Older women holding families together in rural areas


Older women are playing a significant role in the survival of families in rural areas.

Sarah Mosoetsa, an industrial sociologist from the University of Witwatersrand, said that older women support families in some of the rural areas of Kwazulu Natal where she was conducting research for her recent book titled Eating From One Pot: The Dynamics of Survival in Poor South African Households.

Speaking at this year’s Think!Fest programme, she said that part of the reason these women are holding families together is because the nature of work is changing.  Factories, where most women worked, are no longer site where people can make a living because they have closed down. “Most important site of survival has moved to the household,” said Mosoetsa.

Mosoetsa said that unpaid work done at home has become the only source of income for many of these women.

The household is not without any conflict. “There are intense gender and generational conflicts in these spaces,” she said.

Mosoetsa explained three resources; political, economic and social; that make survival possible in these spaces. On political resources, she explained that although political parties are instrumental in regime change they are not useful for survival of these families. The many associations and citizen groups become an important voice for people living in these areas.

Many of the members of these households’ economic activities are illegal and unsustainable. These include the sale of drugs and liquor to children.

Faith based organisations play a significant role in the social resources of these families.  Older women participate in the activities of these organisations which include taking care of the sick. Younger women would usually argue that if they are expected to do it why is it that their male counterparts are not expected to.

Many men in these circumstances feel emasculated and shame because they do not have jobs. Most of them end up taking part in illegal activities so that they can contribute to the family income.

Mosoetsa said that it was important to understand these dynamics because the tendency in South Africa is to talk about the poor as one group. “We often talk about the poor as one group and we assume the experience is homogenous,” she said.

She said that the experiences of the poor are different and they are shaped by both race and gender.

Mosoetsa adds that South Africans often make three assumptions about the poor. First, there is an assumption that the poor have capital and asserts that can be harnessed. Second, the poor strategise.  “This implies that they have long term decisions that are collective and arrived at through strategising,” she said. The problem with this assumption is that it does not take into account patriarchy which is a dominant force in these circumstances. Third, the poor are powerless. People often think that they are in the situation they are in because they wait for government to do things for them.

She said that it was important to hear these stories in order to not only understand the poor’s social conditions but to also learn about how they survive on a daily basis.

Click the following link to listen to her lecture: Sarah Mosoetsa

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