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.