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South Africa: Politicians Need to Help Sisters Do It for Themselves

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 - 19:38
Political parties should have thought about prioritising the Millennium Development Goals and working towards creating an environment that empowers women to “do it for themselves” as South Africa head to the polls to vote in the local government elections
Riding a taxi home the other day I was somewhat in awe of the woman driving it. She appeared to be the owner of the vehicle, in her mid-forties, dignified and commanding respect simply by the look of pride on her face.

I am also proud when I see examples like this of "sisters doing' it for themselves", to borrow from the famous Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin song.

However, when, as part of my job, I go through the recent Global Millennium Development Goals Report, I cannot help but feel dismayed. These South African "sisters" are doing it for themselves but many are still missing out on job security, decent employment and education.

Worse, these are not yet prominent issues in this year’s local government elections, where the main debate seems to be around infrastructure, not job creation or education.

Two MDG goals in particular - Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education and Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women - are especially relevant.

Given that gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the core of the MDGs, along with the fact they are paramount if we are to overcome poverty, hunger and disease by 2015, these are definitely pressing issues for all our country's elected and aspiring politicians.

When it comes to schooling, disparities in tertiary education do not end at enrolment but are also seen in the area of study. Women are overrepresented in the humanities and social sciences and underrepresented in science and technology. This illustrates a reinforcement of socio-biological stereotypes which ensure women do not stray too far from their feminine household role, where they are supposed to be nurturing and non-competitive.

We see this in the labour sector as well. One example is the 2009 Gender Links Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Media study, which found that stereotyping is common in media houses across the region. Women journalists are given softer reporting beats such as lifestyle, gender and health while male journalists work hard investigative beats such as politics or economics.

Employment wise, in sub-Saharan Africa women occupy just one in three paid jobs outside agriculture, and it comes as no surprise that women are typically paid less than their male counterparts and have less secure employment.

Despite this, there is an increase in women entering the labour force throughout their child-bearing years, finding ways to juggle the pressures of their unpaid family work and paid employment. Time will only tell what impact this has on the regional economy and male-female relations.

Women perform more unpaid work than men, leaving them "time poor" with less sleep and leisure time. The burden of combining the "traditional" work of a mother and wife and the paid work of the labour market inevitably impacts the level of participation possible for women, as well as their access to decent work.

The 2009 research report Global Trends in Women's Access to "Decent Work" notes that job security and occupational safety and pay do not automatically improve for women as employment increases. In fact, it may get worse as women are more vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Limited men's participation in unpaid care work and child care is another hindrance to women's access to good employment opportunities. In addition, high levels of gender-based violence persist in South Africa, which is both a cause and consequence of poverty.

As we approach Election Day it is clear much more needs to be said and done if we are to achieve the MDG goals and facilitate women's access to education, training and full employment and decent work by 2015. The question now is which party, if any, will take up these important issues? Sisters need some help so they can do it for themselves.

Doreen Gaura is a gender activist and writer based in Cape Town. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary series on South Africa's local government elections. It is published here with the permission of Gender Links.
Author(s): 
Doreen Gaura