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Women empowerment high on government’s agenda

Government continues to build strong partnerships with civil society to advance women’s emancipation and gender equality.



Not a single country can claim to have achieved gender equality. As a result, women continue to be discriminated against and their contributions undervalued. They work more, earn less and have fewer choices about their bodies, livelihoods and futures than men; and they experience multiple forms of violence at home, work and in public spaces.

This is according to Anne Githuku-Shongwe, the United Nations (UN) Women South Africa Multi-Country Office representative. UN Women is dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.

On a positive note, Githuku-Shongwe said that South Africa has seen incredible progress regarding women in politics and political leadership over the past 25 years.

Before the 1994 elections, women accounted for 2.7 percent of parliamentary seats. After the 2019 national elections, 45 percent of parliamentarians are women and half of the national executive are women, she said.

“South Africa joins just 11 countries in the world that have 50 percent or more women Ministers in Cabinet (Rwanda and Ethiopia are the other two African countries). Decisions like these – that change the dynamic of critical institutions and dismantle negative norms – are what we need to effect cultural change as well in communities, workplaces and families,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

Strides in education

In terms of education, more women are graduating from higher education institutions and female graduates overall have increased significantly. While a 2017 Study by the University of Stellenbosch showed that 61 percent of Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, which presents an opportunity for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds to break the cycle of poverty in their families, there is still a trend that sees women opting for less lucrative fields and avoiding science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. This is mainly because they do not have role models in these fields and are discouraged from pursuing ‘difficult’ subjects like mathematics.

According to UN Women, social protection policies have also benefited women. A survey of the impact of social grants indicates that female-headed households that receive grants are three times more productive than male-headed households. Eighty-two percent of female grant recipients said the grant made their lives better, and 79 percent said they could now take better care of their children. The children of nearly all the women surveyed were enrolled in school, with over 70 percent regularly attending.

Though social protection and safety nets are critical, over 17 million South Africans receive social grants while 15 million are employed. “We therefore need to find ways of including more women in the economy, for example upskilling micro-entrepreneurs and improving basic education to respond to job losses due to automation and digital technology,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

The challenges women face

While great strides to empower South Africa’s women have been made, some challenges remain.

Gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) remain a threat to women across the world, with one in three women globally having experienced some form of sexual or physical violence.

“South Africa unfortunately is no different - over half of women murdered here are killed by an intimate partner and 69 percent of women who use public transport have experienced sexual violence or harassment. Violence against women has become ‘normalised’ and we need to reverse that by urgently addressing the root causes of gender equality.

“We are pleased that government is spearheading a proposed National Gender-based Violence Council in close partnership with civil society, chaired by the President, and a National Gender-based Violence Strategy that will allow for solutions to be elevated,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

While unemployment and limited economic opportunities affect women and men, young and old, Githuku-Shongwe said young women – between the ages of 15 and 24, without tertiary education and those living in rural areas – are the most affected.

“Programmes that address youth unemployment, upskilling young women and second-chance education are critical to absorb new entrants to the labour market,” said Githuku-Shongwe. She explained that young women living in poverty are at a higher risk of opting for an intergenerational relationship that puts them at risk of gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS and limited personal choices and freedoms.

“In South Africa, new HIV infections are the highest among adolescent girls and young women. UN Women in partnership with DeBeers is also working to upskill micro-entrepreneurs so that they can create sustainable employment for themselves and others in their communities.”

Equal pay

Even when women are employed, many still earn less than men even though they do the same work. “Worldwide, women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. In South Africa, the gender pay gap is estimated, on average, to be between 15 percent and 17 percent, implying that a South African woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary he would earn in a year. As a result, there’s a lifetime of income inequality between men and women and more women are retiring into poverty,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

Unequal pay affects women across job roles, from those close to minimum wage all the way to top executives. “In South Africa, the Employment Equity Act sets out the principle of equal pay for equal value - pay discrimination based on gender is illegal - but the burden rests on human resource departments to enforce the law and uncover potential cases of pay inequity, and to address these,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

Economic opportunities

Women also do not benefit sufficiently from the economic opportunities presented by public procurement. The South African government procures over R800 billion in goods and services, but women-owned enterprises still receive only an estimated nine percent of the total annual spend.

A recent survey by the Commission for Gender Equality showed that government has not successfully integrated gender as a key component of procurement policies. On March 27, 2019, Cabinet approved the Framework on Gender Responsive Planning, Budgeting, Monitoring, Evaluation and Audit.

“This decision must herald a new commitment to the acceleration of gender equality across all arms of state.

“UN Women is working with government to respond to this challenge by training women to develop their businesses and business acumen so that they can participate in and secure procurement opportunities. Supply chain officers are also being sensitised and trained on including women-owned businesses,” said Githuku-Shongwe.

The way forward

In her budget speech in July 2019, the Minister in the Presidency for the newly configured Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said that South Africa needs radical change to address issues affecting these sectors.

“It cannot be business as usual… We cannot talk of economic transformation and job creation without enforcing the policies in place to ensure that these sectors meaningfully benefit,” she said.

The department will enforce the recently approved Gender Responsive Planning and Budgeting Framework, to ensure 30 percent procurement for these sectors, and request that the Auditor General make them part of audit outcomes.

It will also report annually on government’s and the private sector’s performance on economic transformation and gender equality and will reintroduce the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill.

The Minister stressed that for the nation to restore human dignity and ensure social cohesion, it must create jobs and provide conducive environments for these sectors to start businesses and create employment.

The department has also re-launched the National Gender Machinery, and committed to mainstreaming programmes to bring these groups from the periphery to the centre of society’s efforts to end inequality and injustice.

It will also establish and revive Presidential Working Groups and mark the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, among others.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and UN Women has launched a campaign to bring together generations of women’s rights activists to help tackle its unfinished business.

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