Women’s Progress Under the National Gender Machinery

It is clear that some women have benefited tremendously since the beginning of the reforms in 1994. In fact, a number of people believe that women generally have been liberated by South African democracy more than any other group. But it is also clear is that certain women have not benefited, and in some cases, life has become even more difficult. It is true that the government and most corporations have a significant number of women in Parliament, agencies, departments, and divisions (dictated by law), but the question one must ask is if those are women from the middle class who have simply moved to the upper-middle class.

Amina Mama examined this question in a 1995 article using the term “femocracy” to describe the phenomenon.66 She suggested that what has been created in South Africa is actually an antidemocratic female power structure which claims to help women but, in fact, does not because it is dominated by a small group of women whose power is derived from being married to powerful men. More and more people in South Africa are considering this theory, and it could help explain why some organizations such as the Gender Commission are paralyzed by power struggles with other government agencies and have not been able to create any substantive change.67

Rural women in particular do not seem to be benefiting from the gender equality and empowerment laws and policies of the country, as later chapters will describe in more detail. Especially in rural areas, the prevailing attitude is that men are in charge and women should be obedient and are the weaker gender. This is reflected in the prevalence of gender violence and rape. As long as women are controlled financially, physically, and emotionally, things will continue as they are.

Orly Stern, a former human rights lawyer at the Sonke Gender Justice Network and now a consultant, believes rural women need to be taught about their rights and what to do if those rights are violated. Presently, the network has a campaign underway to do just that, but it is only taking place in the cities. Orly recognizes the difficulty of reaching people in the rural areas and also worries about the women who do know their rights but do not have the money to pursue a case or are too far away from courts and lawyers. Strengthening the police system and legal-aid organizations as well as getting reports into more remote areas would help tremendously. More mechanisms must be put in place to enforce the laws.68

When it comes to the entrenched problem of patriarchal attitudes, it’s not clear what will change the situation. As one effort, the Sonke Gender Justice Network is also working with men and boys to understand their attitudes and, more important, to educate them and try to improve their views and conduct toward women.

Ultimately, it could be argued that South Africa’s laws and policies are ahead of its cultural and social norms. Those laws and policies have created a contradiction of opportunities. On the one hand, they have begun the process of breaking down stereotypes and creating greater independence for women. On the other, women still find themselves having to exercise those choices in a context of a conservative and patriarchal society.69

As is often the case, laws and policies are only the first step in bringing about change. They provide structure, legal protection, and a foundation to build upon, but they alone cannot carry the weight of the task. To make real change requires personal and collective will, the relinquishment of long-held attitudes and norms, time, and resources.

The debate about gender equality among women in South Africa has called attention to the fact that what is formally written in a document does not guarantee or secure equal treatment. According to Assie- Lumumba, “What has become clear during the debates over this contested issue is that, unless there is a radical restructuring in the sexual division of labor as well as a concomitant change in the consciousness, discourse, and behavior of men and women about gender roles, women will be trapped as wives, mothers, and lovers instead of being accorded citizenship in their own right.”70

The adoption of laws and policies that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment is just the promise of what should be. It is important not to let that promise mask the reality of life for many disadvantaged women in South Africa. Moreover, as the next chapter will demonstrate, it must also be acknowledged that much of that reality is based on macroeconomic trends and policies that have driven South Africa and its people’s progress, or lack thereof, over the last several decades.

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