Earlier this year social media across the globe was abuzz with discussions and comments when former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the Women in the World Summit in New York that advancing rights and opportunities for women are “the great unfinished business of the 21st century”. She struck a chord with many, including South Africans who re-tweeted her view.
No South African woman will disagree, that we have made great strides in addressing the inequalities within our society especially between women and men since 1994. Prior to our first democratic elections, black women were oppressed for their gender, race and class.
The social composition of the South African society basically classified women as second class citizens. Worst still the black women had to also endure the injustices of racial discrimination that was perpetrated by the Apartheid system.
At a high-level event on Women's Access to Justice in New York in 2012, President Jacob Zuma highlighted the hardships of women during apartheid. “Women were more likely to have less access to basic services, to earn the lowest wages or not find employment or promotions and were likely to be less treated seriously when going to law enforcement agencies or the courts for redress,” he said.
Today, we look back with pride on the role women played in eradicating these inequalities. The history of South African freedom struggles reflects the active participation of women alongside their male counterparts and in some cases women themselves taking the lead.
For instance, in 1913 about 600 women led by Charlotte Maxeke marched to the Bloemfontein City Council to protest the carrying of passes by women which they felt undermined their basic human rights. Again on the 9 August 1956 more than 20 000 women marched against the discriminatory pass laws that restricted the movement of black people.
During Women’s Month we salute all these women for their resoluteness to secure human rights and freedom. Today South Africa has a democracy that has enshrined the rights of women in the constitution.
Various government initiatives to empower women in the spheres of politics, education and the public and private sector have been implemented. We have granted thousands of bursaries to young women; we have also provided financial support to women-owned businesses.
However, the fight for gender equality in South Africa remains “unfinished business” with women still lagging behind in education, literacy, employment and financial standing.
At the recent release of the Gender Statistics in South Africa 2011 report, Statistician General Pali Lehohla summarised the status of the women in the country saying: "Women experience far higher unemployment, they experience a far lower participation rate [in the economy]. If we take only the participation rate of men, then we would be having very low unemployment rates in South Africa. Even in death, the registration of women who have died is much lower compared to the registration of dead men. That happens because there is nothing to inherit from a woman and a lot to inherit from a man."
The report further showed that of the country’s 51.8 million people, 51.4 per cent are women while 48.6 per cent are men. In comparison to their male counterparts, a larger percentage of women are illiterate and fewer completed schooling.
Gender equality is also reflected in employment figures. According to the Gender Statistics 2011 report, the unemployment rate of women aged between 15 and 64 was 2.9 per cent higher than the national average.
The report also stated: “The proportion of women with tertiary education who are employed is almost 10 percentage points lower than that of men with the same level of education. Furthermore, women with tertiary education earn around 82 per cent of what their male counterparts earn.”
On a positive note, it however indicated that women are gradually advancing in the corporate environment. Since 2001 the number of female managers increased from 20 per cent to 30 per cent. In spite of this, Statistician General Lehohla pointed out that “boardrooms are still male-dominated”.
The 2013 Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) also pointed towards the lack of gender transformation in the boardroom. It found that only 15 per cent of South African women were represented on boards compared to 26 per cent in our BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) counterparts.
Of more concern is the fact that the IBR points out that the percentage of working women in senior management positions had been static for the past six years.
Although South Africa has made great advances over the last 20 years, we need to accelerate gender transformation in our society. Government has therefore drafted the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which will enforce gender parity in decision-making structures in both the private and public sectors.
Gender equality in South Africa will ensure that we advance as a society. The National Development Plan (NDP), our 2030 Vision, emphasises that transformation of the economy should involve the active participation and empowerment of women. Additionally, it proposes a range of measures to achieve gender equality.
The plan prioritises the safety and protection of women and children. Sadly, too often horrific stories of gender violence and so-called corrective rape make headlines. Such acts that treat women as objects do not belong in our free society. They undermine the gains that we have made as a country.
Government is dealing with this crime with the seriousness it deserves. Consequently, the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units increased its staff complement and are now represented in all the 176 policing areas. From the judiciary side, there are 57 dedicated Sexual Offences Courts to deal with perpetrators of violence against women and children.
With more than half of our population being women, it is our “unfinished business” to ensure that we remove all obstacles that hinder girls and women in reaching their full potential. Only then can we be truly free as a nation.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System