Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / October 13, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Kaitlyn Posselwhite

As a part of my undergraduate degree in International Development and Globalization, gender studies has played an important role in terms of contributing to the programs’ foundation. The various courses offered, both required and optional, explored the intersectional nature of gender and how it affects every aspect of women, men, and transgendered people’s daily lives. While women’s roles specifically and their representations has changed over time, the systemic nature of gender inequality and discrimination (of LGTBI groups as well) continues to be reproduced throughout the world’s societies. After pursuing some work in Canada on gender activism, I sought to deepen my understanding of gender dynamics and how they might exist in different contexts. Through the University of Ottawa I came across an opportunity for a three month internship with Gender at Work in South Africa and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only deepen my understanding of gender and gender equality programs but to practically complement my overall field of study. 

Reflecting on my internship

It has been just over two and half months since I arrived in South Africa and the work I have been doing with my host organization- Gender at Work- has been a rollercoaster. The first two weeks of the internship proved to be laid back where my days consisted of reading previous G@W documents, important feminist writings, and making links as well as drawing conclusions - very similar to school. I’ve also been doing typical intern tasks such as filling out funding applications (actually quite useful), cutting and gluing posters to prep for meetings, and taking detailed meeting minutes and documentation. However, the pace picked up quite a bit when the organization flew the other intern and myself to Johannesburg where G@W was facilitating one of their programs called Letsema. The organization had us stay in the Vaal – which is an area about an hour outside of Joburg that provided a more realistic perspective of what life is like for many in South Africa. We stayed with a beautiful family who were warm and hospitable towards us, treating us as one of their own. Workdays were very long, with 4 am wake-ups, and return home at about 4:30-5 pm. Despite the long hours, the work has been phenomenal. 

Letsema, which is a Sotto word for women and men coming together to work the soil, is a fairly new program but they have done a tremendous amount of work since their debut, just over 2 years ago. The program is composed of different sub groups such as drug and alcohol abuse, vegetable garden, dialogue group, core group, sports, and men’s calabash. Every group does different work but they all share the overall goal of achieving 0% gender based violence in the Vaal. 

Every morning the session began with tai chi followed by an introductory check-in where people would express where they were at, how they were feeling, what they have learned, and potential questions or concerns they have. The rest of the day consisted of different activities that allowed each group to reflect on what they had been doing in their communities over the past few months as a part of Letsema, and what had been working, not working etc. For example, one of the activities required each group - represented by different coloured stickers, - to place their stickers on different categories. There were five categories, each representing the individual, family, neighbourhood, community and the broader social context. They were asked to relate their program and personal experiences to these different categories; and how they exercised influence over them; and how these categories/actors influence Letsema groups. The activity generated a deep reflective discussion that really impressed me. The participants were able to make connections with themselves and the different stakeholders around them, understanding and explaining their roles as individuals and as members of Letsema, while being mindful of the future steps they needed to take to address GBV in the Vaal. What also impressed me was the level of comfort people felt in discussing their issues about being victims of domestic violence, rape, discrimination, etc. 

I think a reason for this level of comfort is a result of the “Open Space” that Letsema has provided for these people. Just like the name “Open Space” suggests, it is an open space in both physical and conversational terms. It is a process that requires participants to make sure they raise topics they feel passionate about and participants are also required to take responsibility for their own participation. The whole process is centred on conversation, engagement, diversity and reflection. The open space allows for anything and everything to be spoken about. It was so interesting to see how a big empty room with some chairs, pens and cardboard could generate such deep conversations and powerful questions. Every single participant that I interviewed during my time there mentioned and emphasized the power of the open space and how it allowed them to feel empowered in sharing their stories with others. In other words, this safe, judgment-free environment allows participants who often feel they have no voice, to build confidence and encourages them to learn from one another.

This program allows its participants to take ownership over their advocacy and work in the communities and I think that’s why it’s been so successful and will be sustainable in the long run. These people are so passionate and truly committed to their cause of achieving 0% GBV that they embody this cause in their every action. They own this cause and are role models in their community. Their energy is extremely addictive and is reflected through the constant influx of new members. People are beginning to understand how to challenge traditional gender norms that often lead to GBV and how to facilitate change in their communities for the future.

Letsema: Breaking the silence on Gender-based violence
(Image courtesy: Oxfam International, cc licence) 

In the end, all this seemed quite ironic because if something so simple like an open space can generate such growth in individuals, why is it not more widely used in other gender related development work? Furthermore, this program is not resource rich by any means but the simple opportunity to speak and share with members of ones community has proven to be a powerful tool. Much of my work since Johannesburg has reflected drawn from my experiences at this workshop where I have provided documentation and recordings of the event for external evaluators. This documentation is very important because it serves, as evidence to funders that what Gender at Work is doing in South Africa is useful. 

The Gender at Work unit in South Africa works in tandem with the Labour Research Services (LRS), a non-profit labour service organisation. The LRS specialises in research, dialogue-building, and developmental projects with the broad aim of strengthening civil society and a particular focus on the world of the work. Their aim is to work towards an egalitarian society, which treats all people with dignity and respect. All shall have equal access to the political, legislative and economic resources and activities of society. Basically LRS and Gender at Work came together when the LRS adopted a gender mainstreaming approach several years back and have continued working together since. As a part of the internship, I have been working on a case study to analyze how the LRS has changed as an organization, since the merger, in terms of the work they do and their organizational relationships. 

Overall, I would say the most valuable lesson I will be taking home from this internship is what I have learned about Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and their general function as an organism. As an international development student, we constantly talk about NGOs and their role on the international field in terms of practical work in all dimensions of development. I have found it extremely interesting to see how an organization functions without a hierarchal structure. Everyone is a leader and power relations within the work place are understood in terms of power-to or power with instead of power-over. This approach ensures that everyone has a sense of ownership over their work because they are just as accountable as their neighbour for the work that they do. This transcends into the actual programs they create and facilitate, where a collective approach has proven successful. This approach in turn creates more sustainable work and approaches towards their cause as an organization. 

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 / December 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

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

Home-based care workers have been working voluntarily for up to 10 years to bring those who are ill back to full health. They have walked through the windy summer sand storms of the Kgalagadi to reach their patients. They bring first and foremost themselves as women, tenderly caring and bathing the ill woman, making her as comfortable as possible in her small house. Home-based care workers provided their services voluntarily. They provided transport for the patient to go to the clinic; they shared their food with children; they fetched medication from the clinic. They also became aware of the different kinds of abuse they or community members were experiencing. DOCKDA facilitated workshops with women from Home Based Care organizations to address issues of inequality (in remuneration because they were women); abuse and harassment on women and girl children by men; the context of sexuality and gender; and the influence sexuality has in human relationships. When these organizations wanted to share their knowledge with the community, they organized and facilitated workshops. At the end of the year, after four mentoring and monitoring field trips by DOCKDA staff, DOCKDA would hold a Lekgotla to bring women and men together to share opinions on power relationships. This deepened their understanding of power relationships and they were inspired to support each other.  

Growing awareness brought more questioning. Through the Gender at Work peer learning process, I became clearer about the links between HIV and gender-based violence. We were successful in accessing stipends for 95 home-based care workers from the Independent Development Trust. The stipends would provide an income to reduce women’s debt and over time enable them to start saving.  A focal point for our grant-making was to shift from solely supporting GBV awareness workshops to supporting women to become financially literate and have more choices.

If women workers are unable to make decisions on household budgets because they do not receive a stipend, they are again in subservient roles. If they have access to a stipend at the very least, they can make decisions on their own or jointly with their husband/ partner. The change project is bringing new life into our organization. Women are receiving stipends and are contributing to their families’ budgets.

Tish Haynes is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.

By Gender at Work Media / December 19, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

What is the value placed on the work of caring for children, the ill and the elderly in our communities? As people we know that our children are a source of joy, that we should care for the ill, and we want to show our gratitude to the elderly for their devotion and care in the past.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is an NGO established in 1994 to take resources to rural community initiatives. Over time, not only funds but organizational development and management skills training workshops were facilitated with emerging projects and community organizations in Eastern, Western and Northern Cape. DOCKDA highlighted HIV as a sector for special focus by the year 2000. Our current leadership program works with rural women who are already organizing in their communities.

Since 2003, we have been working in the John Taolo Gaeteswe (JTG) municipal district, one of the 13 poverty nodal districts in South Africa, with women and particularly with Home-Based Care Workers. This has surfaced long-held experiences of gender-based violence and abuse within households. We hold lekgotlas for people to dialogue on beliefs, perceptions of power relationships, and practices that promote harmony.

In 2012, we joined an 18-month Gender Action Learning Process with Gender at Work. Our board and staff were curious and eager and during the first session, we were asked what gender discrimination we had experienced. When I qualified as a teacher in the late 1960s, I worked in schools in the east end of London. Returning to South Africa, I married and sought a teaching position in a government school. As a white, married woman teacher, I was employed only in a temporary position, and I was not offered legally-due benefits like a housing subsidy. That discrimination awakened my personal understanding of the many injustices on the majority of people/ citizens in South Africa. I joined the Black Sash, a women’s rights organization that promoted universal franchise and gave practical assistance on forced removals, arrests and court appearances.  I became acutely aware of the hardships and violence the apartheid state committed towards the citizenry.

Rural women who had shown so much resilience surviving apartheid, had to face the scourge of HIV within their communities from the late 1990s. Often, it was working children who returned to their villages to be cared for by their elderly parents as they deteriorated further. The women took the initiative and banded together to help each other in this new and overwhelming task. The women gained experience in the villages. They grappled with extending their meager grant to cover the needs of their newly orphaned grandchildren. The government was slow in setting up training in Home-Based Care and in giving access to anti-retro viral treatment. The women were becoming the eyes and ears of the community as they went into the homes of the ill and dying. Their growing awareness became clearer to me in the Gender Action Learning Process.

We want to strengthen women’s leadership and affirm their position in their communities as valuable workers, citizens and leaders. But habitual ways of thinking and expression are hard to break through to enable fresh words to flower. We have come through feelings of exasperation and frustration. We sometimes wondered if we would be able to find a safe landing for our change project.

This is the first of a two-part blog post.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is a non-profit organization working in partnership with home based care organizations in the deep rural areas of South Africa’s remote Northern Cape province. 

Tish Haynes 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 / 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 Tanya Beer

This is part 2 of a blog about an experiment with strategic learning by a Gender at Work team of facilitators working on gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa. To see part 1, click here.

The team’s long-term strategic learning approach focuses on observing and collecting data that signals whether these propositions are, in fact, holding true. Are they seeing signals that stakeholders feel an increased level of ownership and inspiration due to the participatory nature of the collaborative design? Does the presence of a broader and more diverse group of participants seem to create a context where people see beneath program-level treatment of GBV to the underlying cultural norms that drive it? Do the breadth and size of the convening seem to be generating momentum for a different way of working together across silos in the Vaal? And for all of these questions–what seems to be driving the results that we see, positive or negative? 

The team used the emergent learning (EL) process immediately after their first large group convening to examine what happened and generate fresh insights about what drives results. Then they refined their hypotheses about what success requires and identified concrete, upcoming opportunities to test the new hypotheses.

I’d like to give you an insight into the way it works. Very briefly, the contents of the team’s first EL table included: 

Ground truths: Data, observations and stories from the past from which we can learn 

  • Participants reported a high level of trust and a sense of safety because of the physical decor of the room, the open design of the process, a focus on individual experience, pre-existing trusting relationships among a core group of participants and the facilitators, and a lack of formality that helped break down traditional hierarchies.
  • Despite extensive formal invitations, we didn’t get the kind of diversity in participants that we wanted. We particularly lacked people occupying formal positions of authority in government agencies. 
  • Participants observed that they believed their work was addressing norms. After using the G@W framework to examine change, they realized this was not so. A non-judgmental conversation helped people think about how they might deepen their work to address norms. 
  • Some new ideas for addressing norms emerged spontaneously, but beyond a creative radio program aimed at discussing gender-based violence (GBV) with men, we have limited evidence of continued action. 
  • Some participants are now linking their GBV work to one another, but many who attended do not have the decision-making authority to redesign programs or to make decisions about new partnerships. 
Insights: What we’ve learned from what has already happened                                                     
  • Having a core group who had worked with us before and already trusted our methodology was crucial to creating an atmosphere that brought the others on board and created a non-competitive environment and agenda. 
  • The feel of the space was an important driver of our initial positive results—the welcoming and homey environment invited individual sharing and candor which is rare in work-related meetings in South Africa. 
  • A sense of co-ownership was driven by the co-creation of the approach by the group. It remains unclear whether this early feeling will translate into ongoing action and what kind of support would help people carry it forward. 
  • Formal invitations—even when issued to invitees by people they already know—were insufficient motivation for busy people in positions of power to participate in full-day, multi-stakeholder meetings on GBV, particularly if it’s not a priority issue for their professional work. 
  • Expectations about what types of new or different strategies, connections, or actions to address GBV will be catalyzed by multi-stakeholder GAL processes are limited in part by who attends the meetings, what kind of institutional resources they can bring to bear, and what authority they have to make decisions on behalf of their organizations.

Hypotheses: Given what we’ve learned, what we think will make us successful next time

  • If we can get people reflecting together on what each of us individually can do every single day, then we begin to tap into what’s normative in society, and participants will begin to have a sense that they can change it. 
  • If we ask participants to reflect on the practice of open-space meeting design and Gender Action Learning, explicitly identify what has been different about this way of interacting, and identify where they could apply it in their own work, then they will be more likely to carry it forward and spread the approach. 
  • If participants from the core group bring additional people from their own organizations to participate in the next collaborative, then they won’t feel like lone rangers within their own organization and it will be easier for them to keep it alive if they don’t have to do it alone. 
  • If we approach “official” participants (e.g., government officials, leaders of influential organizations) by asking one or two people to talk to them, listen hard to what would make participation valuable for them, and make sure we can pitch it as a win-win, then we can get more officials to attend. 
  • If after the next world cafe we can conduct an emergent learning table on the whole process with the core planning group, then we can learn more about what’s driving this increased sense of ownership and energy and apply it going forward. 
Opportunities: Upcoming opportunities to test our thinking in action  

  • We will test our hypotheses about how to attract more diverse attendees, including government officials, to the next world café session by redesigning our outreach strategy. 
  • The next world café will be designed to re-create the conditions of safety and trust that seemed to crucial to the first session, and will include reflection on the explicit ways the process is different from “business as usual” to test whether this helps participants apply the approach in their own settings. 
  • The debrief after the next world cafe will focus on exploring lessons that need to be carried forward, understanding what really caused the increased sense of ownership and energy, and exploring what it will take to support participants to continue action going forward. 

After the team had the opportunity to test the hypotheses above, they engaged in a second EL table, with observations and data about what happened serving as the “ground truths” for another round of insights and refinements to strategy. As the initiative progresses, the team will also collect data and insights on the bigger outcomes embedded in its theory to feed into an on-going EL process to generate hypotheses that Gender at Work and other participants can apply to multi-stakeholder Gender Action Learning processes in other settings.                                                     

By applying this cycle in different settings and for different efforts, we’re hoping to sharpen our ability to pose the right strategic questions, train our evaluative lens on the most actionable data, generate meaningful insights and create and test new hypotheses about how to accelerate change. We’d love the opportunity to test this approach out with our partners and friends who are learning from their work as well. 

Tanya Beer is an Associate with Gender at Work. This post was previously published in Fem2pt0.


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