The state of gender inequality in the workplace

Nelly Nyagah

The state of gender inequality in the workplace

Women's Month 2020 - a conversation with Nina Benjamin

Why are gender-based violence issues a burgeoning field for the LRS Gender Programme?

Over the years the LRS Gender Programme has covered a range of issues. In a workplace context, the focus has been on collective bargaining issues and trying to get a more gendered look at how those issues emerge. But, an interesting thing happened. A lot of our work started being around Gender-Based Violence (GBV). When we brought together our target groups, including young women, migrant workers and LGBT people into spaces to talk about workplace issues, we found the discourse became their experiences about violence, issues of dignity and being undermined.

The levels of discrimination and control in society are increasing, and all working people are affected. But women experience it in a very gendered way.

It seems the kind of onslaught on women’s bodies and workplace challenges such as restructuring and retrenchments get experienced as violence on women especially. Take the healthcare and teaching sectors. It’s evident that the levels of violence are increasing in these sectors. Healthcare and teaching are often seen as ‘female sectors’ where people do reproductive work. Outsourced female workers and women in value chains don’t fare any better. Their working conditions are worsening globally.

Various studies point to the high levels of gender-based violence, for example, in the retail sector in India where garment workers spoke up about experiencing gender-based violence and harassment at work. The ILO is taking the issue seriously and working towards a GBV resolution. These developments show the changes that are happening are creating more violent conditions. And a lot of that violence is gendered. Thus, our Gender Programme began to feel like a gender-based violence programme, as opposed to looking at gender issues much more broadly. The shift happened because of what the conditions are telling us now.
The problems we have in South Africa connect with the #TotalShutDown campaign, which connects with what’s happening internationally, in the #MeToo movement and the GBV convention on the ILO’s radar. So, the work we are doing is very relevant to the time now.

How can Labour Support Organisations dealing with GBV issues increase their impact?   

There’s a lot of aspects to gender-based violence work, from dealing with the violation of rights to providing counselling. We can’t just turn away people with problems and claim we’re focused on rights-based work. And it wouldn’t make sense to take on work we aren’t qualified to do. We’d need to know where to direct survivors who approach us and be in contact with the people acting as support. To achieve more impact, we need to build a collective of different players working on GBV issues. That’s our plan now – to actively court more relevant partners and form a collective of support for GBV survivors at all levels. So, we’re trying to determine what we can contribute in a space where other people are offering various forms of support. At the prevention level, we continue to do social norms change work in unions, the workplace and communities. The social norms change work is long-term.

What are the funding trends for social norms change projects? 

Social norms are about an individual’s relationships with others around them. There’s mounting evidence showing that programs focused on changing social norms to achieve gender equality have grown. It’s encouraging to see some funders such as the Joint Gender Fund embracing the need for long-term and multi-stakeholder approaches to addressing complex issues. Still, many funders are at a crossroads. Their current funding model favours time-bound interventions that must prove impact in the duration of the funded project. And remember there’s a general funding crisis for NGOs and community- based organisations.
I think there’s a possibility for funding for once-off or fairly quick interventions. But, not so for ongoing social norms change work. Our LetsemaMeadowlands Clinic and school-related gender-based violence projects aim to change social norms and cultures. These aren’t once off interventions or one campaign. The people we work with in unions and communities are trying to experiment with different ways to make changes. That process of experimenting needs a lot of support and innovation. Additionally, the social norms change work that we do has a specific process of capturing and sharing lessons. It’s harder to secure funding for this kind of work because the results don’t come that quickly. And there are results in ongoing social norms change work. It’s just that we try to speak about the different kind of results – results that are more immediate, not immediate and those that might take longer. There’s a constant change happening in our work, and we track that change and communicate to potential funders. Those changes are our results in a way. That said, there are funders who’re increasingly recognising this kind of work requires partners to take their own urgency experimenting with different things because there isn’t one clear way of dealing with gender-based violence issues. We are looking for more funders and partners who share that vision.

In light of this, what’s the unique selling proposition of the LRS Gender Programme?

The fact that we work with both men and women differentiates us. Organisations that deal with gender-based violence are normally women-only organisations. There’s a lot of anger and refusing to work with men, although there are some organisations that work with men. The LRS is working in spaces where men and women are together. This is an important feature of our work. We are bringing together men and women, old people and young people, and LGBT people and migrants to find solutions to societal problems. We create one space for many stakeholders and use that as a way of modelling how to change norms. This approach has worked quite well in three of our projects where we work together with our partner, Gender at Work. In Letsema, we are supporting a community to address GBV levels in the Vaal region. In the Meadowlands Clinic Project, we’ve supported health sector unions to collaborate with different stakeholders to deal with GBV. And we’re supporting teacher unions to create safe schools. Thus, we aren’t trying to deal with gender-based violence on our own.

How are you using emergent learning techniques in the Gender Programme work?

Emergent learning is probably the most impactful approach we’ve used. We work together with our target groups to identify what we want to achieve. Instead of saying, ‘this is a problem’, we try to start the discussion with what we call a ‘forward-looking question’. For example, ‘What will it take to create something’, and not, ‘What will it mean to remove or destroy something?’ When we ask what it’ll take to create something, we release a special kind of enthusiasm in the spaces because people feel part of creating something new. It’s a very intentional thing that we do, trying to identify the passions of a target group and designing a framing question together.
Take the traditional healers’ group in the Letsema Project and the School-Related Gender-based Violence (SRGBV) Project. The traditional healers participating in Letsema say they want a different way for young men coming out of initiation. Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions in the SRGBV Project want bullying in schools to stop. We recognise that we aren’t going to solve these problems by engaging just the women because there’s no single panacea for GBV. We recognise that we aren’t going to change the conditions if we make policies only. We recognise that we can host workshops and influence policies. We recognise that there are different things we can use to achieve what we’re trying to create. The emergent learning part is assessing how it’s working, from our point of view and that of others in the project.
We create a peer learning environment in this approach. The assessment and reflection mean that it’s never a straight line because there’s always something new emerging. The process doesn’t try to impose a plan on the people we work with. We try out different things together and use and replicate what works. The process is alive, and we’re constantly looking for new opportunities. That’s similar to the nature of life. This work of trying to change gender-related norms and cultures isn’t for the timid!

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