Foregrounding women is an economic imperative

In this week’s New Frame, New Economy forum on women in the economy, we face up to the urgent task of what it will take to rebuild an economy that works for women.

There is the economy we can see. And it is broken. Then there is the economy we can’t see. And it is even more deeply broken.

The economy we can see is shown to us, nearly every day, in flagging figures and statistics. It is measured in growth and in jobs. And in this economy, which is characterised by joblessness across the board, women remain more likely to be out of work than men.

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A year of pandemic has only deepened this hard fact of South African life. Of the women who had work before the coronavirus took hold, only 47% stayed employed until at least January this year. For men, the corresponding figure is 61%. And of the women out of work before the pandemic, 70% remained jobless. For men in the same position it was 56%. Where jobs were lost, women were sure to lose them; where jobs were gained, men were sure to get them.

And where women do have jobs, it is more often than not in sectors of the economy that are low-paying and dangerous. They pick the fruit. They travel across cities to keep the houses. They teach the children and care for the ill. These jobs have few protections.

Unseen and unsung

A new economy that has dignity at its heart will depend on upending the orthodoxy that measures women by their jobs alone.

For generations now, women have done the unseen work that has produced the workforce on whose back South Africa’s elaborate wealth has been built. Beyond the purview of surveys or labour inspectors, beyond the protection of unions and comrades, they have kept the homes and looked after the families of mineworkers and madams alike, and they have fed the children of the factory workers and factory owners on the same day.

Something’s got to give – and ordinary people have known it now for too long. They have known it at home. They have known it travelling on taxis in the early morning and again late into the night. And, kept silent for long enough, they have known it when they have stamped their feet on the streets and put their hands in the air. Eventually, it has made its way into the mouths of the forgotten and excluded of this country when they sing, “My mother was a kitchen girl, and that’s why I’m a socialist.”

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Theirs is a common sense that we take up in our third New Frame, New Economy forum, wherein our authors discuss what it will take to remake our economy so it works for our country’s women.

In a lead article that foregrounds the country’s dire macroeconomic position, Nthabiseng Moleko outlines the gendered inequalities in South Africa’s labour market. Daniela Casale focuses our attention on unpaid care work, which women mostly do. Busi Sibeko makes a call for feminist economics in South Africa, while Baba-Tamana Gqubule and Nokwanda Maseko consider what the state might do to make such an economics a reality. Finally, Kgomotso Makhupola, speaking from the heart of South Africa’s labour movement, says that in our efforts to create more emancipatory economic futures for women, we must not lose sight of the struggles they face in the here and now.

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