Woman here, woman there

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Two women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola describe women’s rights and realities in their home country compared with their experiences in South Africa. 

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More and more women are migrating. Research shows that the number of women migrating to South Africa has quadrupled since 1990. From available statistics, we can deduce that there are roughly 1.7 million women who have migrated to South Africa. Women who migrate are faced with added barriers to documentation and services – and are more likely to face challenges finding work. These issues are recognized by the international community and have resulted in various efforts to address this – such as the Sustainable Development Goals working towards gender equality and the ending of all forms of discrimination against women and girls.  

Several international legal frameworks exist specifically to protect and uplift women in the African context. For example, in 2003, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in AfricaStates undertook to ‘combat all forms of discrimination against women through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures’, as well as providing educational measures, laws and action to end such discrimination. 

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The Women’s Platform at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town brings together women through training and development programmes. The platform works with women who have migrated to South Africa from all corners of Africa. 

Mary (not her real name) came to South Africa when she was 11 years old. She remembers fleeing the war in Angola with her family when ‘one day, a tank rolled into our yard. The soldiers just bent the burglar bars at the window and raided our house.’  She has lived in South Africa several decades and considers herself African above all else. ‘When people ask me, I say that I am an African who just resides in South Africa,’ she explains. ‘I tell them to go back to their family tree and they will see that we are all a mix and inter-related somehow. Self-identity is defined by who you are simply as a person.’ 

Nadia (not her real name) fled the war zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought safety in South Africa. Building up a life in South Africa has been very difficult. She is undertaking courses with the Women’s Platform in a hope of finding work. 

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Mary’s mother – who has vivid memories of life in Angola – forms much of Mary’s ability to compare realities for women in South Africa and Angola.  

“My mum has a motto,” explains Mary. “She says, ‘when you are in the country where everyone is dancing on one leg, you do the same’. The rhythm of South Africa is that there are women’s rights.” Indeed, the need and ability of women to make business in South Africa is an important comparative point for Mary. “In your home country, you can relax a bit more as you have family around. Here in South Africa, you need to have a purpose as a woman; you must push and make a living. Men cannot decide where you live or what work you do.” 

Inspired by her mother’s tenacious approach to business, Mary is using her learnings and experiences at Women’s Platform to become a ‘humble leader’ and seek opportunities to empower other entrepreneurial women. 

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Nadia echoes Mary’s recognition of wider women’s rights in South Africa – but also sees that in reality, this is limited. “South Africa values and promotes women’s rights, but in reality, it is difficult as I don’t feel like a citizen.” The barriers faced as a non-citizen in South Africa make it difficult to compare access to rights back home. Within her own family life, however, the woman’s role has changed since being in South Africa. “Back home, women have no say in front of men,” she reflects. “There are even certain foods that women cannot eat, for example. Here, I have freedom of speech. It is totally different in Congo DRC. When you want to raise your voice as a woman in Congo DRC, they will give you names.” 

However, there are many similar struggles faced by women in both places that Nadia has lived. Violence against women in DRC and South Africa, although different in its nature and context, is a threat and danger that has followed Nadia during her migration.  

Nadia is keen to see women speak out about gender-based violence. She notices that even the Congolese community in South Africa speak privately about the violence they face but are scared to speak publicly. “My biggest message to tell women across Africa is not to fear. We need to come together and stand up to these fears that we have as women.”