Helen Joseph leads a march by more than 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956, to protest against the extension of the notorious pass laws.
Helen Joseph leads a march by more than 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956, to protest against the extension of the notorious pass laws.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, centre, led a march during a Womens Day rally in Pretoria on August 9, 2000.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, centre, led a march during a Womens Day rally in Pretoria on August 9, 2000.

 

The annual celebration of the historic march of women to the Union Buildings in 1956, when women protested against the wearing of the “dompass”, is also a time to reflect on the state of gender equality in South Africa.

About 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to hand a petition to prime minister, JG Strydom.

They chanted the now familiar chant: “If you strike a woman, you have struck a rock!”

There are many reasons to celebrate Women’s Day such as the acceptance of a 50 percent voluntary quota for women’s representation in the government by the ANC, leading to 45 percent of women in Parliament.

In the past nearly 20 years, many women-friendly acts were passed by Parliament, such as the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, the Sexual Offences Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the Maintenance Act and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act.

Yet, serious challenges remain such as the inordinate high levels of gender-based violence, harmful cultural practices that encroach on women’s freedom, a glass ceiling for women in the private sector and the lack of land ownership for many women.

South Africa has higher levels of gender-based violence than many countries at war. The SAPS statistics for sexual assault and rape for 2011-2012 was 64 514, by far an under-reporting of rape.

The tragic death of Anene Booysen in February underscores the brutal and fatal nature of rape in South Africa.

Too many lesbian girls are dying at the hands of those who believe that “corrective rape” will change their sexual orientation. The SA Police Service has a chequered record in assisting rape survivors, very often aggravating their burden by not enforcing the Sexual Offences or Domestic Violence Acts properly.

Nationally, shelters for domestic violence are facing a funding crisis, and in the Western Cape as many as 10 women a week are turned away for lack of space.

As long as any woman is afraid to walk alone during the day or at night, or as long as she is not safe in her own home, we cannot talk about gender equality.

Eighteen million South Africans live under customary law that make women very vulnerable, given their positions of subordination to men living under customary law.

During the period of President Jacob Zuma’s presidency, more and more power has been bestowed on traditional leaders, often with a detrimental effect for women.

The highly contentious Traditional Courts Bill (TCB) will prevent women from representing their own issues in these courts. They will have to be represented by male relatives.

Traditional leaders without legal training will preside over these courts. The Communal Land Rights Act (CLaRA) has given enormous powers to traditional leaders to distribute land, again without taking women’s usage of and demand for land into consideration.

CLaRA has passed through Parliament, the TCB (Traditional Courts Bill) is pending.

Harmful cultural practices such as Ukuthwala, a practice that in the past united two families where a young man and woman wanted to get married, has been distorted so that older men now abduct young girls (as young as 10, rape them and treat them as their wives).

This contributes to the violation of women’s human rights. So, does virginity testing as a method to prevent the spread of the HI virus.

Men’s feelings of entitlement to multiple sexual partners contribute to the spread of the HI virus and to regular exposés of men in positions of power, of behaviour that is quite shameful.

Culture is not static, but should develop to reflect the impact of the constitution on its development.

Only about 7 percent of women are in positions of managing directors or chief executive officers in the private sector.

There is a glass ceiling for women, very often as a consequence of the acceptance of the divide between the private sphere (home) and the public sphere (work and politics).

Women’s care work in the home very often translates into lesser opportunities for them outside the home. If women succeed in middle management, why won’t they succeed in top management?

Women’s lack of access to land, especially in the rural areas, where they work the land and produce food for subsistence, contributes to food insecurity and women’s own security of tenure on land that they can consider theirs.

The Commission for Gender Equality is currently working on an initiative titled “One Woman, One Hectare” to promote the importance of land access for women.

We should celebrate the heroic march of our sisters to the Union Buildings on Women’s Day, but we should also pause to think about how much still needs to be done for women to get their rightful place in the South African democracy.

* Gouws is from the Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University, and commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality