Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

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. 


By Gender at Work Media / October 31, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Bongani Dlamini

Last night the rain spoke to me slowly saying:
“Oh yes construction is for women.
Through pain, harassment and discrimination—these our members.
They are marginalised in the workplace, community, society but they are our members who are loyal, honest and obedient.

O, yes construction is for women
Did they join the trade union to find fun?
They are a powerful resource to liberate other women
Yes, this can bring some change and new life
Yes construction is for women

Sometime in November 2013 something interesting happened in the office. Two strong women shop stewards checked with the senior officials where the gender coordinator was. They wanted information on the reasons why work to advance gender equality was not happening in the union. These two shop stewards are from an Eskom Power project of 5000 workers in Kusile, outside Witbank. They had attended the Gender at Work/ LRS peer learning workshops with a team of about 10 women.

Our union’s involvement in the Gender at Work peer learning process was through the LRS, and involved interaction with other trade unions, NGOs and CBOs. After attending the peer learning workshops, the level of consciousness of these shop stewards from Kusile seemed to immediately shift. Their understanding increased and that they managed to make some changes in Kusile. They realised that some of the standard workplace practices that should be implemented in a workplace were not being practiced in their workplace. For example women were stuck in cleaning jobs and making tea. Casual workers, many of whom are women, were not given protective clothing. They used the space created in the peer learning workshops very well. They used the knowledge they got from these workshops to raise their voices, their issues and to demand better jobs and higher wage levels. Among the changes they were able to make was the election of more women shop stewards in the different departments. This meant that these women now have a voice, they are asking relevant questions like why women are not doing jobs like fork lift driving and why the branch executive of the union is made up only of males. These women showed character in a rough male dominated industry. They are now representing the voice of women, the voiceless members.

What happened in these workshops?

When the women started discussing that jobs done by men can also be done by women there seemed to be a light and their consciousness was raised. They discussed the rights of women at work and the problem that some women workers did not have formal employment contracts. From the workshop they decided to approach management, but management had no answers for them. The workers together with the union organisers then took the process forward. When a dispute was declared at the CCMA, management realised that they had to save face by addressing the problems they had created. This further encouraged women members and the newly elected women shop stewards to think of themselves as making a difference. They realised they have the power but that they are not aware of how to use it. Another example of the shift in consciousness was when a leading shop steward from the Johannesburg central district came to see me for information about being an entrepreneur. This leading shop steward noticed that the contractors coming in and out of her workplace were black owned small businesses. She knocked at my office to investigate how she could set up a business. I suggested a cooperative business. I got business forms and we filled them in and all the necessary documentation was submitted to the authorities. I provided guidance but the shop steward was responsible for filling in the forms. She registered her own cooperative with her daughters. Her thinking was that there were no jobs for young people, and that she needed to create employment for her daughters and for other young people. An initiative such as this was not in our plan but we realised people can stretch their minds when there consciousness has been raised.

(to be cont...)

Bongani Dlamini is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. This is part 2 of a two-part blog post. Read part 1 here.

By Gender at Work Media / October 6, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Ayanda Masina

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown,
And yet on and on and on it sings
for it is not just any bird
the caged bird wants nothing more than to be heard from that distance
into that distance it sings
for not only is it caged for its being
but it is also caged for the fear of its songs
The songs it sings tearfully for the outcomes of it are known
for the response of those who from that distance hear the songs unknown
and yet on and on and on it sings
With the fearful trill of things unknown to those who hear, who have heard and who will hear

~ Maya Angelou

"Hai Suka!awbheke lama Ntombazne azenza abafana” they are a disgrace to the community. One of these days siszo shisa lezinto” 

In a crowd of people, that hoarse and loud voice pierced my ears from a distance. He appeared in his Rastafarian ensemble, with a face that expressed hatred and disgust. He stood looking at me and my four friends. A lot was going on in my mind. I did not know what to do or say. We were making our way to a community dialogue at the Tsakane Park so we were rushing to get refreshments for the day. Tons of people stood there in the mall looking at us. A lot was written on their faces. In their hearts and minds, words were forming into lines and sentences, sentences were forming into paragraphs. Paragraphs filled with hate…love…pity...shame and the need to express themselves. 

“But my brother what’s wrong with you?” asked Mpo my friend. ”People like you are the people we need for today’s session, please be kind enough to join us at the park at 2 pm because what you just said shows that we as lesbians are failing to reach our goal in educating and equipping the community with knowledge and so we will face this kind of behavior every day.” 

I was amazed at how calmly and respectfully he addressed the guy who had just insulted us in front of a ton of people. Slowly I turned around, my pretty smile worn on my beautiful face, and I asked, “Will you join us Bhuti?” He just looked at us with eyes of disbelief and then walked away.

For this excellent behavior I really have to say that a huge catalyst was the Gender Action Learning (GAL) process. Sitting with people and sharing ideas at the action learning process on how to deal with issues that came up: “You cannot end violence or abuse with violence or abuse.” 

So we did what we came to do at the mall and we headed for the park where we found a group of people already there. The atmosphere was very chilled and welcoming. People had gathered in a circle on their camping chairs, some on the grass, some even standing. 

We had invited people from the community—mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters and every community member. The expressions on their faces said a lot, but most importantly the day we had all been waiting for had come. Friendly faces relaxed us a bit and we used the facilitating skills we had learned in the GAL workshops. 

We were ready to stand in front of a crowd with different opinions, views and beliefs. We were ready to start the work in breaking cultural and societal norms. We were ready to accept positive and negative criticism, but through our learning with GAL, we knew we were equipped. In our hearts we knew we had to listen and keep the crowd engaged. 

After the greetings we asked: “Which problems are our communities faced with? Unemployment, teenage pregnancy, crime?” The community members expressed everything but left out hate crimes, gender-based violence (GBV), HIV and stereotypical behavior. It could be that they did not pay attention or that they did not know. The truth of the matter is we also did not pay much attention to GBV and HIV, yet we knew that women were being abused. 

What surprised us most was when a pretty, bubbly, tall and slender black girl stood up and said “as much as abuse is there in heterosexual relationships, it exists in homosexual relationships too. You find a girl beating up another girl she is in a relationship with because she is butch and claims to be the husband of the femme. (A butch is a masculine dressing lesbian and a femme is a feminine dressing lesbian).This is not only in relationships. Even in society or in the workplace there is abuse. Abuse is not only beating up someone but also denying to do what they desire because you feel it is against your culture or religion. That is also a violation of your rights.” Silence and shame was written on almost everyone’s face. But also written was discovery. 

Many issues were tackled—from HIV and xenophobia to GBV and for us facilitators, it was easy to give answers to everyone. They also shared bits and pieces of knowledge with us and we learned from each other as well. 

We realised that we were growing and becoming more polished through the GAL because really a lot has changed since the process begun. Everyone is now eager and more determined even though we don’t have a structure and a leader, we still keep on. 

We are stronger than before. The GAL process taught us that even without a leader, through determination, ambition and hard work, a lot can be done. Having been through the process, we were equipped with information. We have learned how to trust ourselves and we have learned a different and inclusive style of facilitation where everyone can be a teacher and everyone can learn. We learned a kind of facilitation that breaks the wall between audience and facilitator. This kind of facilitation says “we are all teachers as well as learners in this place”. 

Through the GAL, we could look at problems not at eye level only. We learned to remove the lens and we were guided to look deeply into matters such as societal norms as things people believe in. People believe that this is how it has always been, and in so doing people forget that we are groomed like this. The Gender Action Learning process created spaces where we could voice our views and opinions. We could tackle issues without being judged. 

During the dialogues we tried to get to know the norms community members hold on to. This was important to understand in order to deal with issues like gender-based violence, homophobia and xenophobia, HIV and more. The knowledge and guidance we received helped us with these discussions. 

A lot has changed since the process began or rather since we became a part of it. The people who attend the study circles and especially the coordinators have changed their approach to addressing cadres and community people. There is more energy and clarity. Now we can hear and see passion and dedication when they talk. People have more drive and their spirit has changed. 

I recall an incident in the study circle where we were discussing dialogues and for the first time, people were complaining about the reading material. One of our coordinators, Sweeto, suggested that people read at home but bring their information and have an open discussion in the groups. This resulted in people being more active in the study circles. 

After all is said and done, after the marches, the study circles and dialogues, we hope that the acceptance, equality and respect we long for will eventually come. One day, someday, the hard work will pay off and people will see with the same eyes. The struggle shall continue. 

Ayanda Masina is a participant in the Gender Action Learning process that we faciliated in South Africa in 2012-13. At the end of the year, we had a short writing workshop with some of the participants. This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the stories that emerged. 


By Gender at Work Media / August 18, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

Last year, we began a Gender Action Learning (GAL) process in Mozambique with 34 people from CARE. The process started in October 2013 and it will run until October 2015. It is being facilitated by our Associate Solange Rocha and Sylvie Desautels. This blog post talks about the process and here is a glimpse into it. The montage has been put together by Solange.    


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