Addressing slow pace of gender equality

25 February 2014
Phumla WilliamsDuring the National Assembly debate on the State of the Nation Address this year, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, spoke passionately about the advancement of women.

She said the country had made great strides in addressing gender discrimination, and in creating institutions and mechanisms for women’s empowerment and gender equality.

The fight for the empowerment of women can be traced back to 1912, when women miners in Newcastle went on strike against starvation wages. In 1913, black and coloured women in the Free State protested against having to carry passes. In 1918, women led by people like Charlotte Maxeke started the first formal women’s organisation (Bantu Women's League) which was created to resist the pass laws.

The 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings remains one of the defining moments in our history.  It was a significant turning point in the fight against apartheid and highlighted the importance of women in society.

By marching to the seat of power of the apartheid government, the brave women of 1956 showed they would not be second class citizens in the country of their birth.  On that day, 20 000 women stood up against apartheid and showed the world that they would not be  silent in the face of oppression.

The fight for women’s rights has in many ways mirrored the fight against apartheid. Nelson Mandela made special mention of the struggle for women empowerment during his inaugural State of the Nation Address. “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression,” he said.

Women representation in government

Since 1994, successive administrations have prioritised gender equality and women empowerment.  In the past, women representation at the highest levels of the government and in the private sector was lacking. 

When President Jacob Zuma assumed office in 2009, he sought to strengthen and enhance women empowerment. The Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities was formed to promote, facilitate, co-ordinate and monitor the realisation of the rights and empowerment of women, children and people with disabilities. 

Our success in mainstreaming the rights of women has seen our country ranked second on the Southern African Development Community Gender and Development Index in 2012. On the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, South Africa has consistently remained in the upper echelons, reaching sixth position in 2011.

The tangible proof of our commitment to women empowerment is most evident in National and Provincial Government. Before 1994, the Parliament had a mere 2.7 percent representation of women. This jumped to 27 percent after the 1994 elections. By 2004 there was 33 percent representation. The figure stands at 44 percent in Parliament and 42 percent in cabinet.  In the national executive there are 13 women cabinet ministers and 16 female deputy ministers. Five of the nine premiers are women.

Women leadership in civil society has, however, continued to lag. The 2012 Women in Leadership Census undertaken by the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa shows that women made up 52 percent of the population in 2012 but they accounted for just 3.6 percent of chief executive, 5.5 percent of chairpersons, 17.1 percent of directorships and 21.4 percent of executive management positions.

The government is determined to address the slow pace of gender transformation. The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which was tabled in Parliament in November, is expected to become a powerful instrument to advance the objectives of gender equality. It will enforce compliance on the empowerment of women.  

In many respects this represents the final frontier for women in their long walk to equality.  

Within women lies the potential for meaningful contribution to economic development and growth. Yet most women are relegated to the outskirts, forced to make a living in the informal economy.

It is within our grasp to change this through a realisation that women empowerment does not translate to a handout. Instead it is a solid investment towards growing the economy and making it more inclusive.

The long walk which began in 1912 and was immortalised by the brave women of 1956 continues.  As we prepare to celebrate 20 Years of Freedom we should be mindful that as long as women are marginalised we cannot claim victory over the oppression of the past. 

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)