August in South Africa holds a special significance as it marks Women’s Month, culminating in the celebration of National Women’s Day on the 9 August every year. This annual observance commemorates the historic 1956 march to parliament by 20 000 courageous women. Their purposeful protest against the pass laws and other discriminatory policies of the Apartheid regime symbolises a pivotal moment in the fight for equality, unity, and justice. As we honour the memory of these brave women, we also reflect on their legacy and the ongoing struggle for gender equality. This Women’s Month, Empact Group’s HSE Director, Lara Barlow expands our gaze to encompass the remarkable progress that’s been made, the persistent challenges faced by South African women, and the crucial role that corporations and individuals must play in shaping a more inclusive future.
The iconic 1956 march stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of South African women who challenged a system designed to subjugate and segregate along racial, ethnic, and social lines. It is a time to remember that the foundation for the empowerment of South African women was built on the strength and resilience of generations past, whose unwavering dedication to justice continues to inspire us today. National Women’s Day not only commemorates a historical event but also underscores the ongoing pursuit of justice and equality for women across the nation.
While we commemorate the strides made since the end of apartheid in 1994, we must also acknowledge the sobering reality that persists for many South African women. While progress has been made on various fronts, the lives of economically disadvantaged women, particularly those from marginalized communities across all nine provinces, remain a cause for concern. These women continue to face multifaceted challenges that extend beyond economic disparities, as they grapple with gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and single parenthood while enduring the burden of minimum-wage employment.
Empact Group, an organisation employing 25 000 people, including 17 000 women, seeks to shine a light on the often-unseen women who contribute to our society’s functioning. Behind-the-scenes workers, from cleaners to caregivers, embody the backbone of our society, diligently working to make our lives easier. Their roles, though often overlooked, are integral to the fabric of our communities. These women start their days before dawn and finish long after sunset, yet their lives remain filled with unimaginable hardships. They bear the weight of economic struggles while simultaneously confronting systemic gender inequalities.
These stories highlight the urgent need for a paradigm shift in corporate and societal consciousness. It is high time that the pursuit of a living wage becomes a national priority, a goal championed not only by grassroots advocates but also by corporate entities. The responsibility to instigate meaningful change should fall upon the shoulders of business leaders who must actively engage in conversations, share insights, and collaborate to create a better future for all.
Corporate South Africa has the unique power to drive transformative change, ushering in a future where economic empowerment becomes a reality for every individual. The move toward a living wage is not just an economic imperative but a moral one. As business leaders, we must recognise that our actions can reshape the lives of countless women who serve as the bedrock of our society. By advocating for fair wages and safe working conditions, we pave the way for future generations to break free from the cycle of poverty.
For women already established in the workplace, there exists a profound responsibility to use their platform to uplift and amplify the voices of those often unheard. The women in roles as cleaners, caregivers, receptionists, and countless others are more than just their jobs; they are individuals with stories and aspirations. As colleagues, it’s imperative to foster an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued, regardless of their title. Taking a moment to acknowledge their existence, understand their journey, and listen to their narratives fosters a culture of empathy, respect, and collaboration.
As Women’s Month draws to a close and the broader discourse surrounding gender equality, it’s important to maintain a balanced perspective. We honour the progress that has been achieved, yet we acknowledge the work that remains. By celebrating the past and recognising the present, we forge a path toward a future characterised by equity, justice, and inclusivity. It is up to each of us, as corporate citizens and individuals, to play our part in this transformative journey – one that upholds the legacy of those who marched in 1956 and ensures that their sacrifices were not in vain.
As Empact Group’s Health, Safety and Environmental Director since 2014, Lara is responsible for well-being across the business – doing right by people, partners, clients and the planet. Prior to joining Empact Group, Lara was the National Technical Manager for Pick n Pay, responsible for the establishment of the business policy and procedures around food safety, quality assurance and product development. Lara seeks to make a meaningful impact through collaborative relationships that emphasise the importance of shared values in order to implement sustainable practices, which enable a better future.