Home Affairs requires husbands to give women consent to change their names and it's an affront

When I went to vote in the 2016 local elections, I found that I didn't exist on the voters' role. A strange woman with my ID number and my husband's surname did, though, writes Sarah Wild.

In 2019 in South Africa, adult women need their husbands' permission to keep their birth names. In some instances, they even need evidence of their father's consent. This is according to home affairs officials. 

It is a common lament among married women that the Department of Home Affairs changes their name to that of their husband – unasked. It is usually working women who have professional personas, but often it is women who simply want to keep their birth name. For government, though, the reason should be irrelevant. By ticking the box on the marriage form that a woman wants to retain their birth name, she is giving the Department of Home Affairs a legal instruction.

However, many home affairs officials around the country do not believe that women have the right to make this decision – or if women do decide to keep their name, they do not know their own minds.

When I went to vote in the 2016 local elections, I found that I didn't exist on the voters' role. A strange woman with my ID number and my husband's surname did, though. When I contacted the Eastern Cape home affairs branch which processed my marriage, the official asked whether I loved my husband. Obviously, I didn't love him if I wanted to keep my name.

What followed was a lengthy process to try and change the system. I found more than 200 women who had also had their names changed, despite ticking the box stating that they wanted to keep their birth name.

For me, it almost cost me the chance to vote. Others pay in work days lost as they have to go and fight (yes, fight) with home affairs officials to change it back. Sometimes they have to pay a fee. Sometimes, women discover their new name when they have a child, whose unabridged birth certificate lists her as having a different name. One woman found out when she was about to board a plane overseas. She was barred from boarding.

In 2016, with the help of the Legal Resources Centre, about two dozen women and I approached the Department of Home Affairs about the matter. They changed our names back, and we had assurances that the system would change. (I knew of another action against them by Raisa Cachalia a few years prior, but I thought that this time would be different.)

Since then, more than 30 women have contacted me asking for assistance to get their names changed back to their pre-marriage names. In the last few weeks, the messages have been concerning:

"A HA official I spoke to just now said they would change it back if I bring an affidavit explaining my reason for wanting to keep it. And my husband must submit one too, stating he 'gives consent' for me to retain my maiden surname. This is ridiculous but I have to do it as it affects my UIF/maternity leave claims," one woman wrote to me.

Another said: "I wanted to change my name back to my birth surname and I require both my father and stepfather's written permission. It's literally the name on my birth certificate and first passport. Still need the men to allow me to do it!"

Yet another said on Twitter: "This happened to me too, and when I went to @homeaffairsZA to get it changed back, they first asked if my husband was OK with it and then wanted to phone my father to check. So... that was fun."

This archaic conservative throwback that appears to be infiltrating the corridors of home affairs isn't just a bureaucratic bungle, or something to be sniggered at. It is in contravention of the Constitution and infringing on these women's rights.

Section 9(3) of the Bill of Rights notes that: "The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth."

But this group of women (married women who choose to retain their names) are being discriminated against on the basis of their marital status, sex, and choice to keep their name. The Department of Home Affairs ignores their legal instruction. 

Everyone also has a right to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair (S33(1)). The actions of these officials are not legal.

This new development of requiring male consent strips women of their dignity. The state requires that children and those who are mentally disabled have others give legal consent for them. This is the category into which the Department of Home Affairs is putting mentally competent, adult women.

- Sarah Wild is a freelance science journalist based in Johannesburg.

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