Few would argue with the intentions of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill to empower women and to promote gender equality. As the Bill points out, these goals are inherent in the foundational values of our Constitution.

What gives rise to concern is, however, the manner in which the state seeks to promote these goals; the scope given to the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities in pursuing them; and the absence of any attempt to address the problems that actually underlie gender inequality and the disempowerment of women.

To start with, the Bill will affect only the fortunate 4.2 million women who already have formal sector jobs. It will do little or nothing to empower and address the inequality of the remaining 85% of our women and female children.

In terms of the Bill the Minister may apply comprehensive requirements for gender equality to any public or private bodies that she or he chooses to designate. Private bodies include “any juristic person”­‐ which means that virtually any company, non-governmental organisation, religious denomination or club could fall within the ambit of the Bill.

Designated bodies could be asked to submit annual compliance plans on gender education; women’s health care and reproductive health; public education on prohibited practices, including gender violence; equal representation and participation in decision-making, including boards of directors; gender mainstreaming; the elimination of discrimination; and economic empowerment, including the socio-economic empowerment of rural women and women with disabilities.

The Bill’s goal is “substantive gender equality”­‐ that is, the very elusive prospect of trying to achieve equality in fact and not only in law. The goal would be to secure “at least 50 percent” female participation in boards, outcomes and empowerment policies. (This, of course, would by definition necessitate male participation of 50% or less­‐ and thus undermine the goal of gender equality!)

If the Minister is dissatisfied with gender empowerment plans, he or she will be able to issue guidelines that designated bodies will be required to implement. Fortunately, the Bill is not coercive and would attempt to address non-compliance through the use of “dispute resolution mechanisms”.

It is probably not the Bill’s intention to include rugby clubs, gold mines and religious denominations as designated organisations. However, the Minister could theoretically require the Catholic Church to implement gender equality at all levels of its hierarchy­‐ and would also be empowered to prescribe to independent civil society organisations on how they should manage their personnel practices.

The Bill specifically includes political parties within its ambit and requires them “to develop and implement measures for the progressive realisation of a minimum of 50 per cent representation and meaningful participation of women in decision-making positions and structures”. However, this would seriously interfere with the right of South African citizens to choose whomever they like to represent them­‐ regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The Bill would place further administrative burdens on companies already straining under the weight of BEE, Employment Equity and numerous other regulations. The government does not seem to understand that the principal function of businesses is to generate greater value than they consume by providing products and services. In so-doing businesses serve the public, create jobs, contribute to economic growth and pay taxes. Their ability to play this role will be diminished if there are forced to implement state ideology by appointing key staff on any basis other than merit. Perhaps the greatest problem with the Bill is that it draws attention away from the real issues that perpetuate gender inequality and the abuse of women.

If the state really wants to promote gender equality it should start by fixing our badly broken education system. It is unacceptable that only 12% of our girl-children emerge from school with a university entrance matric. If the government wants to empower women it should do everything it can to create jobs­‐ by facing down the unions and by adopting more flexible labour policies. It should promote economic growth by attracting foreign and local investment­‐ rather than chasing investors away by diluting or threatening their property rights. It should break the cycle of disadvantage by taking effective action to combat the increasing number of schoolgirl pregnancies. It should combat shameful levels of gender violence and rape by building up an effective police force, led by professionals appointed on the basis of merit and experience­‐ and not on the basis of race and political croneyism.

The government should address the unacceptable fact that 70% of South African mothers must raise their children without the support of the men who fathered them. Where are the voices of the ANC­‐ and the EFF­‐ calling on men to accept their responsibility as fathers? How can we hope to promote gender equality when the expense and responsibility of bringing up children falls so unfairly on the shoulders of single mothers?

The problem, of course, is that all of these remedies fall within the sphere of a government that has become increasingly dysfunctional­‐ to a large extent because it has consistently appointed and promoted people on the basis of ideology and political affiliation rather than merit. So it is much easier to shuck problems off to the private sector­‐ and to adopt high- sounding laws. Government can best promote gender equality and empower women by  working much more effectively at the rock-face of our economic and social problems­‐ rather than by promulgating ideological and intrusive legislative of this kind.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: Hollem, Howard R / Foter.com / Public domain