Towards gender equality in South Africa

Members of several women’s groups in South Africa are taking the initiative to improve their situation, and are contributing to the drafting of the proposed Gender Equality Bill.

Gender Equality Bill
South African women still face an uphill struggle when it comes to competing against their male counterparts, especially in the workplace. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Shamin Chibba

After 17 years of democracy, South African women still face an uphill struggle when it comes to competing against their male counterparts, especially in the workplace.

Although the country has a number of legislative procedures in place to uphold the right of women and girls, such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (2000), the Employment Equity Act (1998), the Domestic Violence Act (1998), and the Constitution of South Africa (1996), there is still work to be done.

But recently, more than 50 representatives from various local and international women’s organisations gathered in East London, Eastern Cape province, earlier in May for a conference titled A strategic review of gender equality and violence against women in South Africa.

The conference, organised by East London-based NGO Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, was used as a platform to discuss the bill, which falls under the Department of Women, Children, formerly called the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities. The bill is still in the green paper stage.

Masimanyane’s executive director Lesley Ann Foster said the proposed legislation will define discrimination against women and subsequently get rid of it.

The gathering was also used to acknowledge the gains women have made in the 17 years of democracy. However, Foster noted that at the same time much ground has been lost.

“We have to ask what were the losses, and then determine what do we need to do to advance gender equality,” she said.

Legislation for gender equality

Foster said the bill has been in the making for two years but it had been overlooked recently as there was nobody championing it.

However, interest in the bill was revived in January 2011 when a delegation of South African women’s organisations presented a report on the status of women in the country to the committee of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in Geneva, Switzerland.

The committee became aware that there was no gender equality legislation, and accordingly issued a set of recommendations to the South African government, one of them being that gender equality should be legislated.

Foster said that though gender equality is enshrined in the South African constitution, if it’s not in the legislature, discrimination against women is invisible and therefore becomes rife.

She stated that with the passing of the proposed bill, the disparities between men and women, one of which is leadership in the workplace, will be highlighted.

According to guest speaker Ntombazana Botha, the former deputy minister of arts and culture, representation of women in the public sector has improved since 1994 but females are still under-represented in leadership positions.

“There is no longer a 50% representation of women in the public sector whereas women occupy only 16% of senior management positions in the private sector,” said Foster.

From green to white

According to the document Green Paper: Towards a Gender Equality Bill, the bill will look to achieve the empowerment of women, eliminate discrimination and accelerate women’s participation and involvement in decision-making in public and private sectors.

It will also make it mandatory for institutions in both sectors to conduct an audit to analyse gender equality in the workplace.

The document also stated that the bill will aim to eradicate patriarchy that is often seen in the traditional practise of primogeniture, or succession through the male line. Traditional customs that are discriminatory towards women will also be targeted.

Once public comments on the green paper have been analysed, the government will then publish a white paper, which will allow the public to make additional comments. At the same time the topic will be researched in more depth.

Rural women affected

Botha said in her address that though women working in the private sector face some of the biggest challenges, the wellbeing of those in rural areas is also threatened by cultural boundaries.

“We have to change the mindset. We have to start changing our attitudes as individuals,” she said.

Botha mentioned that rural women are most affected by inequality because they and their traditional leaders are unaware of advances in gender issues.

The objective of equality, according to Foster, is to ensure that women and girls are afforded the same opportunities as men, so as to enjoy life to the fullest.

“Many women do not know about these opportunities. They are socialised into taking lesser roles in society,” she said.

Foster added that while the fight for equality may change societal norms, women do not wish to trample on traditions – but they should not hesitate to ask questions in the case of discriminatory traditions.

“Are these traditions in the best interest of both men and women? Who does virginity testing and genital mutilation serve more?”

Women most affected by economy

Mcebisi Jonas, the Eastern Cape’s MEC for economic affairs, was the guest speaker on the second day of the conference and spoke of the economy’s effect on gender inequality.

He said that on paper, the country has done well in drawing up policies and legislations. However, in reality there is a stark difference.

He believes gender inequality is a structural and historical phenomenon. Patriarchy, he said, is embedded in social and economic structures.

Jonas said that if gender equality was to be realised, more intervention from the government was needed, along with a greater investment of relevant resources into the economy.

Jonas stated that 13 000 jobs in the Eastern Cape’s automobile industry are currently at risk as the province’s two manufacturers have not fared well in recent years. This, he said, does not bode well for women as they are less likely to be employed and become vulnerable to the scourge of poverty.

According to a recent report by the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council, though 1.1-million women entered the labour market last year, female unemployment increased from 27.7% in 2000 to 30.3% in 2010. Most of the women affected were between 20 and 34 years of age.

Foreign women suffer no less

Other conference speakers included Tove Smaadhal, director of the Norwegian Crisis Shelter Centre, who said that transformation takes time and for it to happen, women have to unite in confronting violence against their sisters.

She said that the UN may have named Norway as the best country in the world but her organisation still sees up to 2 500 women a year. “I still have hope in stopping domestic violence and trafficking but I know that this is a damn hard fight,” she said.

Professor Bene Madunagu, head of Nigeria’s Girl Power Initiative as well as the pan-African group Amanitare Sexual Rights Network, said that women should think of ways to use instruments such as the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and make it a part of the law.

She added that Nigerian women were also oppressed to the point that when they wanted to travel outside the country, they were required to submit a letter of permission from their husbands to the Nigerian government.

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