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How far have women advanced in our democracy?

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA) / October 15, 2020 – Women farm workers march to Parliament to challenge Minister Thoko Didiza’s latest land reform strategy that exclude the Western Cape and marginalised communities. Despite the strides South Africa has made since 1994, challenges negate this progress. Research shows women remain the most vulnerable group when it comes to gender-based violence, poverty, unemployment, gender inequality and various other crimes, the writer says.

By Zanele Zuma

The demise of apartheid and the accompanying birth of democracy brought hope to many South Africans, particularly women who had been at the intersection of race, power, poverty and gender, among other challenges.

The recognition of women’s right to vote in South Africa resonates with the ethos of International Women’s Day which was observed yesterday.

Similarly, the birth of democracy ignited a spark of hope, promising a more inclusive and equitable society. While the constitution enshrines gender equality, there have been complex continuing challenges to this commitment.

International Women’s Day provides a timely moment to reflect on the advancement made by women in South Africa since the dawn of democracy in 1994. With the national elections in May, it becomes crucial to assess the strides made by women in various spheres of life.

There remain gaps in the advancement of women from all facets of life since the inception of democracy. Besides notable achievements of increased female representation in political spheres in the past three decades, South Africans are sceptical about having a female presidential candidate. The democratic government has recognised the importance of empowering women and promoting their active participation in all aspects of public life.

The introduction of gender quotas within political parties has played a crucial role in enhancing women’s participation in decision-making bodies. The promotion of women in Parliament and local government has improved, contributing to a more diverse and inclusive political landscape. Nevertheless, some sectors of society lag; progress remains slow for women compared to their male counterparts.

Despite the many strides South Africa has made since 1994, there have been constant challenges that defeat the good progress made. According to statistics, South Africa’s female population was about 30.73 million, compared with 29.17 million males between 2012 and 2022. Yet research demonstrates that women remain the most vulnerable group when it comes to gender-based violence, poverty, unemployment, gender inequality and various other crimes.

There may have been a show of equity for women in multiple sectors, however, their participation in decision-making remains minimal which may reflect on their contribution during the elections in the past three decades. When women are part of decision-making bodies, it brings positive changes to the lives of the entire female population as their decisions will be based on experience and fact rather than assumptions.

Women’s development remains a work in progress. A report by PwC South Africa shows that of the 208 new appointments in executive positions across the Johannesburg Stock Exchange from January 2020 until June 2022, only 25 percent were female.

A study on the experiences of female faculty deans in South Africa demonstrates that the leadership status of women is suffering as there is an unequal representation between men and women in institutions of higher learning. The study underscores that the selection process, gender stereotypes, lack of support, networking and mentors remain the challenges that women face in climbing to executive leadership in universities.

Then again, a business report by Milpark Education shows that black female chartered accountants are a minority in South Africa. The report emphasises the fact that the promotion of female chartered accountants comes with the added benefit of bringing positive change to private and public enterprises.

Ahead of the general elections in May, and in a celebratory mood of International Women’s Day, it remains a road less travelled for South African women. The under-representation of women in key leadership positions remains a drawback. A critical evaluation of the political landscape reveals the need for continued efforts to break down barriers and empower women to assume leadership roles effectively. Economic empowerment remains a vital aspect of women’s progress.

While initiatives to enhance female entrepreneurship and access to education have been implemented, gender disparities persist in the workplace. Closing the gender pay gap and ensuring equal opportunities for career advancement are challenges that require sustained attention. This requires women to adopt a mindset that it is they who will bring about their emancipation.

The realisation by all women is that universal suffrage, which includes South Africa, is not a mere casting of a vote for an aspiring politician of a political party. It should be done while keeping an open mind about the sufferings of South African women which if not addressed, could become a vicious cycle for their generation.

The prevalence of gender-based violence and femicide remains the darker aspect of the post-apartheid era.

Women contracting HIV/Aids, and rape and sexual assaults within the confines of relationships are highlights of the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the social ills. They should consider the enhancement of their lives when casting their votes.

Dr Zanele Zuma School of Public Health at Wits University