like in 1973 where women were not given a voice, that our union needed to smell fresh ideas and challenges.

Those of us attending the peer learning workshops were aware that we were touching a difficult button but we needed to address the picture and provide encouragement in collective matters. We needed to build women’s confidence. Women had to be in control of the workplace matters that affect them and their comrades.

In our first workshop the participants identified challenges and opportunities for women to pick themselves up and deal with the unequal power play in the construction industry. The workshop created a space inside the union for men to become more conscious of the role women comrades can play in the union.

The creation of this space in the union inspired women to expect to be treated with respect and dignity. It has also raised opportunities for the promotion of women in construction and in the union and created spaces for them to get more knowledge and to raise their voices.

The gender coordinator in the union could relate to other women both young and old on issues of concern to them – for example, child care matters. She was seen as a shining star – a person who could bring balance and quality into the lives of women who work in a man’s world.

There are now more women shop stewards. In one of our branches we have 4 women as shop stewards. Their voices are noticed and recognised by workers, management and shop stewards council. Some of the women in leadership positions do not see themselves as push overs, as wheel barrows that can go as far as you can push them. They use their voice and initiative to do things their way.

Jobs previously done by men are now given to women.

We have a health and safety committee led by women in one workplace – the Eskom power project, where health and safety measures are a high priority to reduce and minimise accidents. Health and safety is a legal requirement in any workplace to be observed by all, that is by management and workers. Formerly women were not aware of health and safety issues but through reflecting on their own situations – for example that there were no toilets in the sites where they were working. Women started taking charge of health and safety matters.

We are trying to create a health and safety environment that can play a part in stopping new infections of HIV/Aids, TB and STIs. Our committee is now faced with the challenge of changing the culture that health and safety is a man’s job. We see this as a starting point in making the changes we were looking for. We want to create an environment that is supportive to women, where women can claim their confidence, self-esteem and their right to work.

Our women shop stewards and our educators have moved away from being ‘bankers’ – that is where they believe that they are the only ones with knowledge and that the workers have no knowledge. We draw on popular education as a powerful tool that allows workers to participate in bigger numbers. As educators we are mindful that many workers have been in the industry for years, and have a wealth of knowledge. We enable awareness raising and the sharing of views and information during tea breaks and in their tea rooms. Women shop stewards serve union members with dignity. They represent them in grievances on matters that are affecting our members. They are prepared to serve, to strive and not to yield.

Previously a trade union official would use any space to educate workers, e.g. in a train or a bus. This is what we are now encouraging. Shop stewards may use a tea room, a church or backyard garage to educate each other. They don’t need to have a boardroom or a hotel conference room to educate each other. They are mindful of building awareness, of conscientising each other and they give report backs to other workers on a particular issue. 

Bongani Dlamini is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.

By Phumzile Mashishi

This is part 2 of a two-part post. Read the first part here.

Members voices emerging

In 2011 we established provincial forums to create a process of consultative dialogue. We called these dialogues “Makgotlas” or “Lekgotlas” drawing on the idea of  traditional community councils. In our South African context “Lekgotla” describes a place where people meet to engage in dialogue on topical issues. The five forums launched were on HIV/AIDS, TB, Occupational health and safety, young workers, nurses and Gender. These forums gave our members on the ground a voice, and a space to engage with various issues. The resolutions from these forums were recorded and through the help of the LRS we identified that the gender and young worker forums are important forums that need ongoing support.

The GALP process came at the right time, providing space to think about and plan the gender and young worker forums. We included 2 young workers in our peer learning team and we tried to ensure that there was a gender balance in our team. In this process of dialogue, we built another layer of leadership in the union. The representatives of forums became part of provincial executives and whenever the Provincial Executive Committee meets, each forum is expected to give feedback on their challenges, activities and plans. 

One example of this feedback is in Mpumalanga where a young worker representative organised and partnered with a high school on an awareness campaign on HIV/AIDS. The partnership with the school continued and the principal invited the young worker representative to talk to a class where a learner who had disclosed her sexual orientation was being discriminated against by other learners. The learner had reached the point where she was staying away from class. Our worker representative at that stage did not have much awareness or information about the gay and lesbian community but  she emphasised that every citizen has the right to choose their sexual orientation and that the learners needed to respect and support each person as human beings. She was also able to counsel the learner and the learner was able to go back to school.

There is no doubt that this exercise of dialogue started raising consciousness on gender equality, HIV/AIDS and women’s empowerment. With the GALP process we were able to take the process of consciousness-raising further. Our peer learning team’s consciousness and perspectives have also been shaped by our interaction with the other member organisations in the GALP process:  these included an organisation working with Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersexed people; BCAWU a predominantly male trade union organising in construction; SADSAWU a predominantly female union organising domestic workers; and DOCKDA, a rural based organisation focused on micro-credit.

The consciousness raising in our provincial forums has gone a little further and the Provincial Forums are getting actively involved in their communities where their eyes and ears are more open to issues of gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS and TB, women’s issues. They are now more open to strategically engage with relevant platforms and to create partnerships with organisations dealing with these issues.

Getting buy-in from our senior leadership was a cherry on top for this GALP process. Through our verbal feedback and written reports we tried to create an awareness and to sensitise our members on the need to be trained and to actively participate in dealing with power relations. The range of issues we want to take action on include reducing inequalities, advancing women leadership, advancing labour rights for women, dealing with sexual harassment, dealing with issues around women and migration and around disability. Indeed our members came to the party, and it was encouraging to see the General Secretary of our union sending out a message for a women’s day celebration. The general secretary encouraged worker participation in various meetings and workshops pertaining to young workers, gender equality and women empowerment, and he made suggestions on how to nominate representatives. Previously these issues were not prioritised. Now there is a department responsible for these issues. The next steps are implementation and getting a budget approved.

Further examples of leadership buy-in and support were the General Secretary’s request to our media person to feature the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) International Women’s day message on our union’s website; our president’s actions to ensure the participation of our trade union in the Big Debate TV show discussion on gender-based violence — five HOSPERSA representatives became part of this TV debate — 3 males and 2 female representatives; that we have a vice president for HIV/Aids and TB and gender —  this has played an important role in the consciousness raising process.

Another significant example of leadership buy-in is the involvement of top leadership in the workshop we organised with the ILO on HIV/AIDS and TB and gender equality. Top leadership were sensitised on mainstreaming these issues into the organisation. This meeting was history in the making for us as a union. We spoke openly about how much we needed to develop women to take up decision-making positions in the organisation. We are indeed marching on because even though there is still a lot to be realised, the journey has started and there is no point of return.

This process is taking us back to the core, original mandate of the labour movement where members are encouraged to speak for themselves, get solutions, set the agenda for programmes for themselves, and where the role of the leadership is to listen and to participate together with members. This reminds me of the Brazilian writer Paulo Freire, who in his book “Education and Oppression” states  “If we can develop that momentum then naming our world leads to action”. More than that, Freire says “This critical examination of the world — reflection and acting upon the world to change it — action becomes fused into a single, continuous liberating process”. He describes this as praxis. Freire summarises this when he says: “men are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection”.

No union can survive without the consciousness of its members, by its members and for its members.

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

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. 

By Gender at Work Media / November 26, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Mary Nkonyana

I remember the day I met Virginia. It was the 22nd of October, past 4 pm and I was on my way home from work as a domestic worker. The weather was nice and cool but I was tired because of my work. I approached her and asked her how her work was? She said it was not good. I asked her to explain. We walked together on the way to the station. She told me she does house cleaning, washing, cleaning the house blinds and that she felt like leaving the job. I asked her what time she starts and ends work. Virginia informed me that she works from 7 am to 4 pm.

I informed her that she had a right to speak to her boss about her unfair working hours. She asked me what this meant. I told her that work hours are 8 hours or less and that she has rights just like her employer. This information was new to her. I gave her a document that showed her what her rights were as a domestic worker and I left her my contact details as it was getting late. I gave her time to read and then I promised to call her the following day. I told her to join the union (SADSAWU) as they could help her.

That same day she called me to ask me how to join the union. She became a paid member and she approached her boss about her long hours and heavy load of work. After her talk with him, it’s much better.

SADSAWU is the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union. They help many women like Virginia. This union was formed in 2000. The union is not just a place for complaints. It also encourages workers to stand up for themselves and find their own voice.

Recruiting of domestic workers is important to me because it helps to build a strong union, adding more workers and educating them. We also want future young women leaders. To recruit is not easy, especially if you don’t know about workers’ rights and labour laws. We give pamphlets and newsletters, and tell people something that will make them more interested in knowing about their rights. What makes domestic workers join is the awareness that they don’t know their rights. Mostly we go door to door, on trains and taxis, and in parks, where we can find more than one worker.

That is an ongoing journey because after education there must be practice of what they have learned and sharing with others, especially the young workers. It is more difficult to bring young workers in as members. They are still ashamed and afraid to be known as domestic workers. I used to also be ashamed like them but I now fully understand the meaning of domestic work.

Another thing is that it is harder to approach men because they feel “it’s not for us it’s only for women”. Men who are gardeners don’t understand the word ‘domestic’. Only those who clean inside a house are seen as domestic workers. But domestic work also covers care givers, child minders, cleaners, gardeners and chauffeurs. It has been a challenge to bring two men in and sign them as members. It was like a debate because they asked me “who told you I am a domestic worker, why are you calling me a domestic worker as I am not cleaning in my bosses’ house?” I had to make sure that I understand, give good reasons, have courage, and make them feel comfortable.

I was not involved in the Gender Action Learning process but I saw the changes that happened because of that in SADSAWU. The opening of new branches came from my colleagues who were very much involved in the process. The idea was to take the union to the people. It was difficult to bring all the workers to the office for meetings and workshops so new branches were opened. My colleagues puts it nicely when she says “the union is not only a union but it’s a home to those who are broken-hearted and need comfort and support”. At the end of the day, we go back to where we started and realize it is not only a place to think but also, most importantly, a place to share and practice.

Mary Nkonyana is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.

By Gender at Work Media / November 14, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This is a video (in Portuguese) of the Gender Action Learning process we conducted inMozambique with 26 people of the Union of Rural Workers of Cabo Delgado with support from Oxfam Solidarité Belgium e Oxfam Canada. The process ran for 18 months and was facilitated by Solange Rocha. 



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