Anyone can be a leader, whether they hold the title of a leader in an organisation or not. But what does it mean to be a feminist leader? This is a question that we at Rape Crisis have been thinking deeply about from the time the organisation was founded in 1976. We have not always made this thinking clear or visible to others, but a recent grant from the African Women’s Development Fund has allowed us to explore the topic more and to be more open about exploring the question of power in our organisation.
We all know that women’s rights are under threat in South Africa because of violence, poverty and inequality. This affects us in our homes and in our communities, but most of all in our work because we work for an organisation that:
- Offers services to rape survivors
- Educates communities about the harmful norms and stereotypes that promote violence against women
- Advocates for change that will improve the criminal justice system for rape survivors.
Because we do this work we know that, well beyond the scope of our own endeavours, South Africa needs leadership that encourages individual women to work at understanding and shifting the oppressive power dynamics that keep harmful and oppressive systems in place. By oppressive we mean harsh, authoritarian treatment of others by powerful people, making sure that less powerful people are kept down. These dynamics appear in ourselves, in the people around us and in society.
Oppressive power dynamics are the things that make us feel that because we are women we are less than men, and that we deserve less than men when it comes to pay, holding positions of power, sharing our opinions and making decisions. As a result we accept poor wages, do not apply for powerful positions, remain silent when others give their opinions and hesitate to make certain decisions.
We need to shift these thoughts, feelings and ideas about ourselves because they are not true. Women deserve to be paid well, to be leaders, to voice our opinions and to make decisions.
It is harmful for us to believe that this is not so because it makes us believe that women are submissive and subservient to the needs of men. The harm that comes from this, is men’s ongoing violence against women, the fact that we are not kept safe from this, that we are often blamed for this and that our recourse to justice is filled with so many obstacles that in the end not enough rapists are punished.
That is why it is important that we not only work to bring about this shift within ourselves but also to lead in a way that brings about a change in larger and larger numbers of women so that they feel empowered to bring about change at every level of the systems that influence the way we live our ordinary everyday lives.