Making Space for Women’s Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa

While discussions on race in South Africa are common, gender is often neglected. Speaking before a roomful of IWHC supporters at a Leadership Council luncheon Wednesday, September 30, Sisonke Msimang, a dynamic South African women’s activist and columnist for the Daily Maverick and IWHC board member, explained how women’s rights and gender equality have been on the back-burner in that country since the beginning of Reconciliation.

“Women played an incredibly important role in the struggle against apartheid,” she noted. And once apartheid was over and the new government was forming, feminists thought it was their chance to advance women’s rights.

But the men in power in the African National Congress failed to see gender equality as a priority for the government, instead focusing on the much larger, stronger movement for racial harmony. “It used to be such a boys-only club,” she said. “It was such a deeply sexist society.”

This disregard of women’s rights has repercussions today. Msimang spoke at length about violence against women, noting that in South Africa, a woman is killed every eight hours by an intimate partner. She connected this pandemic of violence to the country’s extremely high rates of HIV infection, suggesting that while the government’s emphasis on public education is important, it doesn’t address the reality that even when women and girls know how to prevent HIV, they don’t feel empowered to ask their partners to wear condoms.

“We have every reason to believe that women are afraid of their partners when we’ve got the levels of violence that we have,” Msimang said. “If we understand what drives infection amongst women and girls is gender inequality, why is it that we continue to insist that it’s about educating women and girls about the condom? We know about the condom! We know how it works. That’s not the problem.”

Much of the distance between policy and effective programs stems from the belief that merely having good laws fixes the problem. She highlighted the fact that South Africa has a strong constitution that recognizes women’s rights, but it’s not always implemented. “We’ve got the best, most sophisticated legal environment in the world, because we continue to believe that we can solve problems by legislating—and we can’t,” Msimang said. “This is about behavior change, this is about culture, it’s about attitudes.”

But change is happening—especially among young people, she remarked. On college campuses, there’s been a surge of discussion on how race and gender intersect. “I think what’s happened, certainly this year, is you have an explosion of talk; lots of talk about race that is very healthy in many ways, and that has begun to open up a space for conversation about race and gender in much more confrontational ways than has happened before,” she said.

Measuring gender equality is not always easy, but Msimang emphasized that it’s critical to recognize progress when you see it. Meaningful impact “looks like a guy who used to get drunk three times a week not getting drunk anymore and knowing how to change his child’s nappy. Now that is change. That’s real.”

You can follow Sisonke Msimang on Twitter at @SisonkeMsimang and read her latest Daily Maverick column here.

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