Since the onset of democracy, South Africa has taken bold steps to advance the interests of women. Today we can look back with pride at some of the many strides we have made, particularly as we prepare to celebrate 20 Years of democracy and freedom.
South Africa has moved from apartheid where - women suffered triple oppression based on their sex, colour and class - to a society where gender equality is now a constitutional imperative.
While the policies of apartheid were detrimental to the whole black population, women were the most affected. Apartheid restrictions on African women forced them to remain in the homelands, supporting their families without the help of men.
They faced poor living conditions, extreme poverty, malnutrition, illness and high infant mortality. Every effort was made to keep African women out of urban areas through laws and regulations that governed their movement.
It was these restrictions, in particular the pass laws which required Africans to carry documents allowing them to be in white-occupied areas, that led to the famous 1956 march by 20 000 women to the Union Buildings.
Today, under our democratically elected government, our Constitution informs our work, promotes, protects and advances the rights of women. President Jacob Zuma said this constitutional imperative was further reinforced by our progressive legislation to advance women.
These legal instruments, the he noted, included the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Employment Equity Act, the Domestic Violence Act, Maintenance Act, Sexual Offences Act and the Civil Union Act.
Recognising that August is Women's Month, we take stock on some of the advances we have made in empowering women. We also celebrate the achievements of women in our society.
The government recently proposed the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill to enforce gender parity across all sectors of society. This demonstrates our commitment to act decisively and enforce change in the workplace and speed up the process of gender transformation.
The proposed bill calls for equal participation of women in the economy and for equal representation in decision-making in private and public sectors. The proposed bill comes at a time when gender transformation in our corporate boardrooms continues at a much slower pace than in the government.
The 2012 Business Women in Leadership Census shows that while women make up 52 per cent of the population they account for just 3.6 per cent of chief executives, 5.5 per cent of chairpersons, 17.1 per cent of directors and 21.4 per cent of executive managers.
The president of the Business Women’s Association, Kunyalala Maphisa said: “Essentially, the findings of the census show that we have a long way to go to achieve more equality in the upper levels of workplace. The advancement of women in South Africa is no longer an option, it is an urgent requirement.”
The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill provides for the elimination of practices that violate the rights of women in terms of social, political, economic and cultural freedoms and the abolition of discrimination against women and girls.
It will also monitor all legislation to address inequalities, discrimination against women, gender violence, access to services and economic empowerment. While our laws have been enacted to promote gender equality and women empowerment, the issue should not be viewed by the private and public sector simply as compliance.
Gender equality must become a lived reality to enable a societal shift that ensures that women are treated as equal citizens, and contribute to socio-economic growth and development. The transformation of gender disparities requires the commitment from all to deal with the historical gender discrimination within our communities.
Our National Development Plan (NDP) – the country’s strategic vision for the next 20 years – highlights the important role of women in the fight against poverty and transformation of our economy.
The active participation and empowerment of women will help to transform the economy as they make up a significant percentage of the poor, particularly in rural areas.
Our record of the last 19 years of democracy suggests that with a concerted effort we can build on the advances we have made which have enabled women to construct better lives for themselves and their children. The government has ensured that all laws that assist in the transformation of society, particularly those that relate to women are in place. The challenge however, is the willingness by all to comply with them.
The government has done its bit in tackling gender imbalances in public sector. The public sector has 40.7 per cent female senior managers. The overall workforce in the public service consists of 60.6 per cent women up from 58.2 per cent in 2011.
Furthermore, research shows that South Africa is one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to the representation of women in politics.
Before 1994, the Parliament had a mere 2.7 per cent representation of women. After our first democratic elections in 1994 women representation in the National Assembly stood at 27.7 per cent.
In 1999 that figure increased to 30 per cent and then 32.7 per cent in 2004. After the 2009 national elections women’s representation rose again to reach 42 per cent.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012, this puts South Africa in fourth position worldwide for the greatest number of women in Parliament.
In the national executive, we have 14 cabinet ministers and 16 deputy ministers. In addition, five out of nine premiers are women. The government remains determined to meet its 50-50 target on women’s representation.
While we celebrate our many successes in advancing women in our democratic journey, the government understands that more needs to be done to ensure that women feel safe.
The daily reports of violence and abuse suffered by women are evidence that we must continually work to ensure a safer and more caring society. We urge communities to help government to eradicate violence against women through reporting such crimes. Domestic violence in particular should not be treated as a private matter. It is a crime and must be reported to the police.
As a nation we must unite towards creating a safer environment for all women and ensure they take their equal place in the workplace and elsewhere to enable us to reach our full potential.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)