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Although significant strides had been made to empower women and promote gender equality in South Africa, they were still bearing a “disproportionate burden” of the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. So said the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana.
Introducing the debate on National Women’s Day at a joint sitting of Parliament, Xingwana said women continued to be marginalised and discriminated against in terms of economic opportunities, the labour market and access to land, credit and finance.
“A life of abuse, discrimination and violation of human rights remains the harsh reality for the majority of the women in our country,” Xingwana said.
The government remained concerned at the continued exclusion and under-representation of women at the executive level of many companies.
“It is disheartening that in this day and age there are still companies that have a nought percent women representation of directors and executive managers. According to the 2011 Businesswomen’s Association census, women are clearly in the minority among their male counterparts in leadership positions… holding only 4.4 percent of CEO/MD positions, 5.3 percent of chairperson positions, and 15.8 percent of all directorships. The same report indicates that in the public service, women hold 35 percent of all senior management positions.
“It has become clear that the empowerment of women cannot be left to market forces.”
Xingwana said the drafting of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill – aimed at enforcing compliance with women’s empowerment and gender equality – was at an advanced stage and a draft bill would be tabled before cabinet during the 2012/13 financial year.
She said her department was facilitating financial support and training for women farmers and women’s co-operatives. This was because financial dependence on husbands, fathers, partners and family members had increased women’s vulnerability to domestic violence, rape, incest, abuse and murder.
“Lack of economic independence makes it difficult for many women to walk out of abusive relationships.”
Xingwana said the “scourge” of poverty in rural areas bore a “female face”, with the rural profile of SA continuing to be one of female-headed households, growing poverty, human rights abuses and increased gender-based violence, unemployment and a high prevalence of HIV and Aids.
Xingwana hailed the “almost universal” opposition to the controversial Traditional Courts Bill.
“As a result of the relentless and unequivocal position adopted by the women, this bill will certainly not see the light of day in its current form.”
DA spokeswoman on women, children and people with disabilities, Helen Lamoela, who recently asked the Public Protector to investigate a DA complaint that Xingwana’s department was failing to deliver on its mandate, hit out at the minister for misusing “scant state resources” which, she said, should be directed towards authentic women empowerment.
“At a time when the women, children and people living with disabilities remain disadvantaged, we witnessed the grotesque spectacle of lavish spending on overseas trips. The department forked out R6.8 million for a two-week trip to New York for a delegation of 49 officials in February 2011. It is time for this government to get its priorities in order by getting the basics right,” she said.
Lamoela said South Africa’s economy would only operate “at 50 percent capacity” unless women were fully capacitated.
IFP MP, Liezl van der Merwe, said women’s empowerment needed “much more than lip-service”.
In her maiden speech, Van der Merwe said the fledgling Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities needed to be resuscitated.
“Despite its good intentions, this department has failed to live up to its own mandate. The current state of this department begs the question of whether the government has the necessary will and commitment to advance the rights of women.
“We need urgent interventions,” said Van der Merwe.
“The plight of women with disabilities and elderly women cannot be ignored. There are grandmothers who are being raped in front of their grandchildren, there are mothers who cannot access education for their children… and every 25 seconds, women and girls fall victim to rape.”