Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation
On 8 March 2013, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we show our respect, appreciation and gratitude towards women and acknowledge their economic, political and social contribution to society.
The modern image of a 21st century woman depicted in glossy Western magazines is one of confidence, grace, prosperity, health and beauty. Yet – despite progress made by women in the spheres of human rights, political participation and emancipation, education and income – many of the almost 3.5 billion women of our planet face issues such as discrimination, violence and repression on a daily basis.
In Afghanistan the average woman has a life expectancy of 45 – one year less than an average Afghan man. After three decades of conflict in the country, an overwhelming number of women are and remain illiterate. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) sexual violence has been used to intimidate, humiliate, and torture hundreds of thousands of women and girls since 1996. The extent to which these atrocities – and especially rape – were being used in warfare led the United Nations (UN) to officially declare rape as a weapon of war in 2008.
In South Africa there have always been strong elements central to a patriarchal society. In African customary law and culture the male chief always was a very powerful and pivotal figure in the community, while women and girls generally played a subordinate role. Gender discrimination, however, is not limited to any race, culture or religion. In our common law the question was always asked as to what the ‘reasonable man’ – and not what ‘the reasonable woman’ – would do in certain situations. It was also traditionally the man who was the head of the household, and most wives still promise to obey their husbands.
Our Constitution created a new situation in 1994 by entrenching human dignity, non-sexism and the achievement of equality as core values of our democracy. It declared everyone equal before the law and proclaimed that everyone was entitled to the equal benefit and protection of the law.
The South African government has also pledged to ensure women a full and equal role in every aspect of the economy and society and, as a result, we are among the world leaders in terms of the number of women who serve in our parliament and in the cabinet.
In that sense, we can celebrate International Women’s Day, as there have been major developments to uplift and elevate women in our society.
The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2013 is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”. Against the backdrop of this promise and the contents of our Constitution, we as South Africans ought to seriously reflect on the current situation facing many women and girls in our country, especially violence and gender-based violence – and it is here that there is cause for lament.
Rape, domestic violence and sexual assault are pervasive throughout South Africa and are directed almost exclusively against women and girls. It is estimated that one in every three women will be raped and that one in six women is in an abusive domestic relationship in South Africa.
According to the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), intimate partner violence is one of the leading causes of death of women homicide victims, with 56% of female homicides being committed by their intimate partner. The SAMRC also found that South Africa’s intimate femicide rate is more than double the rate in the United States.
Perhaps the most shocking recent incident in South Africa – which highlighted the extent of ongoing daily violence against women and girls in South Africa – was the brutal gang rape, mutilation and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen in the Western Cape. The case of Anene Booysen focused attention on the plight of thousands of South African women and girls who have also been the victims of rape and sexual abuse – despite the fact that our Constitution guarantees the right to life, dignity and bodily and psychological integrity.
Alarmingly high levels of violence prevent South African women from enjoying these rights.
Undoubtedly, many of these problems have their roots in poor socio-economic circumstances, poverty, poor education and ongoing inequality. However, at the core of the problem is the fundamental failure of too many of our men to respect the role and status of women. The purpose of International Women’s Day is to remind men and women alike of the equal and inviolable place that women should rightfully occupy in all aspects of society.
Aside from small tangible gestures of recognition and appreciation, the most worthy token of respect that we as South Africans can show towards women and girls on this International Women’s Day – and every other day – is honoring the promises, rights and protections that our Constitution and the Bill of Rights afford to women, girls and all other South Africans. If we do so, we will ensure that women are afforded the respect, equality, dignity and humanity to which they – and all of us – are entitled to as human beings.