11 August 2014

South Africa: Women's Freedom in South Africa - How Far Have We Come?


Between 1913 and 1986, women in South Africa passively and actively resisted regulations that would compel them to carry passes - a system designed to control and restrict where and how women lived, worked and moved.

On 9 August 1956, a group of around 20 000 South African women marched to protest and petition against new pass laws that required all 'black' South Africans to carry a passbook.

This historical event was concerned with a literal freedom of movement. The battle that women are currently facing in South Africa involves a more figurative freedom of movement, and yet is deeply rooted in the literal, everyday reality of women.

Fifty-eight years after the historical Women's March, where do women in South Africa stand in being able to live, work and move where they wish?

In contrast to the anti-pass law campaigners, who were fighting against an institutionalised and legislated inequality, women in South Africa today have official and sanctioned freedom: an exemplary legislative and policy framework that enshrines their equality and rights, as well as protects them from violence, discrimination and harmful practices.

South African women have the freedom to achieve in any sphere, and many South African women have gone beyond national boundaries to achieve positions of importance, power and prestige internationally.

This includes the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma), the Executive Director of UN Women (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Navanethem Pillay), the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (Rashida Manjoo) and the African Development Bank Special Envoy on Gender (Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi).

How substantive, however, is this equality? And how free are women, really, to be literally and figuratively mobile? Women may have the legislated freedom to achieve equally with men, but in reality the space and opportunity to do so is often restricted by societal norms, gender stereotypes and discrimination.

It is in the home that women are most likely to encounter violence and discrimination based on their gender - an indication that attitudes have not kept pace with legislation. Research has shown that from senior politicians to the ordinary worker on the street, many men in South Africa see no disjuncture between publically embracing formal equality, but insisting that 'democracy stops at my front door'.

Violence against women is more likely to be perpetrated by intimate partners or ex-partners in the home than by strangers. In addition, the domestic division of labour still predominantly runs along gendered lines, with women more likely to do the majority of the household work - regardless of whether or not they are employed. Women are also more impoverished than men, with almost five out of 10 adult women in South Africa living below the poverty line.

Moving out of the home, into the community and broader society, women continue to face barriers to their literal and figurative mobility. Many women feel unsafe in their neighbourhoods and in public places, particularly around public transport facilities. In many areas, the physical and built environment, along with invisible and ineffective policing, compounds these feelings of insecurity.

Women are also more likely to be unemployed than men and, if not constrained to the lower-wage sectors of the economy, often encounter a glass ceiling in the corporate world. Many women's access to education, quality healthcare and justice is also compromised: households are more likely to cite 'no money for school fees' and 'family commitments' as reasons why girls do not attend school than boys. Women encounter not only indifference, but also violence at the hands of healthcare workers; and fewer than one in five rape cases reach trial - while even fewer result in convictions.

In politics, there seems to have been some regression over time. While women held 43% of seats in the National Assembly in 2009, only 38,8% of seats are held by women in 2014.

The powers of decision-making lie firmly in the hands of men, with 65% of the country's top leadership and 78% of provincial premiers being men. Crucially, an analysis of each political party's manifesto reveals a superficial engagement with women's issues and 'very little focus on tackling gender inequality at a structural level,' or any real recognition that women's issues are central to a thriving democracy.

An analysis of each political party's manifesto reveals a superficial engagement with women's issues

These issues and arguments are not new. They have been repeated time and again by feminists, researchers, academics and analysts over the 20 years of South Africa's democracy. But the lesson to be learnt from the women activists of the 20th century is that change takes time and commitment. If they were willing to repeat their arguments and fight for what they believed in for over 70 years, women in South Africa today should be willing to do the same.

South Africa is certainly not alone in the struggle for gender equality. Various global and local women's organisations have pointed out that progress towards Millennium Development Goal 3 (to promote gender equality and empower women) has been slow and mixed. This is despite convincing evidence that gender equality not only accelerates progress towards development goals, but also contributes to sustainable peace and security.

These women's organisations are strongly advocating for a stand-alone gender equality goal in the post-2015 development agenda. This goal should consist of specific targets to tackle the structural causes of inequality - from the privacy of the home to the public arena of international platforms - as well as to promote women's agency and leadership and to end violence against women in all its forms.

Gender equality, while central to sustainable development and peace, is also an important end in itself. Supported by a just and equitable domestic legislative framework, and the requisite international political will, the struggle for gender equality and freedom of movement for all women in South Africa should, in theory, be easier this time round.

 - Romi Sigsworth, Gender Specialist, ISS Pretoria

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