Having ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other regional treaties such as the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development and the African Charter on Women’s Rights, South Africa is further bound by their provisions with regard to the protection of women’s rights and the achievement of both formal and substantive gender equality.

South Africa, while having made great strides in achieving gender equality post apartheid, maintains a disparity with regard to gender equality in urban and rural areas. Simply put, women in urban areas are more likely to enjoy a higher standard of living and to have a greater awareness of their rights. It is debateable to what extent “Progress for All” is reached given the unequal playing field.

The South African Households Survey shows that 52% of the population is women, of whom 47% live in rural or non-urban places. The unemployment rate amongst rural women is 53% compared with 37% for their male counterparts. This shows that rural women continue to live in extreme poverty, characterised by limited access to means of self-improvement such as education or skills training.

Access to health care remains a challenge for many rural women who often have to travel long distances to clinics. With 269 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2010 (with rural women disproportionately represented), South Africa is still lagging behind in meeting the Millennium Developmental Goal target of reducing the maternal mortality rate to 38 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births by 2015. The births attended by skilled health personnel were 85% in rural areas compared with 94% in urban areas. South Africa has the world’s highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS fuelled by factors such as poverty, inequality and the low status of women. The Food and Agricultural Organisation in its 2009 report noted that more than two-thirds of the population most affected, live in rural areas.

Historically, in rural areas, women’s access to land was limited by their gender and social position in the community and this appears to be duplicated in some land reform programmes. The restitution programme benefited about 91% males and 9% females during in the 2008 to 2009 financial year. Since 1994, one million people have been evicted from farms, and 75% of these people have been women and children with very little education and work experience. This is another example of the added vulnerability facing rural women.

There are obvious differences between rural and urban households such as the fact that 28% of rural households do not have access to any type of toilet facility compared to just 5% in urban areas. Women are disproportionately affected by the lack of sanitation as they lack privacy and security.

Legislation has further contributed to the marginalisation of rural women. The Bill of Rights states that in developing customary law, the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights must be promoted. However, there is a struggle to harmonise custom with constitutional values. The Communal Land Rights Act (CLARA) was repealed in its entirety on the basis that it gave unelected traditional leaders and the Minister of Land Reform and Rural Development powers to impose decisions that undermined existing property and tenure rights instead of protecting them as required by the Constitution. The CLARA would have been applicable to at least 16 million people living in former Bantustans. It would have privileged the voices of traditional leaders above anyone else’s. The recently withdrawn Traditional Courts Bill, purporting to increase access to justice, would have negatively impacted women in that many traditional courts do not allow women to speak or to represent themselves.

The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill recently passed in Parliament, seeks to ensure the enforcement of a 50% representation of women in decision-making bodies. Although its aims are laudable, it is doubtful whether this Bill genuinely engages with the issues affecting rural women. It makes reference to the socio-economic empowerment of women in rural areas but this reference is geared at women living on farms, neglecting other rural women who live elsewhere. The Bill further states that measures enjoin traditional councils to “ensure equal representation and meaningful participation of women in traditional councils“. This would force rural women to submit to patriarchal traditional leaders. Although some rural women are able to negotiate security of tenure, this is always within the context of patriarchal chiefly power. In essence, this Bill fails to take into consideration the lived experiences of rural women. It only speaks to the women in formal employment who are mostly based in urban areas and fails to acknowledge the unpaid work done by women in the form of household management, caring for children and other people in the household, as well as community work.

Whilst there have been notable advances for women’s rights in the past 20 years, it would appear as if these gains have mostly benefited women in urban areas. The right to equality forms the bedrock of the Constitution and gender discrimination is listed as one of the grounds upon which one may not be discriminated. The reality suggests a systemic denial of equal rights across the spectrum – including the access to healthcare and tenure security – for rural women. Despite there being laws and policies in place which speak to the attainment of an equal society, there appears to be a disconnect between the laws’ intentions and the lived experiences of rural women. “Progress for All” is yet to be fully realised.

Phephelaphi Dube: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights

[Photo credit: Gates Foundation / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND]