Mainstreaming gender in South Africa and beyond: a people-centered approach

Her Excellency the Honourable Baleka Mbete, Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, delivered a special address this week at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on gender mainstreaming in the African region and beyond.


In a presentation titled “Gender is my Agender,” jointly organized by the Embassy of South Africa, the Women Representatives’ Gender Network, the World Food Programme, the International Fund for Agriculture and FAO, the former Deputy President of South Africa shared experiences and insights on the changing role of women in private, public and political contexts, and the relevance of gender mainstreaming to food security, nutrition, social and economic development, government and policy.

Speaker Mbete was introduced by Jomo K. Sundaram, Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at FAO, who highlighted her role not only as Speaker of Parliament but also as Chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC), as well as her longtime involvement in issues of gender, in particular with the ANC Women’s League, where she served as Secretary-General from 1991 to 1993.

The panel also included Her Excellency Nomatemba Tambo, Ambassador of South Africa to FAO; Anna Lartey, Director of FAO’s Nutrition Division; Brave Ndisale, Deputy Director of FAO’s Social Protection Division; and Juan Carlos García y Cebolla, FAO Right to Food Team Leader.

The center of family and community

Speaking extemporaneously, Speaker Mbete began by stressing the importance of a people-centered approach, noting the value of gender mainstreaming in this context: “What we have learned over the ages is that women tend to be more involved with the everyday lives of people,” she said. “I think therefore our understanding of mainstreaming comes precisely from this reality of what women are focused on, what women are interested in, what women are committed to.”

She discussed an example from the early days of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa: “You know, the ANC is 103 years old. And although women were not always full members of the ANC (they were called auxiliary members), they were always involved in the struggle. It was not about them being in positions of leadership. They simply did the things that they saw [as needed] on the ground, in people’s lives — the things that were of concern to their communities.”

Foremost among these concerns were, of course, those of agriculture and food security. In South Africa, as in the rest of the continent, she noted that the woman has always been “the center of the sustenance of the family and therefore of the community.”

“The majority of people involved in agriculture—which is about the sustenance of people—are women. It’s the women who are there with the hoes, struggling [...] so that they can feed their families.”

In another anecdote, Speaker Mbete discussed the 1955 adoption of South Africa’s Freedom Charter, noting that “a year before, the women had already come together and adopted a Women’s Charter,” which became “their submission when the Freedom Charter was finalized and adopted.”

“That document is at the base of what today is regarded as one of the best constitutions in the world,” she continued, citing it as an example of “how women, their perspectives, their unique insights and their own reality in life informs their input into what in fact becomes a critical framework for the whole society. For me, mainstreaming gender starts there.”


Following Speaker Mbete’s remarks, each of the other panelists responded briefly to various aspects of her presentation, underscoring and reaffirming key points in the context of FAO’s work: Ms Lartey on maternal and early childhood nutrition and its long-term consequences; Ms Ndisale on women’s empowerment and equal access to land and other productive resources; and Mr García y Cebolla on the value of care as a critical human activity.

Mr Sundaram noted the timeliness of the day’s discussion, both in the context of FAO’s work with the African Union (AU), which declared 2015 the Year of Women's Empowerment and Development towards Africa's Agenda 2063, and in the context of the Post-2015 Development Agenda: “This week work has begun on approving the Sustainable Development Goals, where gender features very strongly, much more so than in the past,” he said.

Concluding remarks were provided by Ambassador Tambo, who stressed the importance of creating expectations and opportunities. “When you provide women with financial resources and transport so that they can get their product to market,” she said, “you see how they start to see themselves differently.”

“You see that they start to understand and believe in their own power, and what that translates into, is that they then develop expectations of their family members, particularly of their children. Because they no longer have a victim mentality, they have the mentality of winners.”



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