|2012 05 31 The feminine face of poverty|
In a KwaZulu-Natal district that cannot be named for fear of reprisal, the traditional leader unilaterally controls community resources and access to land.
In most instances, where there are projects that rural women have initiated without him – a sewing machines project, for instance – he tries to undermine the projects and threatens to remove the resources, claiming he must have control over the project and the money involved.
This is a typical illustration of the harsh reality of rural lives under the unaccountable authority of traditional leaders and their institutions of power which our organisation, the Rural Women's Movement (RWM), has extensively documented in work with more than 50 000 rural women.
At amaHlubi, RWM is working with an elderly gogo who is a widow living alone. Her only income is the state social grant.
She supplements the grant by growing food in her garden. Cattle from neighbouring eMangweni kept destroying her food garden. In trying to support her, we encouraged her to report the matter to the eMangweni traditional court.
She approached the eMangweni traditional court, which is about 10km from her home, but was sent away because the court "does not speak to a woman". The court demanded that she be represented by a man. As she does not have a man in her home, she can't return to the court and has stopped growing food in her garden. RWM regards this as an example of the feminisation of poverty.
In Zululand, RWM is working with a young woman whose father's body could not be buried for three months because the senior traditional leader deprived her and her family of the "right" of burial.
The chief claimed he had never paid his khandampondwe (male tax). In this community, men are subjected to paying R20 a year for khandampondwe. The family was able to bury their father only after borrowing money from a neighbour.
Residing in the rural areas is becoming more expensive, compared to urban areas where people are assured of taxation being limited to, most commonly, VAT, income tax and property rates. Traditional leaders arbitrarily impose heavy levies on community households.
The levies in KwaDlamini-uKhahlamba municipality are: land allocation costs R500, plus a bottle of liquor, cold drinks and beers; a pregnant woman's parents have to pay R80 to the traditional leader; ihashi lenkosi (the chief's vehicle) costs R100 a household.
In Loskop-Mbabazane muni-cipality residents are forced to pay R25 for the education of the traditional leader's son, and it has just been announced that they are expected to pay R200 to access the government's lowcost housing.
At eMakhuzeni in Sisonke-Ingwe, land allocation costs R150, cases of beers, cold drinks and meals; single parents who have children must pay R200 to R250 a child, which has recently been raised to R1 000. There are reports that traditional leaders "raid" households to check if couples living together are married. If they are not married, they have to pay R200.
While conducting a workshop in Ilembe on the Traditional Courts Bill, we tried to ascertain how much money the traditional leader is getting for imposing levies for his isibaya (cattle kraal) to be repaired each year.
We learned that each household pays R10 in a community numbering about 60 000 households. However, women of the community reported that they and their families collect the poles and fix the chief's isibaya. So where does this estimated R600 000 go?
A family that does not pay their levies or penalties gets sidelined: they cannot, for example, have a wedding or a party in their own homes, or a letter to confirm their residence in case they want to open a bank account.
RWM is deeply concerned about this imposition of levies, an abuse of power which the bill will not end.
Many women in the rural areas rely on customary dispute resolution processes and institutions as their primary means of accessing justice – both because they value these systems and also because in many instances other courts are inaccessible to them.
However, the bill does not guarantee women's effective participation in traditional courts – neither as members of those who make decisions in the courts, nor as litigants.
The bill does not require that this customary law practice change.
The institutional arrangements contemplated in the bill have been shaped largely by a desire to protect the interests of traditional leaders – the only group we know which has been consulted by the government in the drafting process.
Women, rural women in particular, were not consulted at all, even though they make up the highest proportion of people living in rural areas and are the ones who will be most affected by the bill.
The real impact of the bill will be to perpetuate existing discriminatory patriarchal power relations with state-backed sanction.
The ones who will pay the price will be the poorest and most vulnerable women in rural areas – single women, women without sons or women without land rights, and widows – even though our constitution guarantees access to justice, non-discrimination and equality for all.
* Ngubane is the founder and leader of the Rural Women's Movement.