It's going to be a vibrant month for women

Monday, August 17, 2009

Once she gets going, there's no stopping her. And you better be brave enough to try and cut short this energetic woman once she starts talking about a topic that obviously means a lot to her.

Counting our blessings that we were being "squeezed" in to speak to the new Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, during a tea break at a meeting, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, goes on to spend two hours talking about her plans to "deal with the real issues that are facing real women" in the country.

The minister relaxes, takes a long sip of her tea (probably realising it will be a long while before the next sip) when asked how this Women's Day will be different from previous years, considering South Africa now has a Minister for Women, a first for the country.

"It's going to be a vibrant month for women," says the soft spoken Ms Mayende-Sibiya, reflecting on the number of activities that have been planned for women from all walks of life across the country.

But, she says, women should use this month to be "the best in whatever they do" and "raise their voice on issues affecting them, without fear."

"Today is much better than yesterday, and the future will be even better. Wherever you are as a woman, let's unite, and realise this."

Its easy to see that this is one woman who is not shy to stand up for all women, especially those marginalised. One is reminded of the time when in 1990 as a shop steward, she led a strike by all workers in the Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital, in KwaZulu-Natal.

She makes no bones about the fact that as minister for women, she will monitor all government departments to ensure that women become part of every programme in each department.

And, she will not be afraid to ask the tough questions, such as what benefits the National Health Insurance System holds for women.

So keen is Minister Mayende-Sibiya to get strict on having government and business being represented by at least 50 percent of women in key positions, that she is to introduce a Bill in Parliament later this month to that effect.

The country is not doing well in terms of employment equity, especially in the private sector and the Bill will be a major push to ensure women are given equal opportunity in decision making and play a meaningful role in the running of the country.

The draft Bill is still being finalised, but will make provision for penalties to be imposed on business and government departments that do not comply. Government has always battled with not having the teeth to ensure implementation of its 50/50 target.

Soon after being announced as the Minister responsible for three vulnerable groups in society, the one time professional nurse of 22 years and her team, lost no time in getting down to work, and began touring the country and meeting with various groups, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders to introduce her department and find out what they would like to see in the new ministry.

In the next six months, the department will establish the Women Empowerment Fund, which will enable women to start and develop their own businesses and assist NGOs and civil society in undertaking women-empowerment programmes.

The former National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) President hopes the unions will be an example of efforts taken to employ women in leadership positions.

The minister attributes her time with Nehawu as having played a major role in her growth as a leader and equipping her with the skills needed to reach decisions quickly and interact effectively with people.

"The skills and knowledge I picked up, will assist in building a strong Ministry targeting the most marginalised in our society," she said, adding that she had moved from a life of servicing workers and general people, to building a Ministry that everybody will be proud of.

And it seems this very strong woman has over the years managed to find time to raise three equally capable woman - her daughters, whom she gleams proudly have worked hard to become a medical doctor, lawyer and an accountant.

She cannot resist telling us with pride, that although she has achieved a lot in becoming a cabinet minister, "becoming a mother is the highest achievement for a woman."

The minister's cell phone rings; she checks the caller's identity but does not answer. Instead she allows time for one last question - How does the minister spend her leisure time?

"I listen to jazz music, read, have a get together with friends and family members or go to a spa for a massage and relaxation - of course when I get the time!"