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[OPINION] Radical pro-women policies are overdue in SA

The history of South Africa is one full of untold struggles by women. This is not only because black women were part of the liberation struggle and sought to free themselves as part of the broader society, but also because in apartheid/colonial South Africa, women had struggles that were particular to them.

This ranges from raising children under tough economic conditions without their husbands in the homelands, to the gruesome sexual crimes experienced in “maid quarters” and everywhere else where they existed. Accordingly, just like in many other countries where there is war and oppression, our story in South Africa is besieged with the pain and turmoil of women whose pain is yet to be fully understood and dealt with.

With South Africa well on its way to celebrate 24 years of democracy, one would be excused for expecting that our tale would be significantly different. Unfortunately, even though much has changed, the devil of oppression still hangs and chokes the aspirations of women across the country.

Despite all progress made, poverty and deprivation in our country continues to have a gender bias.

In case you need some convincing, men still earn up to 27% more than women. Stats of unemployment signal that unemployment is higher amongst women when compared to men. At a macro-economic level, the fairy-tale of trickle-down economics has not delivered on its promise. The result is that the ordinary woman on the street continues to live in poverty. To that effect, women are the main victims of a socio-economic output that banishes more than 50% of South Africans to the gutter of poverty. To this day, women-headed households have lower access to private and public assets.

In contrast, men, especially white men, continue to be at the helm and are the key beneficiaries of the country’s economic produce in the same way they benefited during apartheid. For example, according to the Commission for Employment Equity, white men constitute over 50% of top management yet they constitute only 5.5% of the economically active population (EAP). Black women, by contrast, constitute 7.3% of private sector top management. Here we are not only speaking about African women - African, Coloured and Indian women - are combined. If we were to rely on the pace of transformation we have seen in the last three years (0.55% per year), it would take over 40 years for women to have representation in the private sector’s top management that equals their EAP of 44.8%, ceteris paribus. I am sure we can agree that it cannot take our democracy a combined period of over 60 years to have gender parity in the private sector. It would be an abomination to the legacies of all women revolutionaries who fought against such.

Of course, all this is not withstanding the key advancements we have made since 1994. For example, in the public sector, women representation at top management is higher, and higher education enrolment of women is higher than that of men.

Still, it is evident that without any radical socio-economic change, women’s opportunities in life will continue to be under siege and unless our policies are radically changed, not much will change.

On Sunday, 13 January 2017, the president of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, reaffirmed the movement’s intention to implement radical socio-economic transformation and also made special mention of the focused goal of improving the lives of women.

Some of the resolutions from the 54th National Conference of the ANC already create a platform for the government to assert itself in empowering women. For example, land expropriation may increase private asset ownership of women whilst also increasing their productivity if they are adequately empowered. Since most households are led by women, one would be inclined to believe that in the process of redistribution, women would be key beneficiaries.

On free, quality higher education, the sector has a significantly higher enrolment rate for women than men [This is shockingly the case (a good shock, of course) despite the many barriers women must overcome to finish school]. As such, one would expect that it would be women that benefit from such a shift.

Beyond these policies, the government of the ANC needs to adopt other radical policies that will begin to confront and correct the atrocities of patriarchy embedded of centuries. For now, I wish to make a case for three.

BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING

The government of Norway, amongst other things, regulated that at least 40% of the boards of companies must be women from the year 2003. The government also invested resources into child development and education. In 2016, Norway was found to be the leading country with economic inclusivity.

Notwithstanding our socio-economic differences, this is a great example on how a country can fast-track the emancipation of women. Self-regulation has not produced sufficient results and punitive measures for failing to comply with BBBEE targets are pretty much insubstantial. Compelling organisations to comply to a quota of at least 40%, not only on their boards, but also in top management and senior management would compel them to invest more in developing women and having sufficient succession pools.

SANITATION

One of the most backward, yet stubborn government policies across many countries of the world is the taxation of sanitary pads. South Africa is no exception. With more than 50% of our country being women, this means that most South Africans have been, are being and/or will be taxed because they have a womb. Fortunately, Ireland and some States in the United States of America (Maine, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) provide examples that this disgraceful tax can be reversed.

Even better, the government of Botswana is in the process to provide free sanitary pads. Understanding that in South Africa, girls from lower income families lose approximately 1 out of 5 years of their secondary schooling owing to the lack of sanitary pads, this radical policy would make a significant difference in improving attendance and performance of girls in school. The provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal has already taken steps in this direction. However, this is required at a bigger scale and throughout the country.

Besides the obvious benefits to women in making such an investment, this initiative can help government reindustrialise this sector and to invest in women-owned companies that will supply the state with sanitary pads.

EQUAL PAY

We earlier explored the injustices against women when it comes to parity in pay. Iceland has the same challenges but to a much lesser extent. Their current statistics indicate that women earn 78.5% of what men earn. As a result, the government was decisive in promulgating a law that makes it illegal for organisations to pay women less than men. Whilst Iceland is already one of the top five countries when it comes to gender parity in wage and number one in overall parity according to The Global Gender Gap Report, they are intent on closing the gap.

Our case is worse than Iceland. We are currently ranked 19th in the world and 3rd in the continent behind Rwanda and Namibia in the overall parity assessment. Our wage gap is also higher than Iceland, yet they are much more radical.

I believe that it is time that we apply the same vigour to the gender struggle as to the extent to which we sloganeer about it. Having said this, what we know is that such a shift is neither sweet nor smooth. Institutionalised oppression will not cease power willingly. It is for that reason that both women and man in the ANC must continue to organise to ensure that the right policies are implemented.

Note: I write this as a man who is aware of the structural bias that patriarchy affords him and is also aware of the privilege of writing from an out-of-body experience - as an observer, not the oppressed. I will never experience what patriarchy has done and is doing to women but what I continue to observe is sufficient to stir me into action.

Bafana Nhlapo writes in his personal capacity.

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