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The unfinished business of equality

Ten years into our democracy, gender inequity remains a challenge.

Since 1994 we have seen significant changes in policy development that reflect the government’s commitment to responding to this challenge. But implementation of progressive policies has been uneven and the high levels of unemployment, HIV/Aids and sexual violence against women have created a dire situation that government departments have struggled to respond to.

The jobless growth of the economy has led to increased reliance and pressure on government structures, placing on them an overwhelming burden to help uplift those excluded from the formal economy.

It is women, particularly rural African women, who most often bear the brunt of social and economic inequality, yet they are also the population sector that slips most easily through the net of social policy and research.

In addition to being vulnerable to crime, indigent women and children continue to face secondary victimisation when seeking support from government structures.

Women who are victims of violence, who suffer through the non-payment of maintenance and the remnants of patriarchal family laws are often further subjected to bureaucracies and government agencies that are inadequate to deal with their specific needs.

Three recent reports published by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, under the title Investigating the Implication of Ten Years of Democracy for Women, provide an in-depth analysis of these issues in relation to the departments of justice, labour and social development.

Social development

Women bear much of the burden of poverty.

The Department of Social Development has considerably extended its social grants programme since 1998. Currently grants reach about six million people.

Women are the primary beneficiaries of most social grants. While the number of people accessing grants has increased, inefficiency and lack of capacity still present challenges in administering these grants.

The child support grant, which replaced the state maintenance grant in 1998, has been one of the most effective mechanisms catering for vulnerable women and children. The grant has targeted three-million poor children.

The ceiling for eligibility has been raised from seven years of age to 14 and the grant has been increased to R170 a month.

Owing to inflation, existing grants such as the old age pension, care dependency and disability grants have declined in real value since 1997.


Women continue to account for more than half of all unemployed people, with African women facing the highest rates of unemployment.

Racial inequalities remain a central part of the problem. While the past decade has shown changes in the racial and gender composition of the labour force, these changes have taken place predominantly at the top.

Even at managerial level, just 16% are white women and only 6% are black women.

The Department of Labour is central to containing some of the most severe effects of unemployment.

The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), administered by the department, has undergone a major overhaul in the past five years.

The inclusion of high earners as contributors to the fund allows for cross-subsidisation of lower-paid workers, a group that includes a disproportionate number of women, who are more vulnerable to unemployment.

However, as the fund covers only a portion of previous wages earned, wages which are often extremely low, UIF payouts are often inadequate to cover living expenses.

One of the major successes of the department has been the institution of the sectoral determination for domestic workers that came into force in late 2002.

It prescribed minimum wages and basic conditions of employment as well as obliging employers to register domestic workers for UIF.

More than a million workers, mostly African women, are employed in the informal sector as domestics.

Women outnumber men in the informal sector with African women making up more than half the workers in the sector. The absorption of women into the informal economy is a mixed blessing. While it helps those excluded from the formal economy, it often places workers in a vulnerable position, due to a lack of unionisation, written contracts, and benefits.

The National Skills Development Strategy is also an important element of the department’s mandate.

The department aims to improve skills through levies and programmes run through the sector educating and training authorities (Setas).

In 2001 the minister of labour set a series of specific goals to be achieved by 2005. These included equity objectives: 85% of those benefiting from the strategy must be black and 54% must be female.

In terms of the equity targets the Department of Labour still has much work to do. Only 20% of workers who have achieved Level One of the National Qualifications Framework are women and only 41% of workers participating in structured learning programmes are women. The department’s programme for the Training of Unemployed People included a high proportion of women in some sectors, but these figures mirrored gender stereotyping in the existing workforce, by channeling women into low-paying jobs such as textiles, craft and domestic work.

The department aims to improve skills through levies and programmes run through the sector educating and training authorities.

In terms of the equity targets the department still has much work to do. Only 20% of workers who have achieved level one of the National Qualifications Framework are women and only 41% of workers participating in structured learning programmes are women.

A significant improvement in the working conditions of women can be attributed to the Employment Equity Act, the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

These pieces of legislation have outlawed gender discrimination in the workplace, limited working hours and provided for longer maternity leave, family responsibility leave and protection against dismissal for pregnant women.


In the context of high levels of sexual and domestic violence, the South African justice system has often exacerbated the trauma and suffering of women exposed to violence.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has recognised the critical importance of these issues and taken steps to address them. The department can be praised for attempting to implement a transformation of the justice system to make it more sensitive and responsive to the particular needs of women.

The two major plans of action in this regard are Justice Vision 2000 and the Gender Policy Statement.

Where the Justice Vision 2000 policy expressed the need for a focus on human rights and attention to vulnerable groups, it paid little heed to the specific needs of women within the justice system.

The Gender Policy Statement stresses three pillars necessary for transformation: the department’s responsibility as a service provider; its role as an employer and its mechanisms of policy development.

The department has stepped up its efforts to prosecute maintenance defaulters. Legislation has clearly outlined the responsibilities of the various departments through the Domestic Violence Act. Yet these moves have failed in many respects to be translated in practice at a court room and institutional level.

The Family Courts were launched in 1999 as a pilot project, providing holistic divorce, domestic violence, maintenance and children’s court services. Yet, five years later these courts remain pilot projects and have not been assimilated into the broader justice system.

An important sub-programme within the National Prosecuting Authority is the sexual offences and community affairs unit, which provides assistance to vulnerable women and children through public education and the sexual offence courts. There are 39 such courts nationwide which are geared towards creating an environment conducive to hearing matters of a personal and traumatic nature.

Another development is the four Thuthuzela care centres around the country.

These centres operate on a 24-hour basis, and provide a one-stop service where victims are provided with assistance from medical staff, police investigators and counsellors.

Yet, the need for such services vastly overwhelms their capacity. These projects also appear to be funded entirely from donor money and not from government coffers.

This raises question about the seriousness with which the department is dealing with the need for a holistic and accessible justice system.

Still struggling

Women continue to be more vulnerable to the problems that plague our society. We need to be vigilant about monitoring progress in addressing inequalities and ensuring that commitments expressed in policy are actually implemented.

Unless the macroeconomic environment is improved to increase job creation and there is a significant social movement against sexual violence, government institutions will be forced to battle with the symptoms of these problems.

For full versions of the papers visit the Idasa website at

Out of work

  • Women account for 57% of all unemployed people.

  • The unemployment rate for women is 48,4%.

  • The unemployment rate for men is 35,9%.

  • The unemployment rate for African women is 55,5%.

  • The unemployment rate for African men is 42,5%.

  • The unemployment rate for white women is 11.1%

  • The unemployment rate for white men is 8,2%.

    Utter poverty

  • 80% of female headed households have no wage earners.

  • Two out of five African households are headed by women.

  • Three out of five female-headed households are poor.

  • 70% of South African children under six live below the poverty line.

  • 93% of all children living in poverty are African, 6% coloured, 0,5% Indian and 0,5% white

  • The majority of these children are living in households with only one parent, in most cases the parent is a woman.

  • Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
    Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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