Our sexist ways

2009-05-20 00:00

In the last week national political developments have brought the question of gender equality to the fore. Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has been widely criticised for choosing an all-male cabinet, while, in turn, she has pointed out that President Jacob Zuma’s personal politics are not gender equitable nor is the Commission of Gender Equality’s record in promoting gender equality laudable.

Gender equality is a global goal enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals. It is argued that the world needs gender equality not just because it is the most vulnerable groups in society that suffer the burden of inequality, but because raising the living standards of these groups is to make a contribution to development, to better human relations and to a healthy planet.

In 1994, South Africa embraced the goal of gender equality, and formal expression to this is found in the Constitution and particularly in the Bill of Rights.

While a legal guarantee of gender equality is an important starting point, the acid test is to convert such guarantee into demonstrable change. There are a great many policy statements and international conventions designed to enshrine and promote gender equality, yet such inequalities continue to be widespread throughout the world. This means that we need to look beyond the Constitution for evidence of commitment to and progress towards gender equality.

In trying to engage with the issue of gender inequality there are two major questions that arise.

• What policies have been implemented?

• How do we measure the efficacy of these policies?

In South Africa, a number of steps have been taken to promote gender equality. In the first instance, the government established a number of bodies to promote gender equality. Chief among these were the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and the Office on the Status of Women (OSW). A second step was to mainstream gender equality policies into all government ministries, sometimes through the establishment of bodies such as the Gender Education Unit which, within the Education Department, had a similar role to that of the CGE. This step often included producing provincial-level goals, processes and targets designed to promote gender equality. Among these have been to encourage women into leadership positions in public and private institutions. The third step has been to promote gender equality at grass-roots level, involving curriculum changes in schools and gender-sensitive delivery of public services.

South Africa has achieved two major successes in terms of promoting gender equality. The first has been to target women aggressively for public office and the second has been to create a social security system that specifically helps women — the child support grant is the best example of this initiative. South Africa now ranks among one of the most gender equitable countries in the world when examining its parliamentary composition. On the other hand, South Africa is among the most gender inequitable countries in the world if one looks at levels of gender-based violence. Here is the rub.

Putting women into leadership positions is symbolically important. It shows that women can occupy positions of public responsibility and that there is no reason to presume that they belong barefoot in the kitchen. On the other hand, the promotion of women into such positions is open to two criticisms. The first is that there is no guarantee that a woman will be gender-sensitive. Just because a person possesses the reproductive organs of a female does not mean that she is going to be a feminist. The second problem is that by focusing heavily on this symbolic area it is possible to ignore other serious problems of gender inequality, such as rape, unemployment and so on.

The furore about the all-male cabinet in the Western Cape has missed the key question facing South Africans. How do we make a more harmonious, peaceful, safe, democratic and gender equitable society? Having many women in government will not on its own achieve this goal. Paying attention to a host of issues that face citizens, male and female, every day, may in the long run make as great a contribution as changing the gender composition of a cabinet. To use current South African political parlance, service delivery is critical.

South Africa’s commitment to gender equality and its progress towards gender equality need to be tested against some alarming figures. In a 2008 Gauteng-based study, Lisa Vetten, Rachel Jewkes et al found that in 2003 only 50% of over 2 000 rape cases reported in Gauteng resulted in arrest, in only 43% of these cases were men charged with rape and in only four percent of these cases was a perpetrator convicted of rape. The report suggests that gender equality is not understood as including the protection of women (and men) and that commitment and resources are not being adequately committed to this goal. This is just one example of where progress towards gender equality has been negligible.

If South Africa is to be serious about gender equality it must implement policies that convert rights into the capability of its citizens to live life to the full. This is an ambitious goal for it requires that all citizens commit themselves to respect one another, to abandon ideas of superiority, and to turn away from denigration, abuse, cruelty and hurt.

• Robert Morrell is a professor in the Faculty of Education at UKZN and is the author (with Debbie Epstein, Elaine Unterhalter, Deevia Bhana and Relebohile Moletsane) of Towards Gender Equality? South African schools during the HIV/Aids epidemic (Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press) due out later this month.

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