Gender laws cause concern

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Durban - Business and civil society groups are singing off the same hymn sheet – while representing very different constituencies, they share concerns that the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill is vague, lacking in enforcement mechanisms and contradicts several laws.

Criticism has also come from the Commission for Gender Equality, a Chapter 9 institution established under the constitution to support democracy.

It says the bill would fail to establish “any new or creative initiatives” to promote women’s empowerment as it appears to address challenges faced by a small percentage of women in South Africa, namely those in employment or participating in public life”, not women in rural areas and vulnerable economic sectors or those who were unemployed.

This emerged in public hearings this week before the parliamentary committee on women, children and people with disabilities.

The draft law, dubbed the Gender Bill, is part of the legislative agenda of President Jacob Zuma’s administration, although it remains to be seen if it will be passed by Parliament before the elections in about three months.

Obstacles

A coalition of seven civil society organisations lobbying for women’s rights rejected the bill for failing to deal with such obstacles to women’s empowerment as patriarchy and the inadequate implementation of laws on women.

“Do we really need another piece of legislation when one of the biggest issues is that the existing framework is not implemented?” said Samantha Waterhouse, of the University of the Western Cape Community Law Centre’s parliamentary programme, one of the NGO coalitions alongside others, like the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, Sonke Gender Justice Network and the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce.

Waterhouse said a plethora of laws pertaining to women was not being fully implemented.

This was compounded by “pathetic political will” and the absence of budgets.

While the bill was “nodding in the right direction”, the biggest issue raised at preparatory workshops attended by delegates from grass roots and NGOs in at least six provinces was not whether there was 50-50 representation of men and women at management level, but what would bring about real change in women’s lives.

Deep concerns remained about the effective implementation of legislation relating to sexual offences and the prevention of domestic violence, said Waterhouse.

While 30 percent of seats on traditional councils were supposed to be occupied by women, in many cases they were expected, in practice, to sit on the floor and not speak, or to serve tea.

Business Unity South Africa (Busa) cautioned it could not support a “super bill” that appeared to nullify other laws, such as the Employment Equity Act and the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act.

“Business is in no position to support the bill as it has the potential to obligate business to usurp the functions of government and as such is unreasonable in approach,” said Busa’s submission.

The bill, which could adversely affect investment and economic growth, also failed to take into account that some industries were dominated by women, such as the food service, where 94 percent of positions were held by women, nursing (97 percent) and social work (87 percent).

Busa pointed out that the bill had been withdrawn from the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) over its ambiguity and the department’s failure to gives its reasons for its introduction.


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