Women and the struggle for equality in South Africa

August represents “Women’s Month” in South Africa. Magazines celebrate women in various capacities – women who occupy positions of leadership; women in business; women who play crucial roles in uplifting their communities. Yet despite the increased visibility for some remarkable women, millions of South African women remain invisible.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressive may commemorate the 1956 march. We’ll update our Facebook status with our annual “Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo”. But not much is said about the women to whom we pay homage, and the indispensable role they played in shaping our country’s political, economic and social trajectory. The women who not only leaned in, but faced the whips and the teargas, for us to enjoy the public holiday however we may choose.

On 9 August 1956, more than 20 000 South African women of all races marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings in defiance of the pass laws. They challenged the idea that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and instead proclaimed that women belonged everywhere. Who were the women that organised and led them? Ma Lilian Ngoyi, Ma Helen Joseph,  Ma Rahima Moosa, Ma Sophia Williams, Ma Annie Silinga, Ma Francis Baard, Ma Albertina Sisulu, Ma Ray Alexander, Ma Helen Joseph, Ma Dora Tamana, Ma Amina Cachalia and Ma Liz Mafekeng, amongst many others.

Together they formed the foundation of the Federation of South African Women, responsible for organising one of the biggest protest marches in this country’s history. They were political activists and trade unionists, domestic workers and machinists, mothers and wives. They endured extended periods of banning orders, faced detention without trial and spent much time in solitary confinement. And despite the tremendous sacrifices they made for all of us to live in a free and democratic South Africa, their names remain largely unknown.

Of course, since that march, significant strides have been made in the advancement of ordinary women across the globe. More girls are attending school and more women are working in paid jobs outside of the agricultural sector. However, although women represent roughly 50% of people living in poor households both in the Global North and South, the “feminisation of poverty” persists. Poverty disproportionately affects women, as they remain economically dependent on men.

In many countries, statutory and customary laws continue to restrict women’s access to land and other assets. Lower proportions of women than men have their own cash income from labour because of the unequal division of paid and unpaid work. For women that do paid work, many are not consulted with on how their own cash earnings should be spent in the home.

Why do these problems continue despite the existence of international and national legal norms guaranteeing the right to gender equality? Much of it lies in how society at large relegates women to the outskirts, notwithstanding the vital role women continue to play in the fight for political, economic and social equality for their entire communities and not just themselves. It’s not that women are not physically visible in influential positions, but rather that the issues discussed, particularly that of the political-economy, remain in the realm or interest of men.

Rarely do we discuss how the outcome of poor decision-making processes by governments impact on the lives of women. Or how to protect vulnerable portions of our population when policies aimed to improve their lives do not yield the desired results. We tend to fall short on considering the real cost of corrupt practices and economic exclusion upon ordinary South African women and their ability to access basic needs such as health care, shelter, food and social security. Consequently, women continue to bear the brunt of poverty and violence in South Africa’s highly unequal landscape.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) have highlighted that all rights – civil, political, economic and social – are inextricably linked. While Gender Equality is a stand-alone SDG, it is recognised that the success of achieving the rest of the SDG’s requires a gendered approach to their implementation. However, according to the United Nations, gender norms in many societies continue to present major obstacles for women running for political office. Although some countries have quotas improving the chances of women being elected, once in office few women reach the higher echelons of political decision-making processes. Fewer women are elected as Heads of State or Ministers, and women seldom represent their governments at international level.

It should also not be forgotten that women’s interests vary significantly depending on ethnicity, class, race and other social factors. While women representation is important in structures and institutions of governance, representation on its own does not dismantle inequality and poverty, nor does it address the root causes that lead to and perpetuate the lower positions that millions of women currently occupy in society. Approaches such as “gender mainstreaming” are only useful when an assessment is made of the actual gains made by all women, and uncomfortable conversations are had about the causes of the perpetual discrimination and exclusion of women from the processes that directly affect them.

Increasing access to education for girls and women means little if the quality of education does not provide them access to the political, economic and social structures that perpetuate their poverty. Women should play key roles in determining how national budgets are prioritised, so that the core rights that affect them the most – such as education, health care, food, shelter, labour and social security – are effectively realised.

As noted recently by the UN in Addis Ababa, widening the tax revenue base, improving tax collection, and combatting tax evasion and illicit capital outflows is key in ensuring that the SDG’s are in fact achieved in poorer countries.  However, having access to budgets is meaningless if they are not transparent and easy to interpret by all members of society.

As we continue to experience in South Africa, formal laws on the books are not enough to guarantee that the lived experiences of all women, irrespective of their race or class, is actually improved. In accordance with international law, States have a duty to ensure that conditions are created to effectively realise all rights contained in treaties they have ratified. Policy making that places human rights principles of ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘minimum essential levels’ of rights enjoyment at the center will inevitably lead to a society where all of its members, including women, men and children, are able to live free from violence and poverty.

The women of 1956 were resolute in their position that women’s issues are not mere “soft” issues. Substantive gender equality can only be achieved when spaces traditionally occupied by men, predominantly in the realm of politics and economics, are expanded to include the voices and views of women, including those most vulnerable in our society. To the women who came before us, we stand tall on your shoulders. Thank you for the contributions that you have made, and continue to make, for those of us privileged enough, to be free.

Thandi Matthews is an attorney with experience in the private and public legal sectors in South Africa. She is a Senior Legal Officer at the South African Human Rights Commission, focusing on the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights by various state and non-state actors. Her interests lie in analysing the relationship between human rights, governance and society, and her academic work has been published in the South African Journal of Human Rights. She comments frequently in various media publications and panel discussions on issues affecting South Africa’s youth, with a particular emphasis on social transformation and its intersection with race and gender. She also sits as a non-executive Board member of the AIDS Consortium, an NGO which serves over 200 affiliated members in the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights sectors. Thandi holds a Masters in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University based at The Hague (Netherlands); a Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Bachelor of Social Sciences from the University of Cape Town. In 2015 she was selected by the US State Department as a Fulbright / Hubert Humphrey Fellow and based at the University of Minnesota Law School, United States.

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