Role of Women as Champions of the Family Needs Explicit Support

Article excerpt

In today's article in our series, NINA BENJAMIN, Labour Research Service gender co-ordinator, argues for a more creative approach to family policy by the state. She writes in her personal capacity.

There are few who would deny that the social cohesion of our society is collapsing. Rape, domestic violence, child abuse, crime and an increase in substance abuse are just some of the manifestations of a society violently turning in on itself. For most women in South Africa, daily life is filled with fear, pain, anxiety and increasing responsibilities.

As a parent, care-giver, worker and community builder, the work of most women is an unpaid or poorly paid, thankless, 24-hour job. Grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters have taken on more and more of the responsibility of providing the emotional, physical and economic resources needed for the survival of those closest to them, the family. The reality for most women was summed up in the words of one woman casual worker speaking about the pressures of daily survival: "I only know that I exist because my family needs me."

"My family" - this is a concept that for many of us implies a unit of love, care and support. The reality, though, for many people living in this country, is that the family has become a place of increasing hardship, insecurity and even violence, leading to a disintegration of family life.

It is this disintegration that the Department of Social Development claims to be attempting to address in its draft National Family Policy. In the view of the department, the disintegration of family life impacts on the well-being of family members and leads to moral decay that in turn affects the fibre of society.

The state therefore sees investing in family support and maintaining traditional family values and traditions as a preventive strategy to reduce social problems and central to building moral regeneration.

What is not considered in the report is what is meant by traditional family values? In the absence of a definition of these values, one can only assume that we are back to the traditional "functional" model of a family with a woman - the mother - carrying out all the reproductive roles while the father is decision-maker, provider and family "owner". How this matches up to the National Family Policy's commitment to an inclusive definition of the many kinds of families that exist is not clear. How a regeneration of these unexplained traditional family values will ensure that the reproductive work that women do is valued and that there is a shift in the power relations between men and women is also not explained.

A key feature of the draft family policy is self-reliance, the view that parents and care-givers need to seek ways of generating an income and caring for their families and should only turn to the state when they are unable to care for themselves.

While the family policy recognises that different family members play different roles, take on different responsibilities and have different access to resources, it does not deal directly with the unpaid and often hidden labour of the mothers. …