Women in line of fire

2012-04-07 13:40

Eighteen years into our democracy, the ANC-led government is contemplating a law which will essentially disempower women in our country.

The Traditional Courts Bill is one piece of legislation that, if enacted, will not only set back democratic gains and gender equality post-1994, it will also undo many other advances we have collectively realised as a country.

Why are we vehemently opposed to this bill, you may ask yourselves? This bill is an antithesis of all the things that those who paid the ultimate price in this country stood for.

Calling on states to promote, in particular, the social, cultural and economic rights of rural women on International Women’s Day, the UN Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, said: “Violence against women results from a complex interplay of individual, family, community and social factors.”

She emphasised the need for a holistic approach that did not treat all women homogeneously, but recognised that discrimination and violence affected women in different ways, “depending on how they are positioned within different social, economic and cultural contexts”. She went on to say,

“I have witnessed first-hand the multiple forms of discrimination and inequality that rural women experience.”

She opined that rural women were discriminated against in accessing assets and resources and they were more likely to be involved in unpaid family-related work or in low-paid work.

They were also at higher risk of being subjected to violence, with far less access to remedies and redress for the human rights violations they suffered.

Furthermore, economic and financial crises like those that the world was currently experiencing, tended to exacerbate the multiplicity of discriminatory practices that rural women had to face.

According to Manjoo, the realisation of economic and social rights for rural women and the equal access to assets and resources, including equal inheritance rights, was a necessary step to sever their dependence on their spouses and families.

It is against this background, that the Traditional Courts Bill should be examined. Limited consultation took place with the women who will be negatively affected yet we are told that consultation took place with traditional leaders.

This approach is problematic in itself. We know the majority of traditional leaders are men, and this bill gives them tremendous powers over the people in their areas.

The question that therefore needs to be asked and answered is: in whose interest is this bill being considered and crafted? Is it to entrench patriarchy and its ugly, toxic consequences?

Or is it a back-door introduction of the much-hated apartheid induna practices?

It is a well-known fact that women, especially in rural traditional settings, carry a disproportionate burden of poverty, disease, unequal power relations and, above all, violence.

It is sad that the very vulnerable people that our constitution seeks to protect are, in fact, left at the mercy of traditional leaders whose interests have nothing to do with the equality and empowerment of women.

One of the most disconcerting elements in this bill is that it says that women will be represented in accordance with customary law, something that we find problematic and retrogressive.

As often happens, women and widows face eviction in the face of property grabbing by brothers, in-laws and traditional authorities.

And, in practice, they are often not permitted to represent themselves in traditional courts.

Now they will also have no possibility of recourse through any court other than the traditional court, where traditional leaders’ views and treatment of women almost always fail the equality test.

This inability to represent themselves or opt out of traditional courts in favour of magistrates’ courts will surely disadvantage women in the main.

This practice takes us back to the much-hated colonial and apartheid times, when women were considered minors without any rights.

The bill also does not allow legal representation in the courts, and it is our view that this is a travesty of justice in a country which has secured the right to legal representation of criminally accused persons in its Constitution and prides itself on upholding the values of equality, respect and dignity to all.

We ask this question: why does the bill not allow legal representation, which is an accepted human right?

It is argued that the Traditional Courts Bill is in the interest of rural communities who have limited access to justice.

Nowhere in the bill, however, is it clear why this is being put in place instead of addressing the problems in our existing justice system.

Instead, it entrenches inequality and makes a mockery of our constitutional democracy. This bill is offensive to our sense of justice and human dignity, however it is couched.

» Botha is Sonke Gender Justice Network’s media and government liaison spokesperson and deputy chair of Lifeline

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