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Women in South Africa still seek equality

While South Africa commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Constitution that replaced apartheid with a non-racial, democratic government, many of its citizens point to another equity struggle that remains.

“Patriarchy is the one common denominator that reaches across all 11 ethnic groups in our nation,” said Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Gender Links. The nonprofit organization, based in Johannesburg, focuses on gender equality research, training and advocacy.

“South Africa is supposed to be a democracy. We should be a country that is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ not ‘of men, by men and for men.’ South African women need to benefit from the equality that is spelled out in our Constitution.

Obtaining gender equity has been a huge challenge for South Africa because it is a country of many cultures, Morna said, and each is steeped in traditions that often run contrary to male/female equality.

Gender Links empowers women as leaders and educates the general public about the gender gap — and the biases that keep it in place. The organization’s vision — to create a nation in which men and women participate equally in all areas of private and public life — is shared by several nonprofit groups and also the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), one of six state institutions established by the 1996 Constitution.

Increasingly, South Africans are seeking equality for women in fields as diverse as mining and politics.
Increasingly, South Africans are seeking equality for women in fields as diverse as mining and politics.

Several steps already have been taken in the country to ensure legal gender equality, including the Employment Equity Act of 1998 and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000. Still, there’s a wide gap between the gender laws in print and how women are treated in practice, Morna said.

Leaders in the gender-equity field say women collectively are asking: “If we are the ones who carry water for drinking, collect firewood for cooking, and care for the young, old, sick and dying, then why don’t we have an equal voice in making decisions about government policies and projects that affect our lives, our communities and our country?”

The questioning has led to political action.

Like many other women, Mmatlou Salphina Mulauzi entered her first political contest after serving for years as an unofficial leader in her community. But she was stunned in December 2000 when she was elected to be aJohannesburg ward councilor at age 47.

“I felt sick for a whole week — frightened, yet excited, at the thought of what lay before me,” said Mulauzi,who was re-elected in 2006.

“I have made every effort to encourage women to participate as equals, even when this has meant that I have been unpopular with some male members of the community.”

Mulauzi and several other women are featured in The “I” Stories: City of Johannesburg Councillors Speak Out. The 2005 publication — which came out of an eight-month course on gender, communication and local government — was a joint venture between Gender Links and the city of Johannesburg.

In addition, the University of Witwatersrand provided a political science professor to be involved in the course, which was funded with Mott Foundation support. To date, Mott has provided three general support grants totaling $154,000 to assist Gender Links’ work.

In 2002, the Gender Advocacy Programme (GAP) of Cape Town, launched South Africa's 50/50 Campaign. Its partners include Gender Links, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Women’s Net and the CGE.

The campaign is part of a larger, international effort that aims to increase women’s access to elective office and, ultimately, secure their equal representation at all levels of government. Currently in South Africa, females comprise 52 percent of the nation’s population, but their presence in local, regional and national government posts ranges from 20 percent to almost 40 percent.

The 50/50 Campaign has contributed to some noticeable gains. Women now comprise almost 33 percent of the members of Parliament, four of the nation’s nine provincial leaders are women, and the deputy president is a woman.

In local government elections, women’s representation has been steadily on the rise. In 1995, they won 19 percent of local seats. In 2000, they garnered 29.1 percent, and in this year’s elections, 39.5 percent.

In addition to the larger proportion of political seats, gender-equality advocates were encouraged that the African National Congress (ANC), the nation’s ruling party, set a goal of 50 percent female representation in local government seats. It is not a legislated quota, however, and the ANC did not reach that figure during the 2006 elections.

Those in the gender equity field say the 50/50 Campaign is about more than filling slots.

“We want to go beyond the numbers. We want our issues higher on the political agenda,” said Pumla Mncayi, GAP’s director. To date, GAP has received five Mott grants totaling $599,500 for its women and government programs.

Mncayi said South African women share several concerns that they think haven’t been addressed adequately by the government. These include domestic violence, sexual offenses, HIV/AIDS, poverty, child support matters and low education levels among black women.

For example, GAP is concerned that while there is a national policy to provide early cervical cancer screenings, studies show that those most vulnerable — women with HIV/AIDS — are unaware of the program.

At GAP, educating and empowering historically disadvantaged women is a top priority. By providing programs that meet this need, GAP opens the door for women to obtain elected and non-elected leadership positions in their local communities and beyond.

Twice annually, a group of 30 women attend a two-week residential leadership course offered in the Western Cape province, where they are taught skills in presentation, organizational development, financial and project management, and advocacy.

While the leadership sessions are designed for women, both GAP and Gender Links provide education programs for men about gender biases, domestic violence and other topics.

“It’s not all women,” Mncayi said. “Men are also involved in this work. They run sessions where they talk about how real men don’t hit women.”

GAP took its anti-violence message to rural residents on the nation’s southwest coast when it helped coordinate a team of representatives from the departments of justice, social services and poverty alleviation, safety and security, correctional services, and the Saldanha Bay municipality, along with community and neighborhood watch groups, and religious leaders.

The team, which includes men and women, strives to raise local awareness about domestic violence, monitor implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, and address gaps in related service delivery.

For Morna at Gender Links, a correlation exists between the inequalities women experience in their private lives and the inequities they face publicly. Not surprisingly, she said, the province with the lowest national percentage of women winning seats in the recent local elections was KwaZulu Natal, one of the nation’s most traditional provinces.

Women and men discuss traditional biases that keep the gender gap in place in South Africa.
Women and men discuss traditional biases that keep the gender gap in place in South Africa.

In that province, the Zulu tribal king governs almost one million people. Under his leadership, communities encourage traditional public ceremonies such as “virginity testing” for girls when they reach puberty, but they require no similar test for boys.

Another example of accepted gender bias pertains to customary marriages, which are unions of husbands and wives in traditional, but non-legal, wedding ceremonies. While these marital arrangements always have been fully acknowledged within tribal communities, Morna said, they had not been recognized legally. Consequently, women couldn’t claim rights to their husbands’ financial assets upon divorce or death.

Recently, women’s rights groups advocated successfully to change the national law so all marriages will be legally recognized after they are formally registered, including previous traditional weddings.

Gender Links focuses much of its energy on researching the role and impact of women in both media and politics. The organization seeks to change the way media collect and deliver information to the public about women and women’s issues. Staff members provide trainings and create educational materials, such as videos and handbooks, to educate journalists about gender issues. They also teach reporters the importance of equal representation of men and women as news sources.

Morna, a former journalist, shakes her head in disbelief when discussing research that shows only 5 percent of media decisionmakers — producers, managers and owners — are women. Gender Links’ surveys also reveal that women’s voices are under-represented as hosts, guests and callers to radio talk shows, which are a popular form of information and entertainment in South Africa.

“Theoretically, radio talk shows are an amazing way for women to participate in public debate, and they are also a powerful way in which mindsets can be changed,” Morna said.

“Before, news was just dished out to audiences. Now, audiences can be much more actively engaged. We believe involvement is central to citizenship; central to participation in a democracy.”