Making gender equality a practical reality

Yvonne Ntonto Mhlaudi (Sizoya sibuye) speaks with Laura Catherine Marks (Khulumani). (Supplied)

Yvonne Ntonto Mhlaudi (Sizoya sibuye) speaks with Laura Catherine Marks (Khulumani). (Supplied)

In May, President Jacob Zuma announced plans to replace the department of women, children and people with disabilities with the ministry of women. 

Susan Shabangu, who has been in charge of mineral resources since 2009, will head the new department. In a recent media interview, ministry spokesperson Kenosi Machepa said the move reflected how seriously the presidency was taking women’s issues.

But given that South Africa signed the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2004, more than a decade ago, will things change all that much?

The protocol examines several articles that include the elimination of discrimination against women, the right to dignity, the rights to life, integrity and security of the person. Bafana Khumalo, senior programmes specialist at Sonke Gender Justice, believes the creation of the ministry of women is a positive sign.

“The ministry will now be able to go to any government department and demand action. It can now hold other departments accountable and crack the whip where gender-based equality has not been adequately addressed,” he says.

Practical reality

A report by the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria has found that the actual impact of documents such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Women’s Protocol should be measured against the level of their influence on national institutions and their ability to result in practical changes in the lives of people in member states. According to the report, the Women’s Protocol imposes obligations on the ratifying states to ensure maximum protection of women’s rights, prevent discrimination and undertake measures to ensure women are given appropriate space for development, equal opportunities and full protection of social, economic and civil rights.

Khumalo says that South Africa has been doing well in terms of gender transformation.

“Some of the advances include increasing the number of women in parliament and cabinet as well as more women taking on significant positions in the private sector. But while there is legislation in place for gender equality, we need to be cautious with our celebrations because implementation remains a challenge,” he says.

This is particularly true in the private sector where the carrot and stick approach to getting companies to increase their female board members have not been working well, believes Khumalo.

“If companies do not meet their quota, they get fined, but it is not harsh enough to really make a difference to their bottom lines.”

Challenges remain

But concerns remain that despite legislation, implementation and accountability for a gender equal society still prove difficult to maintain.

“Gender-based violence is a major problem. Equality means nothing if women are not safe in their homes and to walk in the streets. Look at how poorly rape investigations are being handled as well as the increase of violence against children,” says Khumalo.

Government has to put the necessary funds behind its will, adds Khumalo, and it must ensure the required resources are in place to make gender equality work and to reduce violence against women and children.

“There is still a lot of work to be done in society and the perceptions of people on why women are raped. This is not something that should be viewed as being the fault of the woman who goes out at night. The mindset of communities around these issues must change. Women need to be treated with dignity and that is where a lot of focus needs to be on changing the reality.”

Still optimistic

Despite the challenges and the difficulties in ensuring the practical implementation of the Women’s Protocol and other gender-focused laws and acts in the country, there is hope.

“While there are a few NGOs who are working on gender equality and struggling to get the investment they need, we are seeing more private sector organisations doing their part in supporting the market. The transformation around awareness of gender-based violence and the exposure of the plight of our women and children, are resulting in change. And it is this change that makes me excited about the future and how the country will in real terms become a safer and friendlier environment for women,” concludes Khumalo.

The contents of this article were supplied and signed off by the Southern Africa Trust.