A more critical debate about the placing of women in a gradually industrializing world took centre stage in 1908. Women’s oppression and inequality were spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change. In mid-1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights.
In Africa, the fight for women’s rights has now evolved from a more traditional placing of women under patriarchy to now a debate centred around a more equal society. This shift in debate was one great step towards gender parity for the continent. Although more is yet to be done today to achieve real parity, women have been instrumental in advancing their cause and more importantly, contributing to a more gender conscious, respectful and progressive world.
In 2016, the world witnesses an even more united front by both women and men in celebrating past achievements and progress already made in attaining women’s rights, while raising awareness on future challenges. This year’s International Women’s Day is themed Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for gender equality. The theme derives from one of the main goals amid the UN’s agenda 2030, which aims, amongst other things, to ensure the establishment of free primary and secondary education for everyone and access to quality early childhood development.
At the recent International women’s day celebration hosted by the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) in Pretoria, Ms Marilyn Muthoni Kamurus during her keynote address admitted with reservations that, ‘a lot has been achieved on women’s struggle for social, economic, and political equality`.
To date the world has seen more than a dozen female presidents and prime ministers across the globe. The growth in numbers of female entrepreneurs and parliamentarians today is unprecedented. Nevertheless these statistics do neither include the persistent income gap between men and women; the fact that women are more likely to suffer poor working conditions and low-paying jobs or the huge amount of unpaid, unregistered care workers.
Globally a pattern of occupational segregation can be made up, which seems to exclude or limit the chances for women to work in certain sectors and career fields.
To address these problems, Ms Muthoni suggested enhancing social policies, supporting the existing potential of women’s labor force, while consequently contributing to economic achievement and actual GDP-Growth.
In Africa the barriers to social services and social grants remain large, whereas they are essential to realise women’s rights and enabling the possibility of equal opportunities. Often, the living standard, social security, healthcare and pension schemes are a privilege of men.
In contemporary South Africa, misogyny, femicide and domestic violence persist to harm especially black women. Although the country’s homicide rate has dropped, the femicide rate did not change proportionally making gender based murder and violence a tremendous threat to females in South Africa. However the South African constitution, whilst known as one of the most progressive in the continent regarding equal rights regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race, still fails to accrue true equality for women. This raises the question whether the existing justice system is executed in a way that deliberately protects both women and men equally.
Whether the law has reached its limit to realise equality is the premise of Ms Marilyn Muthoni Kamurus keynote address. The Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s event was on the theme Black Women’s Bodies, Black Women’s Lives: Resisting misogyny and femicide in contemporary South Africa and informed attendants on the prevailing struggles of women and offered a platform for discussion.
Ms. Kamuru examined whether the judicial approach towards equality is still the most effective; she concluded that the theoretical basis is often given but practically not executed. She further pointed out that while everyone should stand equal in front of the law, a certain hierarchical pattern can be made up with large proportions of males on top and females at the bottom.
Notwithstanding, an effective and impartial legal system will be instrumental for social change. This will require courts to ensure that laws protecting women are respected and not violated without consequences by men.
Ms Muthoni continued to remind the gathering that equality is not a natural process, but a result of struggle. She acknowledged the power of feminism and reflected on the current underdog role of feminism and the need to unite in order to change the slow pace of progress. Again, she acknowledged that the law is a necessity but clearly not sufficient enough to grant the intended results. The fact that in front of the court value of life is gender or racially biased raises the question of whether the law is effective to tackle inequality.
Looking at African countries, women have shown huge potential to maximize economic opportunities. In Nigeria for example, 41% of females are entrepreneurs, but only 9% in South Africa. This is a classic example of what could be achieved in the future if African countries learn from each other and start to work together towards these gender equality goals.
Some points made at the discussions immediately after the keynote address affirmed the general impression for women to free themselves from the mindset of feeling inferior to men.
The contributions and questions raised highlighted the need to have more such platforms for discussions. There was consensus that both women and men are critical to these discussions. The event subsequently raised the critical need for male grassroots education about respect and appreciation of women. This event offered an important platform for women to learn from each other, discuss and make their voices heard.
To achieve total gender equality, institutional segregation should be eliminated. Institutions around the judiciary, media, education and governance should be transformed to accommodate women; this change at the centre will accrue further changes towards the broader society.