Empowering women means dealing with the past

By Phumla Williams

The empowerment of women is about dealing with the legacy of apartheid and the transformation of society, particularly of power relations between women, men, institutions and laws, writes Phumla Williams.

Sixty-five years ago our nation was a very different place to what it is today. Oppression occurred on a daily basis and women enjoyed almost no rights. It was a society characterised by repression, subjugation and tyranny.

Notions of a free society were unheard of and those who dared to stand up against apartheid tyranny were met with brutal and unrelenting force. These were the circumstances which faced the brave and patriotic women who devised the Women’s Charter in 1954.

The 1954 Women’s Charter called for a single society that recognises that “women do not form a society separate from the men” and therefore “share in the problems and anxieties of our men, and join hands with them to remove social evils and obstacles to progress”.


The charter was adopted a year before the historic Freedom Charter of 1955, and helped to set the tone for today’s democratic order. It was further reviewed in 1994 under the Women’s National Coalition, which adopted the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality.

Both the 1954 and 1994 Women’s Charters called for a society where women are free from discrimination and prejudice. They called for a society which respects women and enforces their rights and inherent human dignity.

Our democratic breakthrough in 1994 represented the start of our journey to an inclusive society that cares for all. Since 1994 successive democratic administrations have committed to a progressive legislative framework and a human rights agenda that is strongly informed by the principles of gender equality, women’s emancipation and empowerment.

Although we have made progress we are mindful that we must do more to substantially transform society and the economy. We are committed to speed up transformation across society by strengthening partnerships with civil society to ensure that we address the many challenges faced by women and girls.

The empowerment of women in South Africa is about dealing with the legacy of apartheid and the transformation of society, particularly the transformation of power relations between women, men, institutions and laws. It is also about addressing gender oppression, patriarchy, sexism and structural oppression.

Without doubt our society has undergone a sea change since 1994, however as we commemorate 25 years of freedom more still needs to be done to create a conducive environment which enables women to take control of their lives.

It remains a sad fact that many women are still confined by both their circumstances and the prevailing patriarchy in society. Therefore we must continue to fight the stark gender disparities that are evident across the many areas of national life.  

Education remains essential and so is ensuring that girls and women have greater access to basic and higher education. There is also a pressing need to ensure that our economy is inclusive and offers women a chance at success.

Currently many women still find themselves excluded from the formal economy and in low paying jobs and economic sectors. While those who are lucky enough to find a job never make it to the middle and top management echelons, particularly in the private sector.

By growing an inclusive economy we will begin to transform the power relations between women and men. By doing so we will build a society where women are free to make choices and not be hampered by economic and social pressures.

Achieving this new future relies on the combined will of all in society; government cannot do it alone and the voices of men in building a new compact are especially important. Together we have the power to overcome all our challenges and build a better tomorrow.

Just as the women of 1954 knew that they had to take a stand to bring about change, it is up to us now to ensure that we create an economy that works for everyone. 

When women are empowered we see that families thrive, communities are safer, and economies grow. Through the inclusion of more women in the economy we can also stop generational poverty and in the process stimulate economic growth.

We must do more to encourage women to become entrepreneurs and to start their own businesses. Women entrepreneurs are known to use profits from their business to improve their families’ living conditions and lifestyle. More critically they also invest in their children’s education which ensures that the cycle of poverty is broken.

It is up to all of us to ensure that women empowerment becomes a lived reality. We dare not be happy with the status quo which excludes many women from the social and economic mainstream. By working together we can ensure a societal shift so that women can take their rightful place and contribute to the country’s socio-economic growth and development.

Phumla Williams is acting director-general of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

Source: https://www.gov.za/blog/empowering-women-means-dealing-past

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