Realizing Women’s Human Rights in South Africa

by Dr. Erin Tunney

In theory, South Africa has been moving towards its goal of creating a non-racial, non-sexist society since its transition from Apartheid to democracy in 1994. To improve women’s rights, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) established a quota requiring that thirty-three percent of its representatives be women. It also passed progressive legislation in the late nineties prohibiting domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. In practice, however, I determined through extensive fieldwork that although women are elated with the new legislation, they often fail to receive the protections these laws promise.  The difficulties they face in realizing their human rights occur in diverse ways based on race, class, and disability status.  Here, I focus on the struggles of black women from two townships outside Port Elizabeth.  Four main factors prevent women from realizing their rights in South Africa:  1) the unwillingness of men to adapt to changing gender roles, 2) the perceived incompatibility between cultural preservation and human rights, 3) poor urban planning coupled with the economic vulnerability of women, and 4) the police and courts’ inadequate implementation of legislation.

As an increasing number of South African women enter the workforce and legislation offers them greater protection, gender roles in the country are changing. This is threatening men in multiple ways. First, with a nationwide unemployment rate of thirty percent and a decline in manufacturing jobs for men, South African men feel threatened if their partner works. One member of the national parliament reported that her husband told her, “When you walk through that gate, you are no longer a parliamentarian; you are my wife.” Another woman reported that her husband forced her to give up her sewing business because he would not accept the wages of a woman. Second, men perceive a bias against them in legislation designed to protect women. What may have been considered acceptable treatment of women in the past is now an offense for which they could be arrested.

In addition, women feel they have to choose between preserving culture and promoting human rights. In a society where the majority of its citizens’ culture was assaulted for centuries, cultural preservation is a priority in black African communities. Today women discuss the way men use their desire to preserve culture as a reason for continued gender violence. For example, women describe how the tradition of labola—the price a groom’s family pays to the bride’s family upon marriage—gives men the sense of ownership of their wives, which, in their minds, justifies spousal abuse. Interestingly, many women believe that these men have distorted the true intent of labola, which was to promote harmony between the families. Many feel that culture and human rights should not be framed as incompatible.

Another factor preventing women from achieving equality is poor urban planning coupled with economic vulnerability. Since 1994, new housing developments emerged in townships. These developments, however, were often poorly constructed and lacked consideration for women’s safety. Some women received houses with outside toilets which they were afraid to use at night. Others lacked doors or had broken windows which made women vulnerable to intruders. One woman felt so unsafe in her home that she had an affair just to have a male presence in her house. Additionally, these houses were located far from police stations, courts, and hospitals, and the government had not developed infrastructure that would help women to access these resources promptly or affordably.

Finally, the criminal justice system contributes to South African women’s inequality. Women report that police rarely responded to domestic violence calls. “When you call the police, they take hours, if they come at all,” complained one woman. Additionally, police stations and courts are not accessible to many women and are not victim friendly, and the lack of magistrates causes delays in adjudicating rape cases and in issuing protection orders. For example, one mother waited for several months for the trial of her daughter’s attempted rapist. The alleged rapist remained out on bail, and the daughter had to walk past his house to get to school each day.

Such obstacles show that legislation may provide theoretical rights, but much work remains in order to make gender equality a reality. Communities should work towards accepting new gender roles. Men should be educated on the new laws and how they benefit both sexes. Men need to be retrained for jobs that comply with changing economic needs, and, eventually, adopt social attitudes about women in the workforce. In order to reconcile culture and human rights, government should include chiefs and elders when speaking out against gender violence, and society should listen to women’s interpretation of culture. Next, housing, city planning, and women’s access to resources need to be improved. The government should bring in trained city planners to develop long-term plans for improving townships. City planners should consult with women in neighborhoods about how to make them safer and more accessible. Finally, the justice system needs increased police training and monitoring, more magistrates, and safer facilities. Such strategies are vital if South Africa is to achieve true gender equality, not just in theory, but in practice.

About the Author

Dr. Erin Tunney is a professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology at Carlow University. She earned her PhD from Emory University and holds a Master of Arts degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University. Before teaching at North-West University in South Africa and Emory, Dr. Tunney worked on gender violence and personal development of youth. Her research focuses on gender violence in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-conflict Northern Ireland.

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