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Action on gender equality: The past, present and future are weighted against women

10 August 2021

By Allan Tumbo

The government has the task of eradicating GBV in SA and restructuring a historically unequal economy that marginalises women and youth, while preparing for a future that may bring further inequalities. Yet the government alone cannot accomplish this task.

Women’s Day marks the anniversary of the great women’s march of 1956, where women marched to the Union Buildings to protest the carrying of passbooks. There were significant perils that came with protesting during this time, demonstrating the solidarity and unfaltering courage of the 20,000 women that marched. At the centre of the march was the resistance to a system that controlled women and reduced women to passive beings, at the mercy of men. Sixty-five years have passed since this ground-breaking march, and the legacy and persistence of the marginalisation of women remains a key area of reflection.

The theme for this year’s Women’s Month, however, demands that we are more forward looking, than reflective. Women’s Month will be celebrated this August under the theme: “Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights for an Equal Future.” This theme is not only timely but also recognises the fact that gender equality is a key component for achieving sustainable development in South Africa and globally. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable country and world.

The SDGs require countries to pursue gender equality by eliminating all forms of discrimination against all women, and eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls by 2030. The sustainable development agenda is squarely rooted in the principle of “leave no one behind”. With less than nine years to go to 2030, it is clear that achieving these goals will require some significant intervention to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV) and inequality. Both have a long-lasting history and legacy and are deeply ingrained in the patriarchal and misogynist practices, traditions, and systems within South Africa. Moreover, as we look to ensure a more equal society for all going forward, we must focus on ensuring that today’s girl child develops to her full potential, thereby promoting intergenerational gender justice. The SDGs recognise the importance of ensuring that the girl child’s survival, development and protection needs are met, so as to build a stronger and more resilient future for all.

Oxfam has highlighted that the alarmingly high rates of GBV make being a woman in South Africa more dangerous than being in some of the world’s war-torn areas. This notion speaks volumes, especially when considering the lawlessness, damage and destruction, and looting that are characteristic of war-torn areas. Some 51% of women in South Africa say they have experienced gender-based violence, with 76% of men saying they have perpetrated GBV at one stage in their lives, according to the Africa Health Organisation. According to Unicef, a third of girls in South Africa have experienced violence. This is due to the legacy of apartheid and colonialism; high forms of unemployment; the many children who are orphans due to the HIV pandemic; the current GBV pandemic, and other factors. It is further important to highlight the fact that the Covid-19 lockdown has exacerbated this situation in the home environment, which has increasingly become an enclave of cruelty, rape and violence for women and girls trapped with abusive family members and nowhere to report or escape the danger, according to Amnesty International.

It is therefore clear as to where interventions to eliminate GBV should be targeted, namely our particularly violent men. On the one hand, the failures of the justice system to administer justice for women and girls have been well documented despite the existence of a strong legal and policy framework, enabling women to lay criminal complaints against offenders. On the other hand, what we are not seeing enough of are targeted initiatives to prevent and address the propensity of men to be violent towards women in general, but particularly those that are close to them. Moreover, gender equality should be mainstreamed into policy, laws, and all social programmes so as to address structural discrimination that often manifests as individual prejudice. Finally, it is important to remember that poverty constitutes a form of structural violence, which disproportionately affects women and girls.

The issues for women in the household are not limited to violence, but also include the impacts of inequality on their daily livelihood. Oxfam expands on the inequality faced by women, who are in turn an exploited labour force: marginalised from the formal economy, paid less than males for the same work and performing minimally paid or wholly unpaid social reproductive labour. It is therefore no surprise that women are also more likely than men to live below 50% of the median income. The result of this is that women are more likely to have less access to basic needs, with UN Women estimating that 43% of women in South Africa are food insecure. Additionally, where women are single mothers, they have a high probability of living in poverty.  The impact of this trickles to the children in the household, increasing the generation’s dependency on the state to alleviate the impact of poverty in their lives. As such, it can be understood that where the government delays payment of grants, or discontinues grants, as was the case with the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant in April, this places a large proportion of women in what is beyond a dire situation.  

Inequalities and violence are therefore particularly harsh on women in South Africa, regardless of age.  These two components also form part of what have been highlighted as key contributions to the recent unrest that played out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July, which has been characterised as the most violent and destructive in the democratic era. Whether this is indeed the case remains contested and must be corroborated by further evidence and research. However, the combination of the unrest and increasing levels of protest in South Africa point to the fact that the situation remains unsustainable.

Amid all of this is the fact that South Africa needs to be prepared to participate in and benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and ensure that it can alleviate the inequality in the country. Unfortunately, as argued by the World Economic Forum (WEF), inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the 4IR. It is further submitted by the WEF that to date those who have gained the most from the 4IR have been consumers able to afford and access the digital world. Given the situation described above, the ability of women to afford adequate access to the digital world is surely constrained, given the low levels of income, high levels of school dropouts, and the fact that basic rights such as food remain largely unaffordable. Initiatives such as the recent draft National Data and Cloud Policy, although far from perfect, recognise the need to empower rural women to harness the benefits that the 4IR potentially holds.

The government therefore has the task of eradicating GBV in the country, restructuring a historically unequal economy that marginalises women and youth, while preparing for a future that may bring further inequalities. Yet the government alone cannot accomplish this task. Every member of society must actively promote gender equality in their business, political and social interactions.

As we consider the future of women in South Africa, it is pivotal that we seek appropriate responses from the government and other role players not only to addressing a system that is fundamentally discriminatory towards women, but also to ensure that such measures will stand the test of time and respond to the needs and impact of the 4IR. DM

Source: Daily Maverick

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