Agenda Feminist Media (AFM) with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) hosted a Feminist Dialogue on 24th March 2014 at videoconference venues in Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria on the state of gender equality in South Africa 20 years after the democratic transition. Agenda, a feminist media project based in Durban now in its 28th year, aimed to contribute to the national critique on the state of democracy through a focus on critical areas of gender inequality, discrimination and exclusion impacting on ordinary women in South Africa.

The purpose of the Feminist Dialogue parallels the broad objective of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) national summit on the status of gender equality in South Africa which is to take place between 9-11 April 2014. Four critical areas of concern were identified for deliberation which was led by specialists who framed key issues for consideration, provided a framework and review of these and where appropriate proposed interventions to address them. These were: gender-based violence;sexual identity and orientation; women’s poverty and access to land and resources; women’s access to health rights and sexual and reproductive health and services.

The four speakers were Amanda Gouws (CGE, University of Stellenbosch and Agenda Editorial Advisory Board) who spoke on contextualising the attainment of gender equality in South Africa in South, Sethembiso Mthembu (Her Rights Initiative) on women’s health rights and services, Lisa Vetten (feminist researcher on gender based violence) on gender based violence, Susan Nkomo (gender researcher and activist) on women’s poverty, access to land and resources, and Nonhlanhla Mkhize (Durban Lesbian & Gay Community and Health Centre) on sexual identity and orientation.

Among the points raised by speakers and participants, the following are highlighted for consideration by the CGE Summit.

  1. Democracy in itself has not changed structural inequality in South Africa and its negative impacts are felt mainly by women. There is clear evidence of this in the crisis in service delivery, women’s health and maternal mortality, poverty of women and the gender gap in employment, the failure of laws to address the high rate of violence against women and a low conviction rate of offenders by the courts. There is a need to repoliticise the gender equality project –– this requires structural transformation – social relations between women and men must shift in order to effect social justice and will need a cooperative effort on the part of femocrats, activists and a new generation of feminists.
  2. The meaning of the gender equality project has been depoliticised and its significance is removed from the lives of the mass of women in social movements and organisations on the ground. Women who participated in the mass consultation led by the Women’s National Coalition prior to 1994 for the drafting of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality and inclusion of gender equality provisions in the Constitution are distanced from the meanings of equality in the institutionalisation of power in government. Government was expected to deliver equality for the mass of women. The fragmentation of power needs to be understood as both a problem for women’s organisations and for women in Parliament and in government. The mainstreaming of gender into policy needs to be monitored and evaluated in order to be effective as a policy tool otherwise it has the potential to be gender neutral or gender-blind and to reproduce race, class and gender inequalities. Politicians and women in government have the responsibility to address the key issues affecting African women as a result of structural inequality and cannot be allowed to neglect this responsibility.
  3. Discursive shifts have occurred in the 20 years of democracy in how women are framed in policy with implications for practices of power by government and the social positioning of women which tend to emphasise women’s vulnerability rather than recognising the right to equality. When we talk about feminism, we’re talking about a social movement and philosophy that is directed at the transformation of women’s condition involving a deconstruction of all the barriers to women’s liberation, and NOT gender equality. The language and power of patriarchy must be understood: we must understand the power relations between men and women, premised on patriarchy, in order to challenge it. We also need to address the dilution and opposition to feminism within ordinary public spaces, and not only by the state and its institutions.
  4. Post Beijing 1995, we’ve seen the mushrooming of men’s organisations promoting gender equality, and the allocation of huge resources to these, increasingly often at the expense of women’s organisations and their struggles. It was questioned what the role and place of these organisations are within the women’s movement. There is a need to guard against the language (and its impact) men’s organisations use to express their “solidarity” eg “How can we save our women?”, etc. Such language is indicative of a benevolent sexism, echoed in religious and traditional institutions, which expresses the intent of containing the perceived militancy of an independent women’s movement.
  5. There was a call to develop a vision and mission for a feminist agenda that will bind women, particularly young women, together in activism and a strong women’s movement as in other regions of the world. At the moment groups and organisations work across diverse, both single and multiple issue, platforms, and there is no united approach to make demands that will effect gender justice for the mass of women in South Africa. The celebration around 20 years democracy in 2014 is excellent timing for charting a way forward and to consider the importance of the shared vision for the next 20 years.
  6. A suggestion was made that the CGE initiate a South African Gender Index that measures specific indices of women’s gender inequality in the critical sectors where the very important gender differentiated dimensions of inequality demand monitoring and where policy focus is most absent ie poverty, access to land, justice, along the lines of the Gender Gap Index.
  7. Traditional culture and customary law needs to be brought into alignment with the spirit of the Constitution and equality clause. The divide between the two has resulted in the abuse of rural women’s rights and the introduction of bills such as the Traditional Courts Bill which roll back women’s hard won gains and right to equality with men. Rural women’s organised opposition to the Bill has been widespread and cannot be disputed or ignored. Customary law and traditional courts create two regimes of rights applicable to women.
  8. Health: Prior to 1994 policy was preoccupied by which women should reproduce. Women’s health was largely dealt with under contraception by the apartheid state. Women have tended to be mainstreamed into policy as mothers with neglect of curative and treatment aspects of health over the last 20 years. There is no specific policy on women’s health. Policy guides the allocation of resources where these are critically needed to address women’s burden of disease and the specific abuses and neglect that have been documented, including the following list of concerns. It is known that maternal mortality rates are alarmingly high, yet there is little recognition that cervical cancer has claimed more lives, particularly affecting rural and poor women. As one of most prevalent symptomatic diseases which HIV positive women are vulnerable to it must be treated with the same weight in policy as TB. Clinics offer minimal treatment for women with cervical and breast cancer. Human rights abuse and discrimination have been documented by women’s health organisations of the forced and coerced sterilisation of HIV positive women in South Africa. Women’s contraception is limited and does not support women’s reproductive health and choices. Dr Helen Rees’ research on Depo Provera has shown that the widely used contraceptive increases women’s vulnerability to HIV infection. The contraceptive should have been banned when the research results were announced in 2011. The commodification of health in private medical aid schemes has diverted resources from decent health services for all increasing the burden on women to provide the care which the health care system should offer. The National Health Insurance Policy plan needs to demarcate adequate resources for the needs of women’s health and research on best practices from other countries is needed. A call was made for a 5-year health advocacy campaign which would demand health care for women from ‘puberty to death’ as a right for all South African women. When such a policy is in place – with targets and resources – then women can hold the Department of Health accountable.
  9. Violence Against Women – An analysis of discourse on women and gender in law reflects that we have come full circle in the first 20 years of democracy. From women being given minimal recognition as minors or situated within family law there was a shift in 1994 to women in their own right holding individual rights. Women have more recently often been positioned as a disempowered and vulnerable group by law and policy on domestic violence. This fails to recognise that equality is a relational term and tends to reduce gender to simple representation of numbers vis a vis men and women. A tendency to pathologise women ignores the unequal social power relations that exist and emphasises traditional, religious and moral values. The emphasis on the preservation of the family results in women being seen as derivatives of the family rather than as persons with rights. While the Domestic Violence Act was a consequence of women’s mobilisation and activism and positioned women within unequal power relations, we are now seeing the replication of social relations that reproduce inequality and policy language that entrenches patriarchy and prejudice in the criminal justice system.
  10. GLBTI rights: The use of language used to describe sexual minorities is important for individuals who are subject to stereotyping and prejudice by communities. Terms are not neutral and if not used with sensitivity will contribute to the fallacies that sexual minorities are not African or alien. In many communities and institutions awareness of the right to choose sexual identity is very narrow. Human rights education is needed so that the right to sexual choice and gender difference is universally understood as a constitutional right. Heteronormativity as the dominant sexual order excludes GLBTI individuals and gender policy must include GLBTI, recognising the diversity of human relationships and family forms and units. Recent experience in Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria and other countries has shown that the legal rights of GLBTI people are under homophobic attack and they have been demonised as a sexual minority although they are guilty of no crime. In South Africa we have diverse sexual identities and minorities, and the freedom to choose who we love and marry, and these rights must be protected and defended as part of a culture of equality and respect.
  11. Land and resources: The dilution of the meanings of gender equality can be attributed partly to the neo-liberal model and has been evident in the exclusion of specific mechanisms for women’s inclusion in national planning and economic policy guiding development of the country into the long-term, such as Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative-South Africa (ASGISA), and most recently the new Economic Growth Path and the National Development Plan (NDP). The failure to set targets and allocate budgets signifies that women are invisible and that policy ignores the importance in planning of differentiating the impacts along lines of gender. The failure to recognise the gender differentiated impacts of policy on men and women means that under neo-liberalism the majority of poor women will continue to carry the social costs of inadequate health care, perform unpaid unrewarded social labour and be located in precarious, poorly paid and unprotected informal work. The potential for targeting women’s poverty is ignored at great cost to the mass of African women who continue to experience extreme inequality in relation to land hunger, access to resources, services, skills and power.
  12. Although it appeared as if women situation was largely unchanged, much has been learnt since 1994. There is a need to affirm the important part played by Chapter 10 institutions such as the CGE and the Office of the Public Protector in protecting and keeping constitutional values alive.
  13. The leadership of women’s organisations particularly the Rural Women’s Movement led by Sizani Ngubane in opposing patriarchy and in being a voice for rural women’s needs, interests and rights were praised and are evidence that women’s activism is very much alive in South Africa.




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