Establishing a National Gender Machinery

What about the women of South Africa? What changes did the new Rainbow Nation usher in for them? What impact, if any, did the political and economic policies and reforms outlined in previous sections have on women?

After the general elections in 1994, the South African government passed legally binding initiatives to promote gender equality and established a National Gender Machinery (NGM) to implement and monitor those initiatives. The emphasis was on increasing the representation of women across sectors and institutions and on creating an environment where women’s voices could be heard.

As a result of those governmental efforts, women’s access to political power, decision-making, and influence has improved a good deal in the little over two decades since that time. For example, by 2000, women constituted almost 30 percent of the ministers and 62 percent of the deputy ministers in the national government, 30 percent of the members of Parliament, and 24 percent of members of provincial legislatures. And by 2015, women represented 43 percent of the ministers and 46 percent of the deputy ministers in the national government and 39.5 percent of the members of Parliament, as well as 47 percent of the members of provincial legislatures.50 To date, although a woman has not held the country’s highest political position, South Africa ranks seventh in the world for women’s representation in Parliament.51

Moreover, the government continues to support gender parity in government and industry. In March 2014, just before the most recent elections, the national assembly passed the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which obligates both public and private sector to ensure at least 50 percent representation of women in decision-making structures.52

Yet although such laws and structures were important first steps, they alone cannot guarantee equality. In fact, despite all the laws, policies, initiatives, and a strong national economy, a majority of South African women continue to be at the bottom of the pyramid socially, culturally, physically, and economically. Why?

Part of the answer lies in the patriarchal mindset held by both men and women and their continued support of traditional practices. To illustrate, a 1999 study based on a survey administered in the Eastern Cape, Northern Province, and Mpumalanga found that 82 percent of women believed that wives should obey their husbands. In addition, about 60 percent felt that women do not have the right to refuse sex with their partners, 50 percent thought that a husband has the right to punish his wife, and 10 percent said that hitting by husbands is sometimes or always acceptable. 53 Therein lays the fundamental problem for women in South Africa, as will be seen throughout this book and described in more detail in coming chapters. The attitudes, norms, perceptions, and cultural practices regarding women must change along with the laws and institutions.

The problem can also be linked to a lack of implementation of government policies, laws, and initiatives related to women’s empowerment and gender equality. The following section will explore those policies, laws, and initiatives, which provide a framework for considering women’s progress, or lack thereof, since the beginning of the Rainbow Nation.

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