As part of the global movement towards achieving gender equality by 2030, South Africa is celebrating 2021 Women’s month under the theme: “Generation Equality – Realizing Women’s Rights for an Equal Future”. The theme associates South Africa to global efforts to achieve gender equality by 2030. There are noteworthy progress towards achieving gender equality in South Africa, regardless of the continuing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender equality. Gender equality moments in South Africa started way back in 1956, when 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. Activists rebelled against a patriarchal system designed to control women and reduce them to submissive beings at the mercy of men. The government of South Africa reinforced its commitment to gender equality in the Constitution and has enacted and amended various laws and policies to redress gender inequality.
While noteworthy progress has been accomplished in the battle against gender inequality, elimination of critical challenges such as educational and employment inequality, early pregnancy femicide and gender-based violence, discussed hereunder, will enable young girls and women to improve their socio-economic prospects and gain strength to demand their fundamental rights.
Educational inequality has become one of the challenges facing women not only in South Africa but global at large. Access to education has played a pivotal role in ensuring that women have progressed to higher education levels. General Household Survey (GHS) statistics of 2019 indicate and that more women are now literate. According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2019 country report, GPR for female participation in tertiary education was 1,39 during 2016, underpinning the fact that significant strides have been achieved in ensuring universal access to education for everyone. While success has been achieved in terms of access, the quality of the educational experience for both boys and girls remains extremely poor for most learners. Schools continue to be the context for gender inequalities experienced by both boys and girls; these inequalities are increasingly more subtle, which makes them difficult to deal with.
Gender equality means that girls and women have equal learning opportunities with their male counterparts. However, an equity approach to gender in education suggests that girls may require more in order to reach equality. Boys and girls have different life experiences which play out in the education system, both within the school classroom and later in higher education institutions. In other words, ‘priority assistance’ or identified affirmative action may be necessary in order to provide girls with more opportunities and equal learning experiences. In terms of education, this means taking consideration of the specific needs of girls so that their experiences in the schooling system are reflective of these needs. These would include facilities set up for girls’ sexual and reproductive health needs (pregnancy and gender and sexual violence) and safe and functional infrastructure and sanitation facilities for menstruation.
Negative stereotypical discourses about girls’ ability to perform well at school continue to impact their learning opportunities. This ranges from daily school practices that may discourage girls from pursuing studies in mathematics, science and other technical subjects and the gendered norms regarding the domestic and physical labour of keeping the classrooms clean. A number of analysts have suggested, these gender stereotypes are a central characteristic of exclusionary practices that result in girls underachieving in, as well as leaving, school.
To date, South Africa’s progressive laws have paved the way to more women serving in high-ranking positions in government than ever before. However, female unemployment rate has remained higher in the country than that of their male counterparts. This indicates apparent disparities between men and women in different facets of life, which leaves women lagging in terms of socio-economic opportunities. Statistics SA indicated that the 2021 unemployment rates for males and females were 31,4% and 34,0%, respectively. In addition, more women (56,2%) than men tended to be discouraged from participating in the labour market. Statistics indicate that in 2020 and 2021, more than four in every ten young females were not in employment, education or training. And that, females, were more likely to offer “family commitment” as a reason for not attending school than males for 17,1% compared to men 0,3%.
The prevalence of traditional views of women’s role within households limits their participation in paid work and entrepreneurial activities. The percentage of women in the so-called male-dominated sectors such as mining and quarrying, manufacturing and construction is deficient, and South Africa needs to do much more to employ more women in these sectors, ensuring gender equality in the workplace.
The lockdown measures affected many businesses, women were out of employment and financially incapacitated has escalated the patterns of gender inequality to in paid workforce and entrepreneurship. The government has adopted different anti-discriminatory laws to expedite equal jobs to improve the position of women in the workplace. These including the National Policy Framework on Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, 2000, The Gender Policy Framework for Local Government, 2007 and the Employment Equity Act, 55 of 1998. It is important that the laws and policies in place be effectively implemented to achieve equality in the workplace.
Child and teenage pregnancy significantly impact the empowerment of women. In 2019, almost 6% of girls between 14 -19 years of age were at different stages of pregnancy during the 12 months before the survey. Even though young girls are allowed to attend school while pregnant, other challenges such as financial and family support and discrimination and victimization from society exist that hinders them from progressing to higher levels of education. Early pregnancy stands in direct conflict with eight (almost half) of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including promoting education and women’s empowerment and reducing poverty, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS rates. Researches show a clear negative correlation between countries’ early pregnancies and their Human Development Index (HDI) ranking.
Lost growth opportunity, the cost to healthcare systems, lost education and earnings, lower growth potential, and the perpetuation of poverty are among the major impact of early pregnancy. Girls need to be empowered and educated at a young age to prevent becoming victims of early pregnancy.
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and Femicide
GBV is another major societal challenge in South Africa that cause untold hardships, including physical, mental and financial tensions. It is reported that some individuals still believe it is justifiable under certain circumstances to beat a wife. About 5,6% of the population believes that it is justified for a man to beat his partner or wife if she has sex with another man or woman, and about 3,3% believed it is justified to do so if she neglects the children. According to the SADHS 2016, one in four (26%) ever-partnered women age 18 or older have experienced intimate partner physical, sexual, or emotional violence in their lifetime. The lockdown measures are also reported to increase GBV cases in the country. Women’s homes have been referred to as the most unsafe place for them during the lockdown as perpetrators of GBV have unfettered access to victims. The lockdown regulations hindered the victims and survivors from going out to seek protection and services. The severe restrictions of movement caused women who suffered GBV to struggle to report abuse as the organizations working to provide safety and support to women were not recognized as “essential service providers. ”
Further, the sex-based hate crime known as femicide is rampant in South Africa. Femicide is the most extreme form of GBV, defined by the World Health Organisation as “the intentional murder of women because they are women”. A total number of 13 815 women over the age of 18 years were murdered between 2015-2018 in the country, which is an average of seven women a day. South Africa is among the five countries with the highest female homicide rates at the international level. GBV and femicide are complex issues that necessitating a multifaceted response and commitment from all relevant stakeholders. Development of a criminal justice system that is victim-oriented and the establishment of an inter-departmental coordination mechanism to harmonize the spectrum of services available to victims and survivors of GBV and femicide will interject to the elimination of GBV and femicide.
Addressing the above barriers will ensure a safer South Africa for the women of today and tomorrow. By denying women prospects and potential, you deny society the opportunity to prosper. Women contribute almost 50 per cent to developments, from the low level of family activities to the high level of state governance. Therefore, their rights and welfare should not be treated separately from other state developmental goals.
Dr Norah Msuya is an academician. She writes in her personal capacity.