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Fighting discrimination with discrimination

Cell C makes a mockery of its Take a Girl Child to Work Day campaign with the patriarchal ideas used to market it.

Read time 4min 50sec

While Cell C's Take a Girl Child to Work Day event is for many reasons a fantastic idea and has some glowing success stories to its name, its marketing campaign throws a massive wet blanket over its alleged ideals of respect and equal opportunities for women.

Peeling back the outer layers of patronising colours and tropes women and girls have had shoved into their hands for decades (pink, glitter, fairies), the campaign quietly reflects more sinister ideas. This was encapsulated by Cell C chief executive Jos'e Dos Santos' comments at the campaign's media launch: "Always treat women with respect and dignity. They will eventually be the mothers of your children."

The problem with Dos Santos' statement is it defines women as valuable specifically for what they can offer to men. By Dos Santos' logic, women who are infertile, choose not to have children or are not heterosexual do not deserve the same dignity or respect.

This mentality neatly explains Miss South Africa's presence within the campaign as a "role model for young women". Entry requirements for Cell C's Miss South Africa pageant stipulate entrants may never have been pregnant, never have been married and may not be engaged to be married. Essentially, entrants must be sexually available to men, and preferably as virginal as possible.

Miss South Africa 2015 Liesl Laurie sat on stage at the media launch, and while much fuss was made of her BCom degree, it was clear why she was selected for this task above the numerous woman accountants in SA with more established careers: because she was deemed the most sexually attractive, and hence the most appealing to men.

The launch was kicked off by renowned actor Sophie Ndaba in a cerise dress and giant pink glittery fairy wings, embodying the campaign's central symbol: a fairy godmother. Call me cynical, but I hardly think representing women as fairies promotes us being taken more seriously.

Ndaba then read aloud some messages she had received from a handful of young women seeking career advice, in a high-pitched, simpering mimicry. What was that about respecting young women's ambitions, Sophie? I didn't quite hear you over the audience's roars of laughter.

Cell C Foundation managing executive Suzette van der Merwe then addressed the crowd about Cell C's selection of the fairy godmother trope as the campaign's mascot. Apparently it represents the goal to magically transform people's lives - as though women aren't tasked with enough unrealistic expectations already.

Van der Merwe went to great pains to emphasise that although Cell C believes "in the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women through education... this programme is not about devaluing the role of men in our society". Pardon my logical reasoning, but in a society in which men are greatly overvalued at the expense of women, surely we have to devalue men at least somewhat in order to level the playing field?

The icing on the cake was a dramatic production from campaign sponsor Procter & Gamble which, in shamelessly punting its Always product range, presented a dangerously incomplete picture of how menstruation affects women's education.

While P&G's play touched on social issues surrounding menstruation, like embarrassment and stigma, it ultimately framed menstruation as an issue of misinformation which could be remedied with Always products. It ignored the financial barrier these products form, essentially dismissing the concerns of women from lower-income backgrounds, many of whom stay home from school while menstruating because they cannot afford the sanitary supplies they need during this time.

The problem with Dos Santos' statement is it defines women as valuable specifically for what they can offer to men.

Toward the end of the launch, minister of women's affairs Susan Shabangu took the stage and delivered a well-researched and unapologetic speech about the importance of investing in education as a transformative power to improve the socio-economic status of women.

Shabangu commended the campaign for equipping young women with a concrete vision to guide their decisions about the future and motivate hard work. This tied in with the testimony of Girl Child alumnus and investment banker Mulalo Nekhumbe, who spoke inspiringly of how being taken to work at Ernst & Young for a day helped her initiate connections that led to her receiving a bursary from the firm, at which she later completed her articles.

The Take a Girl Child to Work Day campaign is a sound idea in that it promotes the inclusion of women in corporate spaces and makes way for young women to explore their dreams and opportunities, but it is soured and strained by the patriarchal ideas its marketing team perpetuates. I would suggest equipping oneself with a rudimentary understanding of feminism before embarking on a campaign claiming women's empowerment.

Women must be taken more seriously and permitted to make more mistakes than magical fairy godmothers. Young women should never have their appearance equated with their worth, or be shamed for their economic status. Most importantly, women should never be guilted for "devaluing" men in moving forward to take hold of the equality they deserve.

Women must be treated with respect and dignity, full stop. Whether or not they choose to procreate must have nothing to do with this

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