Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in South Africa

by biltong101

women rightsOn Wednesday South Africa celebrated National Women’s Day. Everyone is happy to have a day off and I’m not sure whether many people remember that the day commemorates the women’s march of 1956 when plus/minus 20 thousand women protested against a new law of the apartheid era, requiring people defined as “black” to carry internal passes with them. I’m also not convinced that the day off should focus on sending women wishes. It’d be of much more use if we use it to raise awareness about gender (in)equality.

On the surface everything looks great in South Africa. The country has a rather progressive legislation. The Employment Equity Act, No 55 of 1998 is meant to make sure that workplace is free of discrimination. Women are politically active and after the 2014 elections took around 40% of political positions (Cabinet Posts, Deputy Ministers positions and Parliament seats). There are special reproductive clinics in the country where people can get access to free contraception. Abortions are also free in government clinics and hospitals for the first three months of pregnancy. The last two points seem particularly progressive to me as in Poland reproductive rights of women are not respected in a similar way. If you’d like to read more on the topic you can read my post on the issue on my other blog.

The framework looks good, but of course this doesn’t mean that things are that great in reality. The biggest hindrance in women fully enjoying their legal rights is poverty. Crime is high particularly in informal settlements and rape in South Africa has one of the highest rates in the world. The statistics are absolutely terrifying, with the estimation that 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime. Some forms of rape are: gang rape, corrective rape (inflicted on lesbians to “teach them out” of their homosexuality”) and virgin cleansing rape (rape inflicted on virgins to cure oneself from HIV/AIDS). The transmission of STD’s particularly HIV is another issue related to sexual violence in the country. It’s not uncommon for the rapist to be someone that the victim knows. Sexual crimes are reported more and more often but in rural areas the lack of accessibility to services is one of the reasons why the crimes don’t get reported. Unfortunately, the understanding of what consensual sex is, doesn’t help the situation. According to Medical Research Council  forms of coercion and sexual harassment are considered by many to be just a part of male behavior.

Domestic violence, including but not limited to sexual violence, is also a big problem in South Africa. It was considered a private matter up to 1990s so the movement to effectively prevent it is very new. Here, the attitude of women is as much of a problem as the attitude of men. Many representatives of both sexes hold views that women should obey their husbands. 59% of women reported to have experienced some form of domestic violence. Murder victims are very often victims of domestic violence. Among the “big” domestic violence cases one should mention Oscar Pistorous who murdered his girlfriend most probably because of the fight their had. He was sentenced to 6 years of prison. What sort of message do you think such a lenient verdict sends?

So far I’ve focused on statistics but what have I seen in the last years of living in South Africa? A lot of conservatism. For instance, a hen party in Afrikaans is called “kombuistee” which means a “kitchen tea”. I pointed out to the person who told me that, that it seemed a bit sexist and they (a man) replied “Oh but women LOVE their little kitchen parties! They’re also so happy when they get their kitchen utensils as presents when they get married!”. And indeed a lot of Afrikaans women I’ve met seem to be programmed to believe that their only mission in life is to get married and reproduce. Many women are “kept” as because of their good financial situation they have a bunch of people helping with household chores and children, while the ladies can enjoy their yoga and Pilates. Of course, I’ve met Afrikaans women, who aspire to have both a family life and a career but the do seem to be in minority. I personally once made an Afrikaans man boil with anger as I dared to drink a beer straight from a bottle and “a lady should not do that!”. I rejected the offer of him bringing me a glass and the man just kept mumbling that I should not be doing that. I’m assuming this was because of the phallic associations one may have with a bottle? There’s also a strong belief that a man should always pay for a lady.

Women in general in South Africa are still valued by whether they have a partner or not, they also shouldn’t have too many as “you don’t want to get a reputation”. “Do you have a boyfriend” was a question I was asked by male members of my friends families, who couldn’t be interested in my relationship status for reasons such as learning whether I’m available. When I was single the answer “no” was often followed by a “Why?”. Catcalling is a popular pastime and I was verbally abused numerous times for ignoring such comments. I was also once told by a coworker (not South African) that I should stop wearing short skirts if I don’t want people to behave that way, which just shows that putting the blame on the victim mentality is a worldwide thing.

There are indeed many women in management and women are professionally active in South Africa. There’s a noticeable gap in gender in tech and science, though. Also, inappropriate behaviors from male workers are usually ignored or at least I’ve never heard anyone being lectured for making a sexual comment either. For instance such an exchange took place in one of my workplaces:

A male colleague was telling us about his country another colleague asked him what are the three best things about it. He said: women, food and beaches. Hearing the latter, the person who asked him the question said: You’ve already said that! Some people chuckled, some stayed silent but no one commented on the joke in any way, making the person know that such behaviors are inappropriate. Of course, even the initial mention of women as something to be “recommended” in a country is questionable…

The situation of women in South Africa isn’t great, even though the country has a progressive legal framework. There’s a lot to do to improve the situation. As much as it’s important to also fight inappropriateness in workplace, the most important thing to focus on is to fight sexual and domestic violence against women and children.


I’ve used the following sources when writing this post: