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Women’s Month in South Africa: The Fight for Equal Rights Began with a March—and Continues with Advances in Education

Written by Suraya Hamdulay on Aug 18, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Leadership

South African anti-Apartheid activist Lilian Ngoyi, one of the leaders of the 1956 Women's March (Azola Dayile, Wikimedia Commons)

“If we are going to see real development in the world, then our best investment is women.”—Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

The historic Women's March of August 9, 1956, in the city of Pretoria will forever remain etched in the collective memories of South Africans as the tipping point in women's struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.

When Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, and Sophia Williams—a multiracial alliance of female leaders delicately dressed in their respective traditional dress—stood up that fateful day against ruthless policies designed to curtail the movement of African men and, soon after, African women, their act of defiance invoked images of both grace and strength. The ensuing march by an estimated 20,000 protesters became a defining symbol of women's contributions toward democracy in South Africa. Since 1995, our country has observed August 9 as National Women’s Day and all of August as Women’s Month.

Fighting for Equal Rights Remains an Uphill Struggle

For hundreds if not thousands of years in countries around the globe, women have been relegated to second-class citizenship. In South Africa, the battle for equal rights continues to be hard-fought. Despite winning voting rights over 90 years ago (for white women), very few spaces in our country fully embrace women’s equal participation across social, political, and economic realms.

From Johannesburg to Cape Town, women are underrepresented both as voters and in positions of leadership, from elected office and civil service to the private sector and academia. This remains our frustrating reality, despite our time-and-again proven abilities as effective leaders and agents of change. But I guarantee that will never slow me down.

Coming into My Own as a Strong Woman of Color

My own heritage has roots in a small rural town along KwaZulu Natal's South Coast. Growing up during Apartheid in the 1980s, I first had to understand my own identity and resolve how I belonged in a country where race was determined by an arbritrary "pencil test". Instinctively seeking linkages beyond traditional definitions of culture and heritage, I found myself attracted to the mission of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a non-racial coalition of organisations that were hotbeds of social and political activism.

Coming from a small town devoid of progressive female role models, I was inspired by the leadership of Cheryl Carolus, Pregs Govender, and other prominent women in the trade unions at the time. Their vision and influence struck me as the perfect union of power and fragility, femininity and might, and inspired my own activism as a teenager. To this day, I look to align myself with programs that help accelerate women’s equal participation everywhere decisions are being made.

Leveraging Education, Technology, and Relationships to Be Part of the Solution

Reflecting on Women’s Month and that historic march 65 years ago, I encourage my colleagues, friends, family, and everyone in South Africa to celebrate our collective efforts toward advocacy and action in the fight for gender equality. In my new role as VP of Strategy and Engagement for 2U’s Cape Town office, I’m excited to help the company further advance this mission—for teaching professionals and working professionals, for university partners and enterprise partners, for our curriculum and our classrooms, and ultimately for students.

I’m particularly inspired by 2U-powered online short courses from South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch as well as the University of Oxford, Yale University, and Syracuse University that focus on women in leadership. Each course is designed to help women identify their unique strengths, overcome gender barriers, expand their influence, and grow as leaders within their careers and organisations. 2U also continues to share success stories like this one and this one and this one from more and more women from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds who secure impactful roles in business, tech, healthcare, education, and other vital fields after completing one of our partners’ degree programs or boot camps.

These programs and success stories continue to give me hope. And I’m glad to have found a company that gives life to my passion—and to a vision of the future where women in South Africa and all over the world have equal voice, visibility, respect, and influence in all spheres of life.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.