Women’s empowerment should top BRICS Summit’s agenda

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube addresses the opening and launch of the Women’s Month and BRICS at Coastlands hotel in Durban, KZN. Picture: Nqobile Mbonambi/African News Agency (ANA).

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube addresses the opening and launch of the Women’s Month and BRICS at Coastlands hotel in Durban, KZN. Picture: Nqobile Mbonambi/African News Agency (ANA).

Published Aug 16, 2023


August is Women’s Month, a time to reflect upon and evaluate the progress women in South Africa and BRICS have made over the past 67 years.

On August 9, 1956, 20000 South African women representing all communities marched to the apartheid government offices in the Union Buildings in Pretoria. For the past 67 years, August 9 has been commemorated as Women’s Day in South Africa.

It marks the day the women of South Africa stood up to the apartheid regime to protest the extension of pass laws to African women.

On July 31, 2014, the Women’s Movement in South Africa, in conjunction with government, declared August Women’s Month.

This declaration was in response to the ongoing struggles of women in South Africa and in response to the UN’s call on all countries to move towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030.

For women in South Africa and the BRICS nations, the SDG 5 speaks to gender equality.

The SDG 5 calls upon all nations to: “End all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere; Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation; Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; Recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and family; Ensure women’s full and effective participation and opportunities for leadership and decision-making; Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights;

Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, ownership, property, financial services and inheritance; Enhance the use of enabling technology in ICT to promote women’s empowerment, and finally, Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”

Almost all these sub-goals in SDG 5 were first discussed and encapsulated in the Beijing Platform of Action that emanated from the fourth UN World Conference On Women in September 1995 in China. Women from South Africa, China, India, and from the Global South played an important role in defining the Beijing Platform of Action.

Women in South Africa have now decided that this year they will place special emphasis on SDG 5 that calls for women and girls’ social and economic empowerment, contributing to their ability to pursue their right to a healthy life. In 2023 the official theme for celebrating Women’s Month in South Africa is: “Women’s Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women’s Improved Resilience.”

This theme links South Africa to the international campaign on Generation Equality as part of its efforts to achieve gender equality by 2030 in line with SDG 5. Underpinning this theme is a commitment to stand against a system that controls women as being subservient and passive beings at the mercy of man.

As part of SDG 5 this agency is integral to inclusive and sustainable development as economic empowerment contributes to the pursuance of the right to a healthy life.

Women and girls’ social and economic empowerment contributes to their ability to pursue their right to a healthy life. In South Africa today there is an awareness that socio-economic empowerment is contingent upon sustainable economic development and empowering women to be an integral part of that process.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) data shows that globally women comprise 49.6% of the population, but have fewer opportunities to control their lives and make decisions. In a report on BRICS countries the ILO reports that with respect to women empowerment, challenges remain despite all the group’s members having ratified the 1951 Equal Remuneration Convention.

The biggest challenge is not implementing the convention in national legislation, and consequently structural discrimination in employment persists.

The BRICS countries need to put in place legal, institutional and government policy frameworks to deal with the roots of the discrimination.

Gender equality in education and employment contributes to economic growth and development. The 2022 SDG UN Gender Inequality Index across 129 countries shows that BRICS countries are under-performing against the international average on gender.

A recent academic study on the role of women in economic development in BRICS by M K Pandey and I G Sergeeva in 2022 (in the Journal of New Economy, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 43-65. DOI: 10.29141/2658-5081-2022-23-1-3) confirms the under-performance of BRICS countries when it comes to gender disparities.

The empirical study by Pandey and Sergeeva used 2000 to 2021 World Bank data to assess women’s empowerment according to the UN Gender Inequality Index with respect to empowerment, health, and labour markets.

The study found the BRICS countries lag far behind when it comes to real justice for women’s empowerment. Of the five countries, China and Russia were found to have put the greatest effort into reducing the gender gap between women and men.

Brazil is making some effort but still lags behind, while South Africa and India are confronted by deep-seated cultural problems and dynamics that mitigate against structural change.

In India women carry the burden of being home makers, producers of goods and services and caregivers.

The study found that over the past 40 years China has made progress in almost all areas when it comes to disparities faced by women. The UN recently reported that over the period, China managed to eliminate absolute poverty, especially in rural areas. This investment has led to women’s economic empowerment and equality in general. China embarked upon reforms that promote women and girls in higher education, mainstream employment, better wages and entrepreneurship.

Despite 19 years of a post-apartheid government, the study found that women in South Africa are still held back by traditional beliefs about gender roles. Post-apartheid South Africa has given women more opportunities, but this is accompanied by new obstacles. The women’s movement that grew out of the Struggle against apartheid in the 1950s has been consolidated into a powerful new force in the struggle against inequality and economic disparity for women.

However, notwithstanding this development, the ILO reported in 2017 that women constituted 51% of the total South African population, and yet their participation in the workforce was only at 44.3%, and at lower levels of employment.

The Pandey and Sargeeva study suggests that even in 2021, gender-based discrimination and segregation persisted in the labour market where women work in low paid, poor quality, miserable working conditions, with no access to social protection.

Although the government has introduced policies and legislation that are in favour of women, they face the challenge of dealing with the inequality in accessing basic social services in health, education, transport, housing and justice for gender-based violence.

To break through the glass ceiling that prevents women from attaining their potential, women in all the BRICS countries need the support and encouragement from the forthcoming BRICS heads of state summit. The summit needs to address the challenges listed in this article if the heads of state wish to promote economic growth and development in BRICS.

The Pandey and Sargeeva study make several important recommendations that BRICS should consider. The study recommends work-life integration to improve productivity where working mothers may benefit from workplace flexibility; increasing and enabling access to public and private finance and resources and investment to open markets for women entrepreneurs; promoting internet technology among women to enable women in the workforce to be connected locally and globally; addressing barriers that prevent women from accessing leadership positions by creating opportunities for women; and providing quality education to advance gender equality in the workforce by motivating private and public sector employers to provide education and training for women.

If the BRICS Summit takes decisions to promote these recommendations for the women in BRICS, then South African women will feel justified in the country hosting BRICS related activities in South Africa.

Josie is an Adjunct Professor at University of Venda.

Cape Times

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