Sixty years ago former textile factory worker Sophia de Bruyn helped lead 20 000 women on a historic march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws. When she thinks back to that day on August 9, 1956, De Bruyn she says she still becomes emotional. She is joyful of the progress women have made, but also sad for what hasn’t been achieved since the march. Women today can be anything they want to be she says, but are often guilty of holding themselves back, or lack the necessary education with which to make better choices, particularly in rural areas. “I’m happy with how far we’ve come, but it’s not far enough.”

Hers is a fair assessment. The UNDP’s 2014 Gender Inequality Index ranks South Africa close to the global average when it comes to gender inequality, at 83rd out of 188 countries.

On the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, South Africa ranks at 17th out of 145 countries in 2015. Between 2006, when WEF’s index was initiated, South Africa has made more improvements in its gender equality score than any of the BRICS countries bar India. Half of South Africa’s improvement has been in getting more women to participate in the economy. Yet despite this, many South African women still suffer discrimination in the workplace, earn less than men and are in fewer leadership positions than males. A high level of gender-based violence also holds back progress towards gender parity.

Janine Hicks, a commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality, says though South Africa has made some progress, a lot still has to be done to achieve real equality between the sexes. The gains that South Africa has made include enacting legislation that no longer discriminates against women. The country is also a signatory to various international conventions and regional protocols and has a specific ministry dedicated to women, as well as a parliamentary portfolio committee on women, and gender focal representatives in municipalities and government departments.

All these, Hicks describes as “concrete gains”, particularly as the US and UK don’t have such a vast legislative machinery on women’s rights as South Africa does. “Yes, we’ve attained formal equality… but the sense is that we’ve not attained substantive equality,” she says, pointing to the country’s lack of progress in areas such as health, housing, energy and the still alarming level of gender-based violence. In the area of politics where South Africa is close to achieving gender parity, Hicks cautions however that the country can’t afford to take this for granted. She notes that among political parties it’s only the ANC that has voluntarily adopted a quota, for women, largely because of years of pressure from the party’s Women’s League. She fears that with a number of new parties having recently entered Parliament the level of women in politics could slip and says a decrease in the number of women in Parliament is already visible.

In addition she says South Africa’s history as a patriarchal society often shapes women’s decisions (affecting their confidence and attitude) on whether to stand for office or not. Many, including women themselves, will continue to vote for men because of the belief that they hold more power and clout, she says.

When it comes to women’s progress in education, a report released in August 2015 by the Department on Women found that though women outnumbered men at a ratio of three to two after secondary education, they remain less likely than men to enrol in higher degrees. The report suggests household commitments could be to blame. Hicks says measures should therefore be stepped up to ensure that girls don’t drop out of school (or miss days) because of issues such as sexual harassment, lack of access to sanitary products or taking up domestic responsibilities.

In addition to ensuring that more women enter traditionally male-dominated sectors of the economy, such as finance, engineering and mining, she says more must be done at school and university level to encourage girls to consider careers in such areas. She stresses too that it’s a mistake to assume that men and women are meant for different work. “Women can wield a spade, they can be underground in a mine. There are some strong women and some skinny men. Physically there aren’t too many things that men can do that women can’t do,” she says.

Career advice must be supportive too, while technical (TVET) colleges can help by making half of bursaries in male-dominated sectors available to women and by maintaining a database of women’s names that companies can dip into, she adds. It is promising that recently implemented guidelines for universities to distribute 55% of bursaries to women for post-graduate studies in the fields of science, engineering and technology have had a positive effect. The Department of Women says these have helped push up enrolment rates for women in post-graduate courses in these areas – from 50% to 53% between 2011 and 2013.

While women have made good progress in education and politics, their performance in business has however been more trying.

Take Nomsado Madonsela, who has run Basadi Civil Construction for 14 years and who admits that it’s stressful being one of very few women business owners in this male-dominated sector. Over the years she has grown her business by ploughing back takings into her business and diversifying her offerings. However she reckons just one fifth of her class that passed through an emerging contractor programme over 10 years ago are still in business today.

Gloria Sekhobela, who runs a training company for small-scale miners, echoes this. She says while women have many opportunities as suppliers to mining companies, the percentage of women she trains to enter business in the sector has remained at about 10% since 2010.

She laments that most mining companies don’t comply with BEE legislation and says she thought the government would have been tougher on companies by now.

Their experiences are testimony that women still face considerable challenges in business. They are not alone. On average, globally, women earn almost a quarter less than men, according to UN Women. In South Africa, their paid economic contribution accounts for no more than 45% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But Hicks says that if a country wants to unleash its economic potential, it must bring more women into the economy.

However, simply encouraging more women to work is not enough. UN Women cautions that rather than simply incorporating more women into increasingly precarious and unrewarding forms of employment, labour markets must be transformed in ways that work for both women and men and benefit society at large.

“Rather than simply adding paid work or poverty reduction to women’s already long ‘to-do’ lists, responsibilities for income-earning, caregiving and domestic work need to be redistributed more equally, both between women and men and between households and society more broadly,” recommends the UN, in a report last year on the progress of the world’s women.

Hicks adds that under the employment equity legislation companies are required to conduct an audit to assess what internal policies can be put in place to lower barriers that women face. However, few firms do, she says.

Many women leave employment when they have children. To encourage them to stay, companies could put in place measures such as flexible working hours, childcare provisions and better leave for fathers, so that they can help with tending to children. Hicks hints that measures might also be needed to compel companies to place more women in leadership and decision-making positions.

“In South Africa women represent just 29% of executive managers, 22% of directors of companies, 9% of chairs of boards and a mere 2.4% of chief executives,” she says. The commission backed the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity bill, which in 2014 lapsed before it could be voted on. At the time there was an outcry from business which resented the idea of compulsory quotas. But Hicks says while a similar measure in Nordic countries to mandate boards to have 30% or 50% of women was initially met with the same reaction from business there, companies soon adjusted and in some instances are now surpassing the targets. She also believes more can be done to make it easier for women to report sexual harassment in the workplace. Leaders could initiate conversation on harassment to set the tone.

She points out that more men are beginning to recognise that gender equality is a societal issue that affects everyone, for example by limiting economic growth. Too often gender equality is dealt with in companies as a human resource measure. However she notes that where gender and diversity have been taken up by a chief executive as part of improving leadership, progress in gender equality has been made. Yet while some men are coming around, Hicks notes that a backlash from others is growing. She points to the still high rate of rape and femicide in the country, and of school principals being attacked on the basis of their gender. What is also worrying, she says, is the recent formation of an organisation in KwaZulu-Natal for men who say they are discriminated against because of their gender. She says the country’s present measures to curb violence against women (special police training on gender violence, shelters for women and minimum sentencing for sexual offences) have not proved as effective as hoped.

A change has to be made towards more interventionist approaches, she believes, adding that the current gender power imbalance, gender inequality and a sense of impunity drives gender-based violence. Violence against women also costs the economy – this includes the days and weeks of not being able to attend work because of recovering physically and psychologically.

The Minister of Women, Susan Shabangu said in August 2015 that the Department will work with all stakeholders to conduct a detailed economic costing exercise of violence against women. Conservative economic costs by the World Bank in 2013 of loss of productivity due to violence against women are around two percent of global GDP.

Women’s Legal Centre attorney and spokesperson Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker says while the law provides for interdicts to be taken out for women to guard against domestic violence, there may be factors that make it more difficult to use the legal system. These could include the time it takes to grant a court interdict and whether for example women have to come into contact with those they are taking out an interdict against.

Looking back De Bruyn is not pleased. She says violence against women, which was once kept hidden in homes during apartheid, “descended” upon the country after 1994. She believes women’s better economic opportunities and the better positions available to them today make some men feel like they are a “lesser person” and lead to them lashing out. To change this she believes South African parents must set a good example in the home for their children, by working together and treating one another with respect.

Step it up, South Africa

South Africa still has much to do if it is to meet UN Women’s goal for all countries to achieve gender parity by 2030 (through its campaign Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for gender equality, launched in 2015). While more women must be elevated into leadership positions in business and politics and create stronger groups to lobby for women’s rights, the country must importantly get more serious about tackling violence and discrimination against women. Doing so will make South Africa a better place to live in – for everyone.

Everyone has a role to play to make gender equality a lived reality by 2030

  • In 1995, at the 4th World Conference on Women, 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which tabled the vision and mission for achieving gender equality. Twenty years later, on International Women’s Day, UN Women called for an expiry date to gender inequality. Using the slogan “Planet 50-50 by 2030 – Step it Up for Gender Equality” UN Women called for equality before 2030.
  • “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality asks governments to make national commitments to address the challenges that are holding women and girls back from reaching their full potential. Step It Up comes at a critical moment in time. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a comprehensive roadmap for the future of people and planet. Empowering women and girls is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Passing new laws or strengthening existing ones is one way to Step It Up. Other actions might include creating programmes to eradicate violence against women and girls, encouraging women’s participation in decision-making, investing in national action plans or policies for gender equality, creating public education campaigns to promote gender equality, and many more.

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country. Equality across all spheres – political, social and economics – begins with “achieving the goal of equal participation of women and men in decision-making (which) will provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society and is needed in order to strengthen democracy and promote its proper functioning” and that “without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.”
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