In April 2014, the South African Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) held its second National Gender Summit, entitled ‘Reflecting on 20 years of democracy in South Africa: Celebrating gains and strategizing on challenges to attaining gender equality’. The summit brought together government representatives, members of civil society, private sector stakeholders, academics and members of the media from all nine provinces, as well as local and international donor agencies to deliberate successes and challenges to achieving gender equality and equity in South Africa, and to develop a programme of action going forward.

Part of the summit focused on celebrating the gains made towards achieving gender equality in the last 20 years, although there was recognition that South Africa is still a long way from true gender equity, and that much needs to be done to improve the lot of women and gender and sexual minorities before the progressive laws and policies that we have in place can truly be said to be having an impact on people’s lived experiences.

Key political, policy and legislative successes in South Africa’s pursuit of gender equality include the Constitution’s recognition of the need for gender equality and protection against discrimination based on gender; the establishment of the Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities; having attained 45% representation of women in Parliament; having signed key international and regional instruments, such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and its Optional Protocol, the Beijing Platform for Action, the Millenium Declaration, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development; and the passing of domestic laws that promote gender equality and protect against discrimination and victimization based on gender. These include the Employment Equity Act, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, the Maintenance Act and the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act.

However, in practice, major challenges to true gender equality and equity remain. Women’s political participation is not always acknowledged, gender mainstreaming is inadequately budgeted for, women are under-represented in the judiciary, and there is no gender parity in the private sector. Patriarchal and sexist attitudes prevail in South African society, and there has been a resurgence of sexist traditional practices, like virginity testing. Insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, women with disabilities and rural women. Further, state implementation of laws and policies intended to promote equality and protect women and gender and sexual minorities from discrimination and gender-based violence are inadequately implemented, severely hampering access to justice for victims. Civil society organizations are stepping in to fill the gaps where possible, but are terribly underfunded and under-capacitated.

Sixteen key areas to be addressed at the summit were identified by the CGE, and over the course of two days these topics were discussed and debated in breakaway groups, which then reported back in plenary for further discussion. Based on these discussions, a programme of action was drawn up, detailing which actions need to be taken to address the identified issues, who should be responsible for implementing and overseeing these actions, and by when they should be completed. The CGE will be making the full programme available, but some key points that were agreed upon by summit participants are outlined below.

It was proposed that in order to ensure the effectiveness of the National Gender Machinery, the monitoring and oversight function of the Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities be strengthened, and that indicators to assess effectiveness be developed.

It was proposed that government departments should adopt a standardized monitoring framework in order to monitor gender mainstreaming, and that gender-disaggregated data be collected more rigorously and regularly. A tool for guiding gender-sensitive budgeting should also be developed, and Key Performance Areas (KPAs) should be developed for departments’ gender focal persons, to clarify their responsibilities and ensure accountability. Accredited training on gender mainstreaming and budgeting should be provided to all government line managers, and Heads of Departments’ performance assessments should take gender mainstreaming into account.

To address the currently inadequate implementation and enforcement of gender equality legislation, it was proposed that ongoing South African Qualifications Authority-accredited training on the relevant legislation and accompanying instructions and regulations be provided to all SAPS members, members of the judiciary and other court staff, healthcare workers and traditional leaders. As with gender mainstreaming, effective implementation of legislation should be included not only in individual officials’ KPAs, but also in the KPAs of the relevant ministers and heads of departments, and they should be held accountable for shortcomings and failures of service.

Similarly, South Africa’s implementation of its obligations under the international and regional gender equality instruments that it is has signed needs to be monitored. In order to ensure such implementation, government officials should be trained on the provisions of the relevant instruments, and specific plans of action for each instrument should be developed. South Africa should further ratify important instruments that it has not yet ratified, such as the ILO Conventions on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families and on Maternity Protection, and it should decriminalize sex work, in line with international precedent.

To ensure gender parity in politics, it was recommended that the Electoral Act and the Municipal Electoral Act be amended accordingly, and there was support for the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, in that it legislates for a 50/50 quota system for political parties. At a community level, socialization initiatives on gender transformation should be run to encourage women’s involvement in politics, and the media should be engaged with in order to challenge their trivialization of women in political leadership and to allocate more space for women’s issues and voices in the media.

The State’s response to the causes and impact of gender-based violence was highlighted as a critical area for reform, and several innovative proposals were made: create a system to track survivors through the system, to ensure that they receive all necessary services; upscale training for police officers, healthcare workers, members of the judiciary and social workers on providing a comprehensive response to gender-based violence; include gender-based violence in school curricula and develop gender-sensitization programmes for boys to prevent gender-based violence from a young age; support research, including impact analysis, on best practices for responding to and preventing gender-based violence; map services to identify duplication and gaps; and partner with cultural and traditional authorities to ensure the effectiveness of awareness and prevention strategies and campaigns.

Promoting women’s economic empowerment and addressing the impact of poverty on women was a key priority. In order to do this, it was suggested that economic policies be reviewed and revised where necessary, especially to integrate, recognize and support informal traders, many of whom are women; legislation be reformed to fast-track women’s access to and ownership of land; funding models for female entrepreneurs be developed; rural women and women with disabilities be actively included in economic empowerment training and support interventions; the protection of the labour rights of farm workers and domestic workers monitored; and campaigns to curb drug abuse, bullying, crime and teen pregnancy be run in schools, to prevent girls dropping out of school and having their educations undermined.

To end discrimination against LGBTI people and sex workers, an awareness and outreach strategy is needed to change communities’ mindsets about diverse gender identities, sexual orientations and sex work. Fora to promote and implement such a strategy and to create spaces for dialogue to foster understanding are needed. Bureaucratic mechanisms that exclude trans and intersex people need to be replaced with inclusive systems and policies, and government officials need to be trained on gender sensitivity in order to eradicate stigma and discriminatory and abusive practices. The handling of cases of discrimination and hate crimes against LGBTI individuals and sex workers – including sexual offence cases – needs to be monitored to ensure that laws and policies are complied with and that officials who do not comply are held accountable.

In order to eradicate harmful religious and traditional practices, it was suggested that dialogues be held to identify harmful practices, as well as to identify and reclaim positive practices. Mechanisms for identifying, referring and responding to victims of harmful practices (especially ukuthwala) should be developed, and the relevant state officials and traditional leaders should be trained on how to intervene and assist victims.

To protect women’s health rights and promote access to healthcare services, healthcare worker training should aim to transform attitudes towards gender; the impact of gender on HIV should be central to HIV policy; and the specialized needs of LGBTI patients should be provided for.

To respond to the gendered impact of climate change, a national climate change response policy should include the role of women and vulnerable groups, and a study should be commissioned to better understand the impact of climate change on women in South Africa.

Taking the Millenium Development Goals into account, it was agreed that a stand-alone goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda is required. Clear targets and indicators should accompany this, focusing on eradicating gender-based violence, women’s role in the economy, and women’s land ownership. Civil society and women’s movements should be involved in setting these targets and indicators.

Working with men to end gender inequality was a priority, and suggestions for how to do this included: integrate gender issues into everyday life at the community and family level; engage with the media to promote positive images of masculinity and create good role models for boys; engage men in the gender mainstreaming and gender equality discourse (it should be noted that there were several men participating in the summit); and draw traditional leaders into awareness campaigns.

The women’s movement in South Africa was powerful and largely united under apartheid, but post-1994 has seen it become fragmented, and the need to strengthen and reconnect the movement was identified as a priority. To do this, all stakeholders (government – national and local – civil society, academics, etc.) need to embed a critical gendered analysis in all disciplines, and mobilization needs to happen at community level, for example through inter-generational dialogues and social media. Feminist values of responsibility and accountability, support and partnerships and organizing and mobilizing need to be promoted, and collective solutions need to be sought. The National Gender Machinery needs to convene more gender summits like this one to facilitate reflection, planning and action.

Funding and resources came up frequently in the discussions, and it was agreed that a policy framework to guide funding of civil society organizations is needed if civil society is to strengthen its role in the National Gender Machinery, and if civil society is to properly complement the State’s response to gender-based violence with victim services. Government departments also need to devote larger portions of their budgets to promoting gender equality and meeting the needs of women and gender minorities. Increased collaboration with international donors like the United Nations was encouraged.

Similarly, the need for public awareness campaigns ran throughout all the priority areas, as educating the population about gender issues and women’s and LGBTI individuals’ rights is paramount to achieving gender equality in South Africa. Involving traditional leaders was seen as paramount to the success of such campaigns, especially in rural areas.

The Summit was an energetic gathering, with much singing and celebration, but firmly grounded in the difficult reality that women and gender minorities face. This seems like a good basis for moving forward with the programme of action outlined above, especially given that the final point on the programme is for the CGE to review the impact of the summit, and monitor the implementation of the programme.