As we celebrate two decades of Women’s Day, Janet Smith looks at some of the big issues and the major players.
Abortion: Heralded and despised, the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 marked a new era in reproductive rights. The department of health says it’s saved thousands of women’s lives, but it also created controversy among nurses now expected to perform abortions. Objectors were overruled by the high court, which said constitutional rights only apply to people, not foetuses.
Bill of Rights: Issued in 1993, it gave women formal recognition as equal citizens, after always being treated as second-class. Especially black women were disadvantaged, but now have the rights to life, dignity, privacy and equality. Even the state may not, in law, unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against a woman.
Cancer: Stats show that almost one in four women in South Africa will contract cancer. It’s a very serious threat, with breast and cervical cancer by far the most common. Increasing awareness is vital – a big job for government and NGOs – and women need to learn to do self-examinations regularly.
Divorce: The law has changed, and now there are only select grounds: irretrievable breakdown, and mental illness or the continuous unconsciousness of a partner. Women no longer have to show their spouse committed an offence, and the plan is that more family courts will hear cases to speed things up and reduce costs.
Education: More girls are enrolled in school and higher education, and girls seem to perform better at key competency tests. But they are more likely to drop out because of poverty, pregnancy, HIV and fees. And even when there are no social issues, girls don’t seem to get enough support in maths and science. A disturbing issue is gender-based violence at school.
Forcible sterilisation: Human rights activist Sthembiso Mthembu caused a stir at the recent Aids conference in Melbourne when she said at least 24 South African women had been compelled to do the procedure this year alone. Doctors told them it stops HIV transmission. The Women’s Legal Centre is said to be preparing to take cases to court.
Graça Machel: She’s not South African, but the Mozambican human rights activist has set the example for us with her compassion, and quiet devotion to Nelson Mandela.
Hiv: African women have the highest percentage of infection, and this can reflect on a fundamental lack of security. Many, for instance, are dependent on men who won’t use condoms. But antiretroviral use is expanding and more rape survivors are getting post-exposure prophylaxis. Yet the figures remain staggering: Up to one in three women aged between 25 and 29 being HIV positive.
Irma Stern: She’s been dead for nearly 50 years, but she’s still our most prized artist, her work can fetch millions upon millions, most recently £2.4 million (R43.5m) – the highest price for a South African work on auction – for Bahora Girl at Bonham’s.
Judges: The number of women judges on the benches is growing, but one has become an international face – thanks to Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial. Judge Thokozile Masipa was a journalist first and only became a lawyer in her 40s. Her decision in this matter will put her at the centre of news globally.
Killers: South African women can be ruthless – and their partners are not their only victims. A number of mothers kill their children, crying poverty or despair.
Lesbians: Our constitution prohibits unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, so lesbians are guaranteed equality. But that doesn’t mean they are protected in society. Corrective rape has become a horrifying phenomenon, and more than 30 lesbians have been brutalised and murdered over the past 15 years.
Marriage: Plenty has changed since 1994. Customary marriages now give women equal status, altering the dreaded Black Administration Act which gave black married women the same rights as children. Muslim women are now regarded as spouses in terms of inheritance. And maintenance laws have changed. This can be deducted from a salary and property can be seized.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma: President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, currently chair of the AU Commission, is one of the most important women in the country. Most likely to become our first woman president, should the ANC decide it must take the route of gender parity once Zuma is out of office, Dlamini-Zuma cheered up the Africa summit in Washington this week when she gave down-to-earth advice to women: Share your cares with other women, and make some time for yourself.
Old age: South African women tend to live longer than men, which means they must support themselves for longer, later, making them even more likely to experience poverty as they age. So government has a great responsibility. Many older women are raising children on behalf of family members. Many manage child grants well into their 60s. Their pensions are everything.
Police: Our police system is still not completely aligned with the aspirations of a violence-free nation. Many women are still unable to report rape because they fear uncaring police. The case of Alix Carmichele allowed more conversation on the subject. Rape survivor Carmichele sued for damages as the man who raped her was out on bail while awaiting trial on charges of attempted rape. The Constitutional Court held that the state was obliged to prevent gender-based discrimination and to protect the security of women.
Queens: Although there are a number of royal families, few queens have any influence on broader society. No one is forced to pay allegiance to them. Probably the one still most revered, is Nandi, Shaka’s mother, who died in 1827. This is in spite of the fact that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini married his sixth wife at Ondini Royal Palace late last month.
Rape: It’s been nearly 15 years since the UN Office on Crime and Drugs ranked SA as the highest in the world for rapes per capita. And so we became and remain, rape capital of the world. There are devastating reasons: one in every two women will be raped in her lifetime, and at least 20 percent of men told a survey that their victims “asked for it”.
Struggle: More than 100 years ago, Indian South African women launched a mass passive resistance campaign when they supported miners in Newcastle to strike against starvation wages. A year later, black women in Free State protested against the pass. Another five years later, women were organised when Charlotte Maxeke started the powerhouse Bantu Women’s League. By the 1950s Defiance Campaign, women were in the vanguard, their courage consolidating on August 9, 1956 when they marched on the Union Buildings. Motherhood and sisterhood are the foundation of our freedom.
Theron, Charlize: Charlize Theron. Consistently, our only globally famous woman.
United Nations star: Navi Pillay has created a stir through her exceptional work as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Soon to retire, the Durbanite was the first black woman judge of the high court of South Africa.
Violence: The Domestic Violence Act was introduced at the same time as a number of liberating laws in 1996. Its dream was to give protection against physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, to shift a dangerous status quo. Sadly, that did not happen. Last year, a study showed that 50 percent of women surveyed were victims.
Workplace: Although the ANC did not prove its own mandate to accord 50 percent of its positions to women after elections, it has consistently backed gender equality in the workplace, including at Parliament. Increases have also been shown in the private sector where more women sit on Boards, run companies and occupy senior posts. But even if socio-economic gaps are closing, and the new gender equality bill has been passed, aiming at 50 percent representation in decision-making structures, implementation is everything.
X-rated: Pornography is legal over the age of 18, and there are rare occasions when this is challenged. But a persistent issue is prostitution, which is still completely outlawed, even though it happens openly throughout the country. We need a national strategy for protection of sex workers’ rights, for safer sexual practices and to provide alternatives. Nothing quite on the cards yet.
Youth: South Africa is one of the most unhappy and insecure countries in the world to grow up as a girl. Many households are headed by girls because of HIV/Aids, even though they have neither the economic nor emotional means to carry this responsibility. Levels of violence against girls are uncommonly high in the world. Even teachers and village elders take advantage of them.
Zille, Helen: The leader of the DA has styled herself as a formidable force against the ANC, and with a lull in the ruling party’s women’s leadership, she has become something of a challenge to its men. But Zille does not particularly advance gender issues, and it is by coincidence more than design that she takes on that role. – Agencies, archives