/ 10 April 2024

Women’s rights: Insidious discrimination an affront to collective humanity

Have we made progress as a society in terms of women's rights?
Have we made progress as a society in terms of women's rights?

The tale of women’s advancement in South Africa takes the form of perennial friction between what could be and the prevailing reality of well-documented inequities. The three levers of the state, the executive, legislature and judiciary, are a case in point. 

It is now 30 years after Frene Ginwala’s pioneering role as the inaugural speaker in the legislature, an event which burst open the promise of women’s social advancement. The nomination and possible ascent of incumbent Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya, as chief justice, means another arm of the state might have a woman at its perch for the first time. 

The South African judiciary is perhaps among the few inspirational examples where women smashing the glass ceiling barring inclusion is there for everyone to see. Another is the civil service, with 48.6% of women leaders, South Africa is second only to Canada among G20 countries.

The likelihood of this watershed moment, however, should not detract from the fact that everyday reality for women is that of entrenched and perpetual exclusion, particularly in senior leadership roles. On this account, South Africa, much like the rest of the world, is no different. 

The reality is that in many spheres of life gender parity remains elusive.  Women — and girls, by extension — have also been rendered children of a lesser God by global developments over the past four years. First was the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic whose aftershocks and a subsequent cost-of-living crisis deepened levels of poverty. This, in turn, has led to women continuing to be disproportionately affected by food insecurity according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

Women and girls are also at the bitter end of interstate and intrastate conflict. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East has led to wholesale death and maiming of women and children in far greater numbers than men. 

Civil conflict in Sudan — between two megalomaniac men — and flare-ups of violence in the volatile eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo also contribute to misery and widespread displacement, with women and girls being the most vulnerable. In Haiti, intensifying gang violence has led to a spike in child marriage. Unabated violence and lawlessness in that country have also forced girls to leave school and made them vulnerable to recruitment into these gun-toting outfits. 

In all these instances, and others around the world, violence has exacerbated the risks of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, displacement, the loss of livelihoods and deepening poverty levels.  

On the political front, women around the world have been forced to wage wars on many fronts. One of these has been against the vicious so-called morality police in Iran whose zealousness in enforcing headscarf rules led to the death in custody of Mahsa Amini. This of course rightly prompted widespread and defiant protests. 

Women in the US are also not taking the abrogation of women’s reproductive rights and meaningful access to sexual health in the wake of the overturning of the Roe v Wade case. Women all over the world, even if in little pockets, refuse to meet threats to their hard-fought rights with timidity. 

Despite marginal albeit positive global improvements from 95.3% to 96.3% and 95.7% to 95.9% in educational empowerment, and the health and survival dimension, respectively, socially significant indicators such as political empowerment are still laggards, inching from a paltry 22.4% in 2022 to 22.5% in 2023. 

While women and men could earn equal pay, women still perform on average 2.4 hours more unpaid care work than men, with much of it involving caring for children. This not only adds to women’s workload but also bars them from expanding economic activities such as overtime work and entrepreneurial pursuits.  

According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2024 report, expanding childcare tends to increase women’s economic participation by 1%. The same can be said about inclusion into leadership positions. The overall share of women in senior leadership positions globally was 32.2% in 2023, with men outnumbering women across all industries, particularly in manufacturing (24.6% women), agriculture (23.3%), supply chain and transportation (23.0%), oil, gas and mining (18.6%) and infrastructure (16.1%). 

The intersectional nature of these inequities means efforts geared towards eradicating them must be multidimensional. Among these is the full utilisation of institutional architecture whose main priority is to deter society from perpetuating the historical marginalisation of women. This points to the enforcement of laws and the appreciation of gender mainstreaming as a constitutional imperative. 

Concerted efforts are also needed to combat both income and time poverty. Women’s inclusion in the workforce, for example, must not constitute impoverished inclusion where earnings still keep them lingering below the poverty line. Interventions should also account for the care deficit by recognising, reducing and re-organising unpaid care work. 

With the re-emergence of fiscal consolidation and austerity measures it is important to ensure that spending cuts do not negatively impact the provision of programmes that benefit women. Here we ought to be also wary of women’s unpaid care work doubling up as a subsidy for the government’s reduced social spending in areas such as health, education and sanitation. 

Of equal importance is the need for more coalitions, collaborations and partnerships to bring women’s civil society organisations into direct dialogue with key roleplayers in the government and private sector. This will strengthen women’s grassroots organisations’ influence on policymaking and the setting of norms.

Lastly, we ought to honour our commitments to instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It is up to actors at all levels — within civil society, business, government and organisations in the cultural and religious sphere — to rescue society from the insidious discrimination that undermines the freedom and dignity of women and girls. 

Any form of discrimination is an affront to our collective humanity. 

Nontobeko Gcabashe is the programme manager at Afesis.