20 years of freedom – closing the gender gap in SA society



This month, South Africa commemorates two decades of democratic freedom in the country and reflects on the journey taken to create a more equitable society for all citizens, says Phumla Williams, CEO of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

“With the majority of women having suffered three-fold in the apartheid era – for being women, for being black and for being economically marginalised, a key determinant of our progress in building a better society will be to look at how far we have come in closing the gender gap, and on whether today’s society is better for both men and women as a result of our strong human rights culture and our constitutional framework.

At a recent Play Your Part/Sowetan Dialogue discussion on our freedom, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission, posed the question to assembled delegates: “Does legislation and policies really translate into a better life for those concerned?”

When addressing this question in relation to the rights of women in South African society, she reflected on a case she had dealt with back in the late 1990s which demonstrated how, at times over the past two decades, the application of universal human rights would sometimes be at odds with traditional practices that have been practised for years in the country, and reflected on the impact of this on the people involved.

She said: “In the early days of democracy I was confronted with a case of a minor who was married off by her family when she was 14 years old.  We managed to remove the minor from the family and placed her in a place of safety.  We subsequently arrested the person to whom she would have been married as well as the father of the girl and successfully prosecuted them. I was happy that we successfully protected a minor but when she turned 18 years old and could leave the place of safety where she had lived, she had no place to go as she was ostracised from her village for the dishonour she had brought to her family and village.”

This case brought into sharp focus the multi-dimensionality of the implementation of human rights which must be balanced with cultural and family values and norms.

However, in the years since that time, South Africa has made a great number of positive strides in narrowing the gender gap and creating a more equitable society for women in the country.

In the most recent Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in October last year, South Africa had risen to 2nd place in the African country rankings for the continent’s most equal society in terms of gender parity and 17th place overall in the world rankings out of 135 countries.

The Report’s Global Gender Gap Index, which has been published since 2006, is a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities in a country and tracking their progress over the years.  The report attributed the narrowing of the gender gap in South Africa to the government’s strong commitment to end discrimination against women since the birth of democracy back in 1994.

The report also identified South Africa to be the best performing BRICS member country and second best performing individual G20 country in closing the gender gap in the areas of health, education, politics and economic equality.


In March this year, the journey towards achieving greater gender equity in South Africa took another major leap forward with the passing of a government bill aimed at empowering women and promoting gender equality. The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill was passed on 5 March in the National Assembly, a move welcomed by the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities.

The Bill calls for the progressive realisation of at least 50% representation of women in decision-making structures.  It also aims at improving access to education, training and skills development. The Bill also seeks to promote and protect women’s reproductive health, and eliminate discrimination and harmful practices, including gender-based violence.

The Minister for Women, Lulu Xingwana, welcomed the decision to adopt the Bill, saying: “The women of South Africa have said to us that they cannot wait any longer to share in the fruits of our democracy”.  However, she also pointed out that while significant strides had been made to empower women and promote gender equality, a disproportionate burden of the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment was still borne by women.

The fact is that since the birth of democracy 20 years ago, great strides have indeed been made on the journey towards achieving greater gender equality in South Africa.  More girl children than in 1994 are today gaining access to education, passing primary and secondary education, and obtaining degrees at universities.  More women are taking their place in government and key decision-making roles in the corporate environment.  A social security net which benefits in excess of 16 million people, 13 million of which are children, has been created.

However, whilst significant challenges still remain, particularly the scourge of violence against women and children and the impact of poverty on women, the introduction of greater legislation that protects the rights of women and oversees the integration of gender equity principles into government and the private sector can only be a good thing.

The passing of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill provides the necessary legislative tools to help drive greater gender equality in the country and promote opportunities for women to enjoy equal representation in decision-making positions across government and the corporate sector.

The Bill also aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls, including those with disabilities, and seeks to address any practices that violate women’s rights to social, political, economic and cultural freedoms.  The Bill also provides for the monitoring of legislation to address discrimination and violence against women, as well as access to services and economic emancipation.

According to the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index, there is a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness. Because women typically account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women in society.

We must bear in mind here in South Africa looks to maximize its position as a proactive member of the BRICS grouping of nations in the global marketplace.  Ultimately, whilst South Africa has come a long way in the past 20 years in closing the gender gap, much work remains to be done if women are to fulfill their potential and make the necessary contribution to the country’s future development and position in the world.  Every citizen, male and female, has a responsibility in helping to make this happen – it is in South Africa’s, and indeed every woman’s, best interests.”

First published in The Star