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South Africa: Celebrating 20 Years of Gender Equality

After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, women formed 27.75% of members of the National Assembly. Today, SA is ranked third in terms of women representation in Parliament.

Gabi Khumalo looks at the strides the country has made in promoting gender equality in the past 19 years.

South Africa's peaceful transition from a painful segregationist past to a democratic system that respects the rights of all its citizens continues to be hailed around the world. In a continent still dominated by patriarchy, visitors who come to our country are often puzzled by the speed at which transformation has happened to change the status of our women.

An array of measures, which have been in effect since 1994 to promote women empowerment and uphold gender equality, have drastically improved the position and conditions of our country's women. It is pleasing to note that since 2009, South Africa trails just behind Rwanda and Sweden in terms of women representation in Parliament. This achievement places South Africa firmly on course to achieve the Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of 50% women representation in political decision-making by 2015. There were also a higher number of women in the South African government (58.2%) as compared to males. At a political level, voluntary party quotas, combined with a proportional representation electoral system, have no doubt played a significant role in improving women's representation at national and provincial levels.

Observers also say the rising levels of women representation in local government is largely attributable to the ruling African National Congress's commitment to a minimal 30% quota for the representation of women at all levels since 1994.

The private sector is also making some progress, though it seems to be at a slower pace. According to the Business Women's Association of SA, by 2011 there were 108 companies with 25% or more of women as executive managers. Of course this figure may be unacceptable to some, considering that women in the work place still far outnumber their male counterparts.

But despite all these efforts, organisations like the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) still believe that cases of unfair discrimination remain deeply rooted, not only in the work place but in society in general.

"This is manifest in discrimination in the work place, gender-based violence, the non-recognition of women's contribution to and role in the formal and informal economy. There are numerous discriminatory and harmful practices within cultural, religious and traditional communities," says CGE commissioner Janine Hicks.

"To change this, it requires partnerships and outreach interventions to raise awareness, respond to instances of discrimination and harm, and leadership by stakeholders within these affected communities," says Hicks.

She acknowledges that as a "fundamentally patriarchal society", gender discrimination, informed by gendered societal norms, values influence attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of men and women in South Africa. In a bid to enforce compliance in matters of gender mainstreaming and equality in both the public and private sector, Cabinet has approved the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Draft Bill.

The Bill supports section 9 of the Constitution in the empowerment of women and gender equality.

The bill emphasises the promotion of gender equality and the prohibition of unfair discrimination against women and the elimination of gender based violence.

It's expected to become a powerful instrument to advance the objectives of gender equality and women empowerment.

It provides for the elimination of all practices that violate the rights of women to social, political, economic and cultural freedom and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls.

The Bill strongly calls for equal participation of women in the economy and for equal representation of women in positions of decision-making (50/50) in both private and public sectors - something that has been welcomed by the CGE.

Hicks says: "The bill is seeking to ensure the effective implementation of gender mainstreaming by government departments, so that the gendered needs of women are surfaced and addressed in government policy, service delivery and budgets." Hicks challenges concerns raised by some that the legislation could make women targets, and that companies might discriminate against women even more if they are forced to be flexible to cater for women's responsibilities.

She states that the bill seeks to fast-track already-existing obligations on employers in terms of the Employment Equity Act, which is to ensure gender transformation in the workplace, and put concrete measures in place to enable women to enter and advance within the work place. "The Employment Equity Act specifically calls on employers to innovative to recognise the domestic burden normally imposed on women, and put support mechanisms in place to enable women to manage their multiple roles and responsibilities, such as child-care arrangements, adequate leave during pregnancy, flexible working hours and the like. "The CGE is of the view that these measures are critical to ensure that gender transformation in the work place is prioritised, and that employers assign appropriate responsibilities, measures, budgets and monitoring mechanisms to ensure this objective is realised."

Once the Bill is passed, the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities will have the authority to monitor, review and oversee gender mainstreaming and integration of gender equality considerations into all programmes of government and other sectors.

These are the key highlights of the Bill:

On education and training, designated public and private bodies must develop and implement plans and measures in compliance with applicable legislation and international agreements.

Designated public and private bodies must develop and implement plans and measures for the economic empowerment of women with disabilities, including special measures to facilitate equal access to education and employment, and their meaningful participation in all areas of economic, social and cultural life, to achieve the progressive realisation of their right to substantive gender equality.

Designated public and private bodies must submit their plans and measures in compliance, within one year of being designated, for consideration, review and guidance to the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities.

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