Impeding women empowerment

2014-08-01 00:00

AS we begin Women’s Month while celebrating 20 years of freedom, a number of activities will be undertaken among various sectors of society to reflect on the past 20 years of moving women’s agendas forwards.

While myriad challenges still remain in fostering gender equity, South Africa has made enormous strides in this regard — except for changing patriarchal attitudes.

South Africa has a high level of gender-based violence, which includes child sexual abuse, human trafficking, neglect of elderly men and women, domestic violence and harmful practices such as ukuthwala or forced marriages.

While men may also be victims, it is mostly women who are at the receiving end of this violence and abuse.

South Africa has done a lot in terms of improving gender representation, especially in the public sector. The private sector is lagging far behind in this regard. According to a Business Women South Africa (BWASA) survey released last year, women make up 43,9% of the work force but constitute only 21,4% of all executive management positions in South Africa. The same survey revealed that less than 10% of South African CEOs and board chairs (9,7%) are women.

The factors that have facilitated South Africa’s improved performance towards gender equality, especially in the public sector, include the ANC’s commitment to equal political representation and the recognition since 1994 that South Africa has an obligation to address gender inequalities, alongside those of race.

While this recognition is underpinned by the Constitution, a lot still needs to be done to persuade South African men to be part of the struggle for gender equity. It is for this reason that the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, working with the executive arm of government through the Office of the Premier, held its inaugural Men’s Parliament recently to engage men on the role they can play in supporting and advancing gender equality.

To be effective, strategies aimed at fostering gender equity must not only empower women, but should engage men to bring about changes in men’s attitudes and practices. Sustainable development is only possible when women and men enjoy equal opportunities to reach their potential. Men must be treated as part of the solution rather than a possible problem.

Women and girls experience multiple inequalities — structural barriers in the economic, social, political and environmental spheres produce and reinforce these inequalities, which are largely encouraged by patriarchal attitudes that are proving difficult to change.

The role that men should play in gender transformation must be explored and debated among men and women. Stories of men who have defied stereotypes and demonstrated their commitment to gender equity must be celebrated.

There has to be an understanding that men are sometimes victims of how they themselves were socialised by a system that encouraged and promoted violence as a way of life.

In places across the world, either by law or custom, women are still denied the right to own land or inherit property, access to credit, attend school, earn an income and progress in a profession free from discrimination. Fortunately, such incidents are rare in South Africa today.

While the economic benefits of educating girls are similar to those of educating boys, recent findings suggest the social benefits of educating a girl are greater. Birgham Young said: “You educate a man, you educate an individual. You educate a woman, you educate a generation.”

Women’s economic contributions are unrecognised, their work undervalued and their promise undernourished.

Unequal opportunities between women and men hamper women’s ability to lift themselves from poverty.

This month, senior women and men from the public and associative sectors will discuss the progress achieved and gaps remaining in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals from a gender perspective.

One of the critical areas that needs attention will be education for both girls and boys, but more especially girls, not only because education is an entry point to opportunity, but because women’s education has positive ripple effects within the family and society.

Education is much more than reading and writing. It is an essential investment countries make in their futures, a crucial factor in reducing poverty and inequality, and achieving sustainable development.

• Wonder Hlongwa is the spokesperson of the KZN legislature. He writes in his personal capacity.

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