Moving past the stereotypical notion of women only being fit to serve as housewives, women of all cultures and national identities gathered at the Inter-cultural women’s month event hosted by the ACTION Support Centre, in partnership with the South African Somali Women’s Network (SASOWNET) and the Southern African Liaison Office (SALO). The event was a dynamic interaction, featuring activities ranging from speeches and group work, to a documentary film screening, cultural dances and singing, the interactive signing of a solidarity banner and henna tattoos.
At the core of the day’s activities was a renewed understanding of the role women have come to play as powerful actors in their homes, communities and nations. The event sought to provide information, create a space for discussion, and encourage cultural exchange between the women present as a means to learn from one another, and unite over the common challenges that women face regardless of their nationalities. More than 120 guests attended, including representatives from the Somali Embassy, Department of Community Safety, City of Johannesburg Migrant helpdesk, the South African Somali Women’s Network (SASOWNET), Local Peace Committees, the Somali Women’s Forum (SWF) and a youth activist group.
Women of the ACTION Support Centre and SASOWNET lead the programme, encouraging all women present to use this platform to share their opinions, ask questions, and both teach and learn from the others around them. Fazia Ali shared a brief history of SASOWNET and Zuleikha Shariff spoke about the particular challenges facing Somali women in South Africa, such as language barriers and lack of local knowledge, which limit their opportunities. She emphasized that many of the problems stunting the empowerment of Somali women can be overcome by organizing collectively, and taking steps to integrate into South African society. She urged the women to take advantage of education opportunities, and language classes that could equip them to become active agents, improving the quality of their own and others’ lives.
Notably there were also men present to support and encourage the empowerment of women. The representative from the Department of Community Safety is an example worth noting as he denounced the role of men as perpetrators of violence, in particular, areas prone to war where women are targets and used as sex objects. Similarly, Hanad Mohamed, an activist of women’s rights, referred to women as the backbone of every nation and that they would make sacrifices for the wellbeing of their families, despite being sidelined by men.
Furthermore, Sambulo Mathebula of SALO screened part of the documentary, ‘Women on the frontline’, which showcased how armed conflict has victimized women through different forms of sexual violence. This opened up a space for women present to share their own experiences and narratives.
Following this, the participants broke into groups to share their ideas and suggestions on 3 questions, about women’s role in building peaceful communities, and understandings of migration and aspirations for a united Africa. Some suggestions made were to set up women organizations that should know their rights, lobby for more support of men in such initiatives, have cultural exchange visits, breaking the silence at home and outside, form integrated meetings, create a support system for women etc. The drivers of migration were understood to be political instability, poverty, cultural and religious suppression, civil war, economic situations, physical and sexual abuse, and social unrest. Finally, visions for the future included a borderless Africa, freedom of expression, creating employment, a peaceful nation where there is no discrimination, managing our own resources, creating a platform to share and network, treat others the way you would want to be treated, uniting country leaders to form alliances, having a united government and respecting all religions and cultures.
Interspersed throughout the day were cultural performances, signing and dancing, both by a South African group of female performers, as well as the Somali women present. A solidarity banner with the words “Africa Unite for Women!” was signed and stamped by dozens of colourfully painted hands. As we rounded off the day, the banner was held up for signing by the Somali Embassy and other organisations present as a declaration of support. Finally, the Somali women offered henna hand tattoos to their counterparts of different cultures.
In closing Mr Abdi Dhuguf of the Somali Embassy urged for the protection of all human race despite being different nationalities residing in Africa. He shared his view that with peace, leadership and security encompassed in our day-to-day activities, we can strive for African unity and the common good for all.