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Women’s Month may be over, but the demand for economic equality is an ongoing struggle


Alexandra Willis is a researcher at the Social Policy Initiative. This article is written in her personal capacity.

A universal basic income grant would provide women, especially those heading households, with financial security to be able to reach their full potential. A robust women’s entrepreneurship sector has the potential to change the fabric of South African society as we know it.

We live in a country where 42% of households are headed by women. A female-headed household refers to a situation where a woman is in charge of managing a family as a result of the father of children living in a household either having disappeared, divorced or separated from the mother of his children, emigrated or died. 

Currently, South African recipients of the Child Support Grant (90% of whom are women) share that money in households because there are no social security grants available to working-age adults who are unable to find work.

During the Covid-19 lockdown periods, the government introduced the R350 Social Relief of Distress grant (SRD) that was payable to poor working-age people. For many people, the SRD grant became a lifeline, but some people in government object to the SRD grant saying it is a waste of limited state resources.

Those same government officials who took issue with the SRD grant are reluctant about supporting a proposed Universal Basic Income Grant (Ubig), which has been on the table for discussion for a while now. This is an argument for how women could be empowered through a Ubig.

The proposed Ubig would be a government programme through which every South African adult citizen receives a set amount of money regularly. How much each person receives under a Ubig plan depends on a number of factors such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inflation, and employment income. 

Other countries, including Canada, are discussing the implementation of a Ubig too. More than half of all South Africans live below the upper bound poverty line and 25% of the population live in starvation.

Women are more vulnerable than men because of higher poverty rates and fewer job opportunities and this is felt particularly for female-headed households where intergenerational poverty transmission or self-reproducing poverty happens. Executive Director of Social Policy Initiative (SPI) Isobel Frye argues that poverty burdens women more, and black African women, in particular, suffer the most, given the intersectional dynamics of race, class and gender. And of course, we have a high incidence of absent fathers, in South Africa.

According to Frye, “women are registered as caregivers for over 90% of recipients of the Child Support Grant, and yet 10.5 million women are Neets (Not in Employment, Education or Training) compared to 8.5 million men — 6.5 million women applied for the SRD grant in February 2022 compared to 4.8 million men. Caregiving prevents many women from being able to find paid work, as they cannot leave their dependents alone, and care work is not compensated”.

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Frye argues that a universal basic income grant “would enable women to have more control over their lives with a little bit more income. It also would delink income from caregiving, recognising women’s rights separately from being caregivers which is important to do as part of a permanent contestation of patriarchal norms”.

In addition, anecdotal evidence collected by SPI identified how fathers feel more able to be with their children when they can bring some of their R350 to these visits. This promotes responsible parenting and children’s sense of identity.

Furthermore, a Ubig could assist self-starting entrepreneurial women, including street traders, by providing them with venture capital and support they need to build their businesses. In South Africa, street traders are primarily women. In this sense, a Ubig would provide women (especially those heading households) with financial security to be able to reach their full potential. A robust women’s entrepreneurship sector has the potential to change the fabric of South African society as we know it.

Canadian health economist with expertise in the feasibility of basic income Evelyn Forget argues that “[basic income] is a promise that no matter what happens in your life, no matter what happens to the economy or to society, everyone will have access with enough money to live a dignified life”.  A Ubig is primarily about dignity, and the possibility of it happening in our country largely rests on political will.

Just because August, “Women’s Month” is over does not mean the struggles of women are over; they are far away from reaching the dream of equality, and the Ubig can go a small way towards realising this. DM



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