Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 11 March 2015

The state of women: It’s about time we talked

Nhlanhla Nene’s maiden Budget Speech has come and gone, leaving South Africans with the glaring reality that our economy is not doing as well as it should be. Higher fuel prices, energy prices and taxes have left us all reeling. The State of the Nation Address (SONA), almost a month later, still has the nation reeling for a different bunch of reasons. And yet there’s one big conversation we should be having that we are not. It’s time we talked about women.

As the signal jamming incident is now sub judice and the president refuses to answer further questions on Nkandla, we are waking up to the post-SONA hangover of the land debate being re-ignited. But with all the economic, social and political debates the two most important speeches in the annual Parliamentary cycle ignited, no mention was made of gender, women’s rights or the fact that South Africa has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence globally.

I was therefore very privileged to be the master of ceremonies at a breakfast seminar organised by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (Tshwaranang) on 4 March, where a very pertinent statement was made: “We need to talk.” In as much as there is a need to talk, the fact remains that post-SONA and Budget Speech, the horses have bolted. The Executive, through their boss and emissary – the president – told us what policy will be for the near future. Nene – Minister of Finance – on the other hand, has split the fiscal pie and ministers, premiers, MECs and those that report to them can only spend what he has managed to squeeze out of the budget. So is it not a bit too late to start talking?

Not according to Nondumiso Nsibande, the Executive Director of Tshwaranang, who believes that if we wish to see the status of women improving in South Africa, there is no time like the present to start the conversation. So the organisation Nsibande heads, in conjunction with KPMG and the MTN SA Foundation, pulled together government, civil society and the private sector to talk about how positive change can be influenced, keeping in mind that the horses have bolted.

No conversation around gender is complete without looking at the current challenges, before getting to solutions for the future, in the long and short term. Some of the questions considered illustrate the innate gender bias we have come to accept as the norm, as a society. Ever wondered why there is a need for a Minster of Women? As obviously essential as this portfolio might seem, it really should not need to exist. There is no Minister for Short People, nor a Minister for those that own pets, but women’s status, two decades into democracy, demands that a special portfolio, albeit within the president’s office, still exist. The fact that women need to be viewed as a special interest group, despite them constituting 51% of South Africa’s population, in a country where all should be done to equally realise everyone’s rights, is what evidences our failure in giving women true equality.

It is therefore essential that in a South Africa that requires a minister especially dedicated to women’s rights, Executive policy and specific budget allocations should do more to advance women’s rights. In an effort to assist in answering the question on how this can be achieved within the current policy framework and budget, a stellar panel of speakers united to address the breakfast session.

Janet Love, a Commissioner at the South African Commission of Human Rights and Executive Director of the Legal Resource Centre, opened the batting. With her, no holds were barred, jumping straight into the issue by stating that our National Budget needs to prioritise women’s issues. Love rightly pointed to the fact that gender-based violence cannot be viewed in isolation, that issues related to it are cross-cutting, affecting and affected by education, socio-economic status and a litany of other factors. It is therefore essential that solutions presented for gender-based violence be equally cross-cutting, so that it is not simply viewed as a criminal justice issue.

The next panelist, Dr Nondumiso Maphazi, a Commissioner at the South African Commission for Gender Equality, picked up on the issue of gender-based violence and the economic independence women need. Dr Maphazi very correctly asked: “How do you leave your relationship with a man who beats you, when he feeds you and your children?” She points to the fact that the president needs to step up and give leadership and direction on the National Council on Gender-Based Violence. This Council, its silence and lack of real impact on South Africa’s gravest social ill, needs direction immediately. She, however, also has a warning for women in their own struggle, that those that are empowered should not close doors for their compatriots still battling in the trenches. Using her daughter as a case in point, she raised her concern with the fact that women’s sexual and reproductive health choices are so poorly supported at health facilities. Her daughter was administered a long-lasting contraceptive, without any counselling or information regarding its effects. This and much worse is the experience of many women in South Africa, particularly those in rural areas.

Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Pregs Govender, with her Apartheid struggle veteran and 1994 Parliamentarian pedigree, took to the podium next. She transported the room back to the early 1990s, when questions around gender were being tackled as our democratic transition was unfolding. She challenged the room to recall the energy then and for it to be re-ignited. “Women need to realise their power,” she said. Since women constitute 51% of the population, she feels that women hold real potential power, that they should be able to determine political agenda and discourse, that they should be the primary constituency for those in power. For Govender, for the National Budget to become a real mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights, the question is: “How does each section of budget address women’s needs?” In an effort to really understand what impact the budget has on women’s rights, we need to look at the entire budget in terms of its differential impact on women, girls, boys and men.

Lisa Gahan from KPMG, where she is a Principal Consultant in Human and Social Services, proved that the private sector has a far greater role to play then just to fit the bill in exchange for some banner placement at events like these. The gauntlet she lay down for the private sector was through having it evaluate what it is doing in the advancement of women’s rights. Are equity targets simply bothersome quotas that impede profitability? What of those businesses that have government’s ear; are they passing on the correct information, information that could see a significant effort being made in the improvement in the lives of women? One startling fact that Gahan brought to the fore was that gender-based violence costs South Africa between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year – or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP – annually. The title to their report, “Too costly to ignore – The economic impact of gender-based violence in South Africa” is therefore spot-on. So even if you were to ignore the moral imperative (an impossibility) and simply look at this from a cost perspective, it is clear that something urgent needs to be done about this national shame.

The upshot of sessions like these – and Tshwaranang will be having more – is the fact that gender and challenges pertaining to it needs to be mainstreamed and dialogues like these will see to it. These conversations aim to have the current and future budgets of this nation interrogate how women will be impacted by their implementation. Solutions are being sought and through the unlikely and uncomfortable interaction of civil society, business and government, the test will be to orientate solutions that work for women rather than articulate – even if very correctly – the challenges women face. It is indeed time to talk, but action is needed, and I will most certainly be following this series of breakfast sessions to see how inputs lead to improved outcomes for women. DM

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