This is one of my favourite images of the #TotalShutdown movement that took place in August this year. It got me thinking. What exactly is patriarchy and what are practical steps that we can take to end it? According to Wikipedia, Patriarchy is defined as a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. It’s not quite clear when patriarchy became an ‘unofficial’ social system – based on what we can gather from cave drawings, our gender roles during pre-historic times seem largely egalitarian. 

In almost every society in the world, patriarchal social systems reduced the rights of women over the centuries. Ranging from rights to have control over our bodies, to access to education, to political representation, and sexual freedom, patriarchal systems have kept women subjected to men. Margaret Atwood has said that everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale was taken from different points in history – she didn’t have to imagine or invent anything. Scary.

Although the 20th century saw significant progress for women’s rights in some societies (the right to vote, access to birth control and family planning, and sexual liberation, for example), these gains do not mean that we can forget about patriarchy.

Why should we care?

In South Africa, we are facing an epidemic of domestic violence. In 2015, South Africa’s femicide rate was four times higher than the global average. Every year, between the 25th of November and the 10th of December, a number of NGOs and government institutions launch their respective 16 Days of Activism campaigns highlighting the plights of women and children. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this movement, and many people are sceptical about whether the 16 days have any impact.

Sixteen Days of Activism is usually aimed at creating awareness of the problem, and perhaps its effectiveness has been limited, because it doesn’t deal with the root cause of violence against women. Men in our society have been elevated to the extent that they feel they are entitled to behave any which way they please, because of patriarchal attitudes. What can women do to be part of the solution?

1. Call it out

The #TotalShutdown movement is a great example of what can be done to take back our power. Women getting together and marching for a cause really does get the attention of our government.  President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to some of the demands of the #TotalShutdown manifesto handed over to the government on the 1st of August and launched the first-ever Gender-Based Violence Summit on the 1st of November. This proves that activism can lead to action and change. Silence only perpetuates the problem.

thetotalshutdown wmens march south africa protestor holding a sign

Susan Khumalo, Image: Chris de Beer

2. Get elected

Women’s rights issues have, for far too long, been drowned out by the sounds of other ‘more pressing’ politics. Having a seat at the political table will definitely be a step in the right direction. In South Africa, we have one of the most representative Parliaments. We are currently ranked 10th in world for gender balance in government with over 40% of our seats being held by women. Getting elected in South Africa has never been easier.

However, it took Donald Trump getting elected over Hilary Clinton in 2016 for American women to realise the importance of running for political office. With their newly elected members of Congress, they have achieved multiple firsts by successfully getting over 100 women elected in a single election.

3. Even me?

Even you.

If public platforms aren’t your thing, but you still want to do your part to fight patriarchy, you can start in your own home and workplace. If you have children, what are you teaching them? Be aware of any difference in treatment between girl children and boy children. Are the girls always doing the dishes, and the boys always taking out the trash? If Nandi says that Sipho has pinched her, do you tell her that boys will be boys? Don’t. From as early as they can be socialised, young boys need to learn to take accountability for their own actions.


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Young girls need to expect boys to treat them with respect. Later in life, do we give boys the rundown on consent before they go out for the night? Or is it only our daughters who get a speech on how not to be raped?


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I am so sick. This week in Ireland a 27 year old man was acquitted of raping a 17 year old girl…..after her lace underwear was held up in court for everyone to see as evidence. “Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone?” Judge O’Connell asked the jury during closing arguments, “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” WHAT THE ACTUAL F!! LET ME SAY THIS LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK, THIS IS NOT CONSENT! My underwear drawer, along with millions of others is not just a box full of consent. #notconsent #mybodymyrules #nomeansno #prayforireland #ibelieveher #myclothingarenotmyconsent #boyswillbeheldaccountablefortheiractions

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In business, is it always the women who take notes in meetings and bring the tea? If we both graduated magna cum laude in business school, it should be the most junior person in the room who takes notes, not the one with a vagina.

Whether it’s via policy development, voting, or being aware that we all have a part to play in either the perpetuation or the end of patriarchy, it’s important to take action now. Decide today what your role will be in ‘Grabbing them by the Patriarchy’. Whether or not you consider yourself a feminist, you have a role to play in this – because indecision is still a decision.