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The Health and Well-Being of Women in Our Poorest Communities

The strain of holding the sword by the blade: The health and well-being of women in our poorest communities. A special publication for The Love Trust

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Women in Our Poorest Communities

On the 9th of August 1956, between 10,000 and 20,000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against the extension of the Pass Laws to include women

In commemoration, 9 August is celebrated as Women’s Day and the month of August was declared Women’s Month by the South African government.

But what has become of the legacy those women fought for 66 years later, especially in terms of their health and well-being? First, let’s look at the current overall current situation in South Africa.

The Lives of South African Women Today

According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) of the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2021 there are still many challenges South Africa faces if they hope to achieve gender equality by 2030

From under representation in managerial positions, large pay gaps compared to male counterparts in similar work, larger numbers of unemployed women, especially among black women, more women being discouraged from the labour market than men, greater familial responsibilities, teen pregnancies, gender-based violence to greater vulnerability to hunger.

Supporting and Empowering Women of South Africa

All these factors take a heavy toll on the physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of women – especially those in impoverished communities.

We spoke to two women affecting real change in the lives of women in these communities in their respective roles at The Love Trust: Charmaine Gola, Director of Fundraising, and Mabel Sikhakhane, Acting Principal at Nokuphila Primary School.

The roles of women

To understand the bigger impact these factors have on communities and society, we first need to get a better understanding of the various roles in their homes, communities, and society at large.

For Sikhakhane, women are the yardsticks by which their communities are measured: they hold the sword by the blade. Even when unemployed and illiterate themselves, women are the ones who ensure that their children are fed, clean, clothed, educated, and have a roof over their head and a bed to sleep in.

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In her experience, they are the ones that attend the parent meetings, join the parent workshops, respond to the teachers’ letters regarding their children’s behaviour and are supportive of their children’s education.

Women care about education, though they may be poor, they believe that education is what will remove them from their current living conditions. For Sikhakane women are their community builders and community activists. 

According to Gola, women in these communities are the agents of growth and development. They play a critical role in the achievement of social and economic changes in their homes and at times in their communities.

To put this in perspective, close to a third (30,1%) of all people who had jobs in the 2nd quarter of 2021 were employed in Elementary and Domestic work occupations (which again were predominantly held by women). 

Buying piece of mind

Now imagine that nearly half of the country’s workforce is suddenly facing unemployment because they largely accounted for the Elementary and Domestic work which came to a screeching halt during the pandemic.

This is a stark illustration of how income and access to basic necessities have a huge impact on the responsibilities that women in poorer communities take on compared to their more affluent counterparts.

Women in these communities do not have the ‘luxury’ to put themselves first, says Gola, because there are always more pressing issues.

This would mean they hardly allocate time for their mental health issues or even their physical wellbeing often times a reactive approach to their health than a proactive one because of the lack of resources, including time.

If you have to choose between taking a day off work to sit at the local clinic and not getting paid for that day, then many would choose to ignore the health issue and go to work instead.

For Sikhakhane the obvious difference is that most women in affluent communities are employed, educated and professionals in their fields.

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Their husbands are employed, are professionals, and together they are able to take care of their families: they live in proper houses (not shacks) with running water, electricity, and internet and the children go to good schools.

Even as single parents, mothers who are working professionals are able to take care of their families. As a by-product of their income, Sikhakhane also points out that women in affluent communities face fewer challenges because of the access to resources and support it affords them.

Doing More Despite Having Less

Yet, despite their hardships and the toll it has on them, Sikhakhane shared examples of great generosity shown by women in these communities.

One example she shared was of a woman who opened an informal soup kitchen and who packed lunches for the child-headed family next door.

The woman was a cleaner but because she earned more than those around her she decided to share what she had.

For Gola, this generosity and spirit of volunteering are less of a choice and more of a necessity: people grow despondent waiting for opportunities of change to come their way. They, therefore, decide instead of waiting to rather stand up and do something themselves. 

Helping Hand

To make sure the women in their communities stay strong The Love Trust understands the importance of nurturing the health and well-being of the women and mothers in their reach.

They achieve this by providing moral psychological support workshops as well as sending weekly parcels of vegetables home with the children (they have a rotating roster). They also have a list of families in need to whom they send monthly grocery packs. 

In closing, Gola had the following she wished to share with the women of South Africa: We honour you; we see you; we appreciate you!

I pay tribute to all the women of this country who have and continue to stand up against an unjust society, paving the way for the economic equality of future generations.

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