Head-counting our women MPs gives a skewed impression of gender equality in SA


“My question today is: ‘Do you know about the historic 1956 Women’s March?’” asks Minister for Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu,in a TV advert to mark Women’s Day. “Why did it happen, and how?”

Then the advert, rather abruptly, ends. This gives the unfortunate impression that Shabangu’s question is an actual request to the public for information, rather than an appeal to South Africans to educate themselves historically.

The effect is a bit like the messages you find on McDonald’s burger boxes these days, saying: “OK Google, does McDonald’s use real meat?” In both cases, wouldn’t it be more useful just to give us the answer? I’m on the edge of my seat here.

One of the traditional ways of commemorating Women’s Month is for women like me to talk a lot of smack about Women’s Month, and I am a slave to custom. It’s early days yet, admittedly, and that tiny matter of the local elections has thus far crowded out the usual bleating about how women are the tent poles of the nation. In fact, half of Shabangu’s Women’s Day message is taken up with an instruction to women to “protect our democracy” by voting on August 3. Seems a bit unfair to put that on us when we’re already busy with all the child rearing and being moral consciences, but we’ll try fit it into our schedules.

There has already been time, however, for sundry politicians to pay tribute to this most significant of months in our calendar. Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa – who doesn’t get to do much these days except bang on about flags in classrooms – took advantage of the occasion to release a “special” message. In it, he made the point that “being a global gender equality leader comes with immense responsibility”.

If you weren’t aware that a country with a horrifying sexual violence pandemic was a “global gender equality leader”, consider yourself duly educated. Mthethwa was making this bold statement based on South Africa’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. South Africa does indeed perform rather well in the index, sitting at 17th out of 145 countries. One of the reasons our country makes a good showing on the list is the weight it places on political representation of women.

A total of 41% of MPs in the National Assembly are women, which is nothing to be sneezed at. It puts South Africa way ahead of both the United Kingdom and the United States in this respect. We’re still lagging behind Rwanda, however: the world leader with 63% female representation in Parliament, as of 2015.

I mention Rwanda because that country provides a fascinating illustration of how these rankings can obscure the full picture of a nation’s approach to gender equality. Rwanda had the strongest practical motivation for wanting to create a more gender-equal society after the genocide: its male population had been drastically reduced. They simply could not rebuild their land – in terms of human resources – without elevating women to positions they had never previously been allowed to hold.

A recent National Public Radio (NPR) podcast examined the topic of how Rwanda rose to the top of global gender equality rankings by conscious social programming rather than through an upsurge of grass-roots feminism in the Western sense. “Women have to be involved at all levels and in all activities meant for the development of our country,” leader Paul Kagame decreed: and lo, it came to pass.

But the problem was that, however much power women gained in the public realm, it didn’t translate to the domestic space. Rwandan researcher Justine Uvuza described to NPR a series of interviews she carried out with female politicians. “One told me how her husband expected her to make sure that his shoes were polished, the water put in the bathroom for him, his clothes were ironed,” she said.

There were several cases of women in power being physically abused by their husbands, but they feared pursuing justice because of the inevitable media attention. “These women are still expected to be very good traditional women and also very good political women,” Uvuza said.

I’m not saying that this is comparable with the reality for female politicians in South Africa. What it suggests strongly, though, is that the kind of global rankings trumpeted by the likes of Mthethwa as a reliable barometer of gender equality give – at best – only part of the picture. It’s not enough to point to a few thousand women who hold positions of power to claim that the battle for women’s freedom is clearly being won.

What is needed is a new set of metrics to measure what life is really like for the women of a particular country. How likely are you to walk down the road and get catcalled? How likely are you to turn on the TV and see a sexist ad? How likely are you to give a man what he wants for fear of retaliatory violence if you refuse? Those tests might provide a very different view to the one you get by just head-counting MPs.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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