Gender Equality: Policy and practice

Gender inequality is alive and kicking in South Africa. This is demonstrated in the continued absence of women in leadership positions in the media and some other economic sectors. Moreover in women’s lack of access to land and economic empowerment, power sharing and decision making and continued poverty of female headed homes.  Maybe the most telling indicator is the continued violence against women. Mfanozelwe Shozi, Chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality, states that violence against women embodies gender inequality and still is a major concern for most women in South Africa. Violence against women should not only be understood in terms of physical and verbal violence but encompass sexual, psychological, economical and systemic violence. This is seen in many practices linked to traditional and cultural constructions such as female marital rape, female genital mutilation, virginity testing and dowry-related violence. It is also evident in indigenous cultural law practices such, i.e. the system of indigenous customary law which excludes women from the institution of traditional authority, the barring of female succession (inheritance of property as daughters and wives)  to mention but a few. Violence related to intimidation and exploitation of women within most structures in our society, thus within our schools, homes, marriages, relationships, economic and religious institutions as well as the portrayal of women in the media, could also be listed as manifestations of gender inequality.

 This status quo begs the question: “Why do we still see, experience and tolerate this gender inequality in our society and what are the contributing factors to this?” It is much like asking: “How long is a piece of string?” I therefore believe the more appropriate or relevant question to ask is: How do we address these injustices? We have one of the most advanced constitutions in the world regarding gender equality yet in practice women still experience a very different reality. I subsequently argue that legislation and policies alone are not enough. Only once we change the social constructions that we hold (the meaning we put to) regarding the position of women and men in relation to each other, especially as presented in most economic and religious structures, as well as the constructions of masculinity and femininity, will we be able to stem the tide of gender injustice.

 This necessitates addressing and challenging the system of patriarchy: thus the embracing and cultivating of ethical practices in terms of gender awareness and gender equality. This can be actioned by inviting a just social consciousness which will include feminist thought and practices. However, in the recent years there has been a tremendous backlash to feminist ideas. I believe this is due to the fact that during the Apartheid years the majority of South Africans were not exposed to the first and second wave of feminism and therefore feminist ideology did not establish in the general public. Moreover, in the presence of racist oppression and abject poverty, gender issues took a back seat in most black communities during the apartheid years. Within the white society many males believe they have been stripped from their economic and political power in post-apartheid South Africa and therefore for many white males, gender dominance is their last bastion of power, and cling to it for dear life.

 It is important to note that the resistance to feminist ideas is not only from men. Many women, especially those who have had a very traditional and religious upbringing, continue to maintain and reinforce patriarchal ideas and practises. Male domination is deeply entrenched within religious minded people’s marriages and relationship dynamics in South Africa. The 2001 population census suggests that the overwhelming majority (79,8%) of South Africa’s ‘population can be described as reached with a Christian philosophy and ideology dominant in the public life’. In the light of these census figures, I argue that the dominant discourse of patriarchy is still circulating in most religious structures. Patriarchal ways of understanding gender, sexuality and sexual practices will be constitutive in most religious structures and reflected in individuals’ ways of understanding and living. Within a patriarchal understanding of the religious tradition, the husband was appointed as head of the home and the wife as helpmeet in a subservient power relationship to him. These religious discourses need to be challenged and replaced with respectful gender practices which honour personhood instead of femininity or masculinity.

 Gender equality needs to be more than just a numbers game. In order to create an environment and society in which gender equality can flourish gender mainstreaming needs to become general practice and part of the South African gender psyche. Gender issues are not women’s issues alone. I am in agreement with Margret Farley (2010:156) who argues that ‘[g]ender ought not to divide us….Gender wars would cease if we saw that we are not “opposite” sexes but persons with somewhat different (but in fact, very similar) bodies’. As Farley, I too argue that gender ‘gives us no reason to judge other embodied humans as “abject bodies”…, it provides no justification for dominance over one another, or for exclusion, shaming, or doing violence to other human bodies. Whatever the forces and powers of culture and society, they must be disarmed insofar as they make us lose sight of what we share.’  

A process of gender mainstreaming will create an awareness of gender inequality. Part of creating this awareness needs to be an exploration of life-denying gender discourses which operate and circulate in most communities and to map their effects. Take for instance the discourse that ‘men need to be the primary breadwinners of a family’. Since gender mainstreaming has at heart the promotion of gender equality, this means that the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not depend on whether they are born male or female (World Health Organisation:2010). I share Roux’s (2010:2) understanding of gender equality as ‘all human beings being free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations set by strict gender roles and gender relations between women and men in a given socio-cultural context’. Gender equality through gender mainstreaming is not about expecting women to be like men but ‘about allowing women to participate as women in the workplace and in life, about making their unique contribution as women’ (Roux 2010:2). Gender mainstreaming means including – rather than polarising – men and women. Men must assume their share of responsibility and join the feminist struggle against this and other issues that are social issues. This is done by engaging men and women in a process that makes life better for all. Thus creating an accountable and collective consciousness which insists on social responsibility – thus doing uBuntu. A starting point to open discussion could emerge if men became curious and open to women’s experiences, so that they can hear what women say; they need to listen to women’s stories so that women become real people and not objectified others. The silence regarding gender and sexual issues within communities and official structures need to be challenged not only at the grassroots level, but also within the education and training of all children and tertiary learning. This can be done by including a curriculum dealing with gender, power relations and sexuality.

I support Commissioner, Janine Hicks (2010) conviction that ‘gender equality often holds little institutional support: policy commitments to gender equality are not always backed by serious efforts in practice.’ Efforts to promote gender equality will only succeed if the senior leadership of an institution establishes, drives and maintains gender mainstreaming practices. Furthermore, a process of gender mainstreaming needs to include people on all levels of the given context.

 Even with legislation and policies in place, it has become apparent in both the public and private sector that there are invisible elements which continue to marginalise and silence women. The institutional culture within these structures often favours male-dominated environments and mostly do not take gender issues seriously or deem it important. This is often seen in internal policies and practice, ‘such as access to skills training, the addressing of sexual harassment, and the sense that men are taken more seriously and women have to “earn their stripes” – something that is even harder for black women within these positions’ [Hicks 2010].

 To conclude: we need to understand that gender is enmeshed in our constructions of femininity, masculinity and power. The image of power of one determines the image and power of the other. Creating gender equality should no longer only be considered the responsibility of women’s organisations. Men, especially men in government and leader positions need to join our hands in order to create, promote and establish a gender respectful society which honours and is true to our constitution, thus honouring the dignity and well-being of all persons.


Farley, MA 2010. Just love. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

 Hicks, J 2013. Gender equity in South Africa – Progress and Challenges. [Accessed 10 January 2013].

Shozi, M 2011. Ten stumbling blocks that hinder women empowerment. [Accessed 10 Jan 2013].

Spies, N 2012. Seks: Nou wat is die eintlike storie? Tygervallei: Nadeli.

Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women’s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh tesis, Universiteit van Suid Afrika, Pretoria.

Spies, N 2006.  Journeys into the garden of sexuality: The Voices of women’s sexuality in pastoral conversations. MTh-dissertasie, Universiteit van Suid-Afrika, Pretoria.

Roux, J 2010. Unlocking important concepts underlying Gender Mainstreaming. Unpublished training manual, ITD Training, Pretoria.



I am journeying with a client who is fighting cancer. This mother of three boys, wife, daughter, sister, friend and mentor to many women – invited me into the sacred spaces of her inner world whilst she is going through extensive chemotherapy and all that it brings. In our last session she posed the question: “What does my life mean and what will I have to show about my life should I die this young?” After our session I reflected on her question by asking myself what I have learnt from her life? In order to answer this question, I need to share some of her story.

Recently, after the cancer spread to her brain, she underwent radiation of her skull. This resulted in the permanent loss of her hair. After a week or so, as tufts of hair started to fall to the ground, she mourned her hair which will never re-grow. Soon there were only a few patches of hair left on her head and then she did the most extraordinary thing: her sixteen year old son was standing next to her while she was shaving the last bit of hair – she turned to him, gave him the razor and asked him if he wanted to make her “smooth”. He was happy to do so. This very practical moment became witness to and of their intense love and respect of each other. For me this action spoke of the trust between them. This moment was about allowing her son to see her at her most vulnerable, yet at the same time holding a position of so much strength. It made me think about allowing people to see us in our vulnerability and how much courage and strength it takes to show our hurt, speak about our insecurities and to acknowledge how fragile we sometimes are.

My client also started to make memory boxes for her husband and sons. Some might understand this to be a sign of giving up or over – that she no longer holds hope. On the contrary, this is about celebrating life and valuing one’s experiences. I thought to myself – each one of us should be making memory boxes. These memory boxes should be updated ever so often. We need to share how we experience life while we live it. Ten years from now I most probably will not remember how I felt about the highlights and lowlights of this year. There are lessons in these moments and if we do not document it, it is lost: to ourselves and to others. One day, my daughter or son, when they are the same age that I am now, might want to know how I experienced or handled age-related challenges. If we document our lives, we will be able to engage with wisdoms gained from our past experiences.

I am learning many other lessons from this journey with cancer. One of the most profound lessons of this journey is our desire to keep our dignity even when disease or other circumstances threaten to steal our grace and composure. It leaves me with the question: what is human grace and how do we live a life that will protect our own dignity but also the dignity of others?



In South Africa we traditionally had very specific gender expectations and prescriptions for mothers. These prescriptions were often linked to and reinforced by religious ideas regarding gender roles within marriages. Men were seen as the head of the home and rightful breadwinners of the family, whilst mothers were supposed to be the homemakers/nurturers and the secondary (if at all) breadwinners. A pious mother was one who selfishly sacrificed herself for her family and preferably doing the sacrifice in such a way that no one will notice. Neither was she supposed to expect any recognition for her sacrificial serving of her family and community – thus a “exemplary” mother was subservient, soft-spoken and sacrificial.

These ideas have been internalised by most of the South African societies and many men and women still define motherhood and a mother’s morality in terms of her willingness and ability to be a homemaker. Thus to create a home which is inviting, cook wholesome food, bake wonderful treats, take care and be omnipresent in the lives of her children. She needs to be unconditionally supportive of her husband and be available to her greater family, circle of friend homely and the greater community. A noble idea, but to my mind a very tall order!

Mother’s day cards often sing the praises of women in terms of fulfilling roles of serving, unselfish care for others and always being strong, available and cheerful. Yet mothers are not honoured for taking care of themselves. They are not honoured for developing themselves as separate beings – outside the roles of mothers and wives. They are not honoured for setting boundaries that will ensure their own well-being and happiness. What message do we send to women (mothers) if we continue to only focus on and honour the traditional roles of mothers on Mother’s day?

Therefore I would like to invite you to honour your mothers (biological or other) this Mother’s day in different ways. Honour her for her ambition, for the example to create financial independence for herself, for being wise and taking time out when she needs it, for defining herself as so much more than just someone’s wife, mother or daughter.

This year I would like to honour my mom for always insisting on her right to have her autonomous and independent political views, even if it differed greatly from my dad’s. This caused many disagreements in our home, but now, as an adult, I can appreciate it. I would also like to express my appreciation for my husband’s mother. She raised a man with ideas that are outside the conventional traditional gender ideas. This is no small feat especially if one considers the time and socio-cultural and political context in which she raised her children. I honour these two mothers for their belief that there must be different and more life-giving ways than what the norm prescribed in their time.

Please share with me what unconventional and non-traditional ways of your mother you would like to honor.


To live is to risk and to risk is to live

This past week I attended the Woordfees in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The Woordfees (Festival of Words) is a yearly event, which takes place over a week where new publications and plays are presented. There are also many panel discussions regarding current issues in the spheres of politics, literature, socio-economics, languages, cultural diversity and religion.

Many of these discussions included participants who hold very different views. The outcome of such discussions were highly stimulating, challenging and sometimes controversial dialogue. As I listened to many of these discussions, especially regarding religion and spirituality and the expression thereof, it affirmed my awareness of risk. To take a stand on a issue often will position you as the “other” – distinct to those who might believe or understand differently than you. One risk being seen as the opposition or in the worst case scenario, being completely misunderstood.

My awareness of risk was heightened during the several theatre productions which I attended. One such production dealt with a mother’s agony and desperation as she tries to convince her daughter not to commit suicide (Good night mom – Nag Ma). The heart-wrenching story is not just about hopelessness, but rather about the daughter’s decision to take control of her life and therefore decides how she can or cannot live in it and how she would end it. From here I moved to a play in which a middle-aged woman shares her journey of lost love, youth, betrayal, divorce and the re-defining of her life (Just desert, dear – Dit is koue kos skat). And lastly, I watched Vaselientjie, the story of a white girl who grew up with a coloured family in South-Africa. She was removed from this loving and nurturing family due to the Apartheid policies and placed in a orphanage. We see how she has to fight for her own survival and well-being. In this orphanage each child had their own story of abuse, survival and who to make meaning of the cards which they were dealt in life. It was an inspirational story, deeply sad and tragic at times but also funny, uplifting and encouraging.

All these experiences made me reflect on the concept of risk. There are so many story lines about risk, but the most compelling one for me is what I define as: To live is to risk and to risk is to live. One can stay within ones comfort zones and never challenge your ways of believing, understanding and meaning-making. Or one can move outside that which you hold as the known and your safe space: emotionally, spiritually, physically, intellectually, culturally and relationally – to discover and explore new story lines and new meanings of the taken-for-granted knowledges and unchallenged “truths”. It invites us to engage in an ever-changing “reality”, to move beyond and outside that which is safe: to experienced in different ways.

Reflecting on the concept of risk, made me ask the question: What is safe or safety? The answer I came to (for the moment) is that safety is a state of mind. You can feel safe in the most unsafe situations when you allow yourself to let go of that which you believe is the only way, in order to create space to allow other voices and ways of understanding in your space. The “other” is then no longer the enemy, but rather just another way of making meaning, which not necessarily means that you have to negate your understanding. It allows for many different “realities” and which can co-exist in the presence of tolerance and co-diversity in an ever-changing discourse.

English site: Just desert, dear


Die Woordfees (Festival of Words) –

Our fixation with classification: The root of most social injustice?

Have you ever thought about the human race’s obsession with classification? We tend to classify every possible and impossible concept: race, sex, social status, sexual orientation, mental state, physical state, financial state, spiritual state and the list goes on and on and on.

Most of the time we pit these dualities as binaries. Binaries seen as one against the other. One is thus right and the other wrong. Why do we feel the need to hold on to these classifications?

Believer versus non-believer       sane versus insane     male versus female

heterosexuality versus homosexuality                 rich versus poor

I have come to believe that these binaries allow for injustices to breed, as we exclude or include with it by default. Who decides which of these so called “states” should be the norm? Why is it that we still use  heteronormative and often patriarchal measuring sticks? I believe that when we prescribe to a specific group and then tell each other how right we are, we are busy with a mass masturbation session! It is not about honoring other people or the appreciations of others, but about making ourselves feel secure and justified. Our way become the “right” way and those who understand or believe differently, becomes the “other”, the wrong and the enemy!

I believe that the only way how we can address this is, to move beyond classifications. Let us see a PERSON instead of a black or a white, man or a woman, a gay or a straight, a poor or a rich! We are at all times firstly a person when then happens to be male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, church goer or non-church goer or whatever other classification might spring to mind. The classification should not define personhood but rather the fact that we share one commonality, namely we are human beings – we are all firstly a PERSON!


 I am in the process of creating a concept for my, soon to be published book, that will deal with how we understand sexuality and the effects thereof. In my discussions with the publisher, I suggested that we consider having an outline of naked bodies for the cover page.

What transpired from this brief was very interesting and telling. It confirmed my understanding of how many people view sexuality and the gender discrepancies that we experience. Most of the examples with body figures that we could find, presented women. I then requested that both the male and female form should be portrayed. This idea transpired in a design in which the naked male outline was so subtle that you could barely see that it was a man next to the very distinct naked female figure.

I realized that I was not conveying the idea in my head with much success. I then decided to ask a young female artist friend of mine to compile my brief visually, in the hope that an illustration of my idea would advance mutual understanding and greater clarity. As my young friend is not that familiar with the naked male body, she did what all young people do – she used Google images to find a realistic image to guide her in her creation. Here’s the thing – she really battled to find naked, non-pornographic male images, whilst the female naked form was plentiful.

This made me think about why this might be so. I am sure that there are many reasons. One could possibly be because of the dominant discourse that women do not sexually respond to visual stimulation and therefore there is no need for such images. This idea circulated for so many decades that people are not even aware of the discrepancy in how the female body and male body are used and exploited in the media. The female body became the marketing tool and is often seen as a commodity. We have become so desensitised to this because it became the dominant discourse.

Professor Bronwyn Davis (1993:153) uses the metaphor of a pane of glass to describe the invisibility of discourses. Discourses take on the qualities of a pane of glass through which one observes the world. It is only when the glass fractures or breaks that one’s attention is drawn to the glass. Discourses are thus usually invisible to people and we have little or no conscious awareness of discourses. This might explains why we continue to accept the use of women and their naked bodies (out of context) as a marketing tool, whilst the use of male bodies are mostly excluded. However, I believe that there might be another coinciding discourse present.

Being naked holds a vulnerability, especially if others can view our naked body. Maybe in our gender indoctrinated minds, this vulnerable position is only reserved for women. Maybe naked images of men are not as available because men are not supposed to be vulnerable, but are portrayed as strong, in control and invincible? Your thoughts on the matter?


Davies, B 1993. Shards of glass: Children reading and writing beyond gendered identities. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Economic dependency and sexual infidelity

Financial dependence is frequently a major consideration whether a person, especially the wife, stays in a sexually unhappy marriage or not. Many South African women born in the 1950s and 1960s often gave up their careers once their children were born or continued working on a part-time basis in order to take care of their children. Stay-at-home mother seldom received any compensation for the work they did as childminders and taking care of their homes. Most did not have any pension fund: this left them financially totally dependent on their husbands in their later years.

The patriarchal system promoted idea that the husband was the provider for the family. Within South African society, males were (and in some communities are) seen as the breadwinners and – until 1994 at least most senior positions were reserved for White males. This meant that the majority of women who did return to the official labour force after the birth of their children, often still needed their husband’s income to subsidise their own. For many women this financial dependence meant that, after being married for twenty years or more, divorce was not really an option. By that time, women are often in their forties, they had no work experience in the formal labour market, nor did they have their own pension or medical fund. For such women, divorce was often not an option.

The partnership between husband and wife on an economic level may persist long after the marriage’s loving origins have ceased, and therefore the couple stay married (Lake & Hills 1979:20). The effort required to unbundle the marriage and its assets is not seen as sufficient to justify a divorce – and thus: ‘[h]oly wedlock is often sustained by financial deadlock’ (Lake & Hills 1979:21). When women live in sexually unhappy marriages – with little or no option of leaving the marriage because of their financial dependence on their husbands – many women regard an affair as a way to escape their situation.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria.