The reality is that equality continues to elude many women in the country. This, despite the Constitution establishing the blueprint for a society in which women and girls not only have formal equality but also substantive equality.

The Constitution establishes a legislative basis to counteract these vulnerabilities, but it appears that women in urban environments mostly benefit from such laws. On the political front, according to the Economist, South Africa ranks eighth in the world, with women taking 42% of Parliament seats. Women are also well-represented within government departments, with some occupying powerful ministries such as Defence, Labour, and Science and Technology. However, this political representation has failed to translate into broader gender equality within the country.

Statistics indicate that the number of girls enrolled in primary and secondary institutions equals the number of boys – with more women enrolled at institutions of higher learning. However these figures are not reflected in the professional sphere. For example: according to the Law Society of South Africa, the legal profession has 14 322 male attorneys in practise, while women attorneys in practise number just 7931. Only 10 to 15% of students graduating from South African universities are women.

Figures relating to women’s rights to access healthcare paint a dismal picture. While inroads have been made with the number of women receiving free antiretroviral treatment, other aspects of women’s healthcare rights are found wanting:

With unacceptably high levels of violence against women, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender women from poor communities – black lesbian women in particular – are disproportionately at risk of violence. The phenomenon of ‘corrective rape’ has also been documented, with research from the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) suggesting that black lesbians, particularly in townships, are increasingly targeted for rape. Of the black women interviewed, 41% had been raped, 9% were survivors of attempted rape, 37% had been assaulted and 17% verbally abused.

According to the December 2013 report of non-governmental organisation, Catalyst, South Africa has 17.1% of board seats filled by women. Laws such as the Employment Equity Act encourage a gender-sensitive approach to employment issues as a means to achieving equal rights between women and men. There are also numerous policies in place that grant women access to wide-ranging positions within the labour market. However, these positions are only available to women with access to skills development and training, which considerably limits the extent to which women may access such positions. Women’s employment remains either within the traditional female occupations or within the domestic and farming sectors. They are concentrated in positions with low remuneration and high rates of turnover. According to the SA Institute for Race Relations’ 2013 South Africa Survey, the labour market participation rate is 49.2% for women, compared to 61.7% for men.

Research by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry on the nature of women’s land rights in three rural ex-homeland areas, is revealing. Although not definitive – due to the absence of a land register for communal land – their research shows that women had a greater degree of access to land than anticipated, taking into consideration the standard literature on customary law and practices. The research however ends on a cautionary note that while there has been some progress, there are still many challenges facing women in these areas. For their urban counterparts, according to Statistics South Africa General Household Survey 2011 on tenure status, 55.5% of houses that were fully paid off were owned by men, compared to 44.5% of women. For houses that were not yet paid off, men owned 81% of such properties, compared to just 19% of women.

In summing up the nation’s progress towards the achievement of pertinent women’s rights, it would appear that the achievement of equality for many women still falls far short of the ideal. However, since gender equality has both public and private aspects, it is easier to measure the public aspect of gender equality, as these are reflected by laws and policies in place to promote gender equality. Using this scale, it would appear that South Africa is highly progressive. However, statistics on violence against women and, at times, harmful cultural practices, show that enforcing such legislation remains problematic. Comments such as those recently reported from the KZN Health MEC, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, on the forced use of contraceptives to women awarded with bursaries to study in India, reflect a very conservative attitude. It is not enough for there to be laws and policies outlawing gender inequality. These laws and policies need to be adhered to, in both the private and the public spheres. There needs to be greater awareness of the fact that women’s rights are also human rights.

Phephelaphi Dube: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights