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The fight for gender equality

Keketso Maema has played an important role in some of South Africa’s landmark human rights cases that have dramatically changed the face of the legislative and social landscape in the country.

As the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), she has made the fight for all South Africans to be treated fairly and equally one of her most important goals.

Maema is a qualified lawyer, with a Degree in Sociology and Development Studies from the University of Lesotho, and postgraduate LLB and LLM degrees from Wits University.

After university, she joined Nicholls, Cambanis and Associates in 2002 to serve her articles. It marked the beginning of Maema’s journey into human rights law, where she worked on cases specifically affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning and asexual (LGBTIQA+) communities.

“The most exciting thing about working in this environment is that we dealt with landmark cases that changed the policy landscape. I dealt with cases in the Constitutional Court related to the adoption of children by lesbian couples. We were able to win that case and it changed the policy landscape to allow same-sex couples to adopt,” she said.

But the most crucial case Maema has been involved in was one that helped same-sex couples around the country legitimise their relationships – the case of Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys versus Minister of Home Affairs and Director-General of Home Affairs in 2005.

“We were part of this process, working alongside the Gender Equality Project, the Women Empowerment Forum and other LGBTIQA+ organisations around the country to mobilise for gay marriages,” Maema said.

This case led to a groundbreaking decision by the Constitutional Court which ruled that same-sex couples had the constitutional right to marry. In 2006, Parliament passed the Civil Union Act, which made South Africa one of few countries in the world to recognise same-sex marriages.

“When you’re working on such cases you don’t realise the impact you have on people. It's only afterward you realise how much we were able to help people through developing legislature that puts people’s human rights at the centre of it.”

Joining the CGE

Maema started her career at the CGE as a Deputy Director, conducting legal research into litigation and policy changes. She then served as the Acting Head of Legal Services until 2009, when she was offered the position of acting CEO for the commission. In August 2010, she was formally appointed as its CEO. She sees herself as part of a team that is working hard to achieve transformation in gender equality in the country.

The role of the CGE

Established in terms of Section 187 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996, the CGE must promote respect for gender equality, and protect, develop and attain gender equality.

The CGE ensures the rights of all by undertaking research, public education programmes, policy development, legislative initiatives, effective monitoring and litigation.

“Our work is about changing mindsets. It is a challenge, but we are optimistic about tackling these challenges,” said Maema.

She reflected on some of the more prolific cases involving vulnerable women that the CGE had been able to assist over the years.

“We have worked on cases that have changed people’s lives. One such case took place in KwaZulu-Natal, where a young woman in uMlazi was banished by her commmunity for wearing pants. The men in the community beat her up and burned her home down. The commission was able to ensure that the men ended up behind bars and assisted the woman,” Maema recalled.

In another case, the commission conducted gender mainstreaming in KwaZulu-Natal where bursaries were awarded to women who could prove their virginity.

“The CGE had to step in and ask, what does being a virgin have to do with studying? How do you tell if a man is a virgin or not, and why do they get bursaries and not women? This criteria must apply to all sexes.

“We gave recommendations to the municipality on withdrawing such discriminatory policies, and ran gender mainstreaming workshops for councillors to ensure that there is equal treatment of both women and men.”

The CGE also works with political parties and private entities to ensure that women are represented equally in their organisations, and offers assistance in achieving gender equality and dealing with gender-based issues in the workplace.

Fighting GBV

Among its many programmes, the CGE runs outreach and legal clinics to support the public and educate communities about their rights. During these outreach programmes, the CGE is able to follow up on urgent gender-based matters facing the community to ensure that they receive justice quickly.

It also works with the Department of Social Development to help shelter victims of GBV.

“The CGE has been able to monitor cases in court and resolve them faster through our presence. In one case, a woman had been abused by her husband and left for dead. The case went on for seven years before we were approached to mediate in court. Within a year, the husband was behind bars.

“In other communities in the country, we are dealing with the issue of child brides. We offer comprehensive sexual education to these communities, and monitor these communities to ensure this does not happen to our girls,” she said.

The CGE also monitors all parties working at service delivery points that assist the vulnerable, and hold them accountable to their mandates.

Maema said the CGE also engages with young men to address issues around GBV and masculinity. The CGE also has designated commissioners who are able to assist men and address GBV through educational programmes.

“To end GBV we must all speak out. At the same time, the principles of human dignity must be adhered to. We don’t need to deal with differences through violence. We must do away with issues such as patriarchy so we can see and respect each other as equals. If we all ensure we do what needs to be done according to our mandates, we can end the scourge.”

Maema hopes to also see more gender equality in government, with more women being represented in Parliament, and one day seeing a woman as President of South Africa.

The CGE encourages anyone who has been affected by gender discrimination to visit any of its offices, which are located in all provinces, or call the commission’s toll-free number at 0800 007 709 for assistance.

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