Set the agenda on 7 May

By Tessa Dooms (@tessie18)

Gender activists have succeeded in forcing the hand of political and economic systems to ensure that women are not forgotten when critical decisions are made, the next step is for women to be the ones who set the agendas, not because we are women, but because we are equals, able to make contributions to issues broader than those that only concern women. 

Young women may have the deciding vote in the 2014 elections. We have the power to set the agenda and cast a vision for the future of South Africa.

I have always believed that women’s rights and gender issues are important in society if we are to achieve greatness. Not because I believe that women have any special inherent powers or instincts, but because I believe that systemic oppression, of the magnitude that has been experienced by women all over the globe across time and space, potentially produces moments when the powerless find expression for their voice and do something incredible. According to the IEC, young women aged 20-39 will make up the single largest voting block by gender and age in the 2014 May 7 election.

As a woman in that category this realisation was exciting and empowering. I had an immediate sense that my vote was part of something greater than myself. Women who occupy the same South African world at the same time facing similar challenges would, like me, be making their voices heard. My sense of power was however tempered when it occurred to me that having a greater sense of power means having a greater responsibility. To use a cliché from Spider-Man “with great power comes great responsibility”. Which begs the question: in this election what is the responsibility of young women? What will we use the power of our vote for?

Having attended various election debates in the run-up to these elections, I have paid particular attention to when women have spoken either as representatives of political parties, but more especially as citizens and voters. The most important observation I have made is that way too few women have been active participants in these discussions. We are in the room, but not leading the discussion. The joy of freedom is that it allows people access into the corridors of power they could not even imagine when oppressed. However, access is not a victory, it is what we do with that access to powerful game-changing spaces that matters most. As women we cannot be content that we are present. Whether in the boardroom, the election debate or the voting booth, that we show up is only the first step in empowerment, we also need to make sure that our contributions are heard and valued.

Reading various manifestos I soon realised that issues specific to women are dealt with in a cursory and mechanical way. Promises of numerical equality in the economy, a commitment to provide sanitary towels to young girls and a broad commitment to the upliftment of women, mean that women are on the political agenda, but is being an item on the agenda enough? Political scientist, Steven Lukes, suggests that a greater power to have in society is not the power to get someone to do what you want them to do through force, but the power to set the agenda. Gender activists have succeeded in forcing the hand of political and economic systems to ensure that women are not forgotten when critical decisions are made, the next step is for women to be the ones who set the agendas, not because we are women, but because we are equals, able to make contributions to issues broader than those that only concern women. We are able to cast vision for the country and be instrumental in taking it to its destination.

When I walk into that voting station on the 7th May, I will take great comfort in knowing that, along with many other young women, not only am I using my voice to decide on a leadership, but I am embarking on a five year journey of giving a mandate to my government about what the agenda is of the South Africa I wish to live in and will ultimately contribute to building. As a South African, I will be thinking of our collective power in that moment and looking forward to see what our combined efforts will produce.

Tessa is a director at Youth Lab, a sociologist and an active citizen, passionate about empowering young South Africans.

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