In August of every year South Africa stages Gender Equality Month. Events are organised around National Women's Day on August 9. According to the ruling ANC, it "is a time to salute women for the role they have played and to reflect on challenges women continue to face".
These challenges are significant. Although the government has introduced a series of progressive legislation on gender equality over the last fifteen years, the country suffers from extremely high levels of sexual violence, regular instances of hate crime towards LGBT people and unequal working conditions between women and men. Most shockingly it been has estimated that a woman born in South Africa in 2011 has a greater chance of being raped than finishing secondary school. Approximately one in three will finish secondary school, while one in two will suffer rape.
Beatrice Ngobo, chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality, noted that there are both "women in Parliament and good laws to protect women, but they have not been properly publicised. When it comes to implementation, people at the frontline are mostly men. They won't give up power so easily".
The nation's employment statistics are also depressing. While strides have been made in some sectors, men still occupy 63% of top management positions in the private sector. Additionally, less than 3% of managers are black women.
The ANC Women's League noted that "although a number of policy guidelines, legislative frameworks and institutions doing credible work on women's matters exist in South Africa, the lack of coordination of these efforts renders them ineffective, or only partially beneficial".
In an attempt to address these problems, a new Gender Equality Bill was announced on National Women's Day 2010. The minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disability (WCPD), Noluthando Mayende-Sibiyaas, described the Bill as "an overarching piece of legislation that is going to ensure that we address the challenges that women face in the country". Its central aim was to be the enforcement of 50/50 gender parity in the public and private sector. Moreover, it would hold government departments directly accountable for the implementation of previous legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act (1997), the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (2000) and the Sexual Offences Act (2007).
The Green Paper outlined several ways in which the proposed Act would achieve these aims. The paper identifies a number of gaps in legislation that must be filled. Firstly, there is no legislation dealing with gender- or sexuality-based hate crime. By May of 2009 there were 20 documented cases of murder of lesbians in South Africa. Only two went to trial. Secondly, the issue of sex work and its legal status remains unresolved. Thirdly, the law on trafficking of persons in South Africa is fragmented. Finally, under many customary laws, women are seen as perpetual minors and have no legal authority. Patriarchal traditions that require women to submit to men are still deeply rooted in parts of South African society. Any new Act will seek to plug these gaps, and consolidate exisiting legislation for the protection of womens' rights. The Act would detail punitive sanctions to be faced by any private or public body failing to comply with prohibitions on discrimination. It would also make affirmative action mandatory for employers as a strategy to achieve gender equality.
The draft green paper has received strong support from leading figures in government. The ANC responded to its announcement by calling upon parliament 'to fast track the Gender Equality Bill',stressing that it "will ensure the enforcement of gender parity measures across all sectors of society".
Moreover, in 2010 President Jacob Zuma told a crowded Buffalo City Stadium in East London, Eastern Cape, that 'rapid gender transformation was crucial'. He advised men to confront their insecurities and emphasised that action was required in the private sector to improve diversity.
The original announcement and its widespread support understandably caused Gender Rights groups to be optimistic about imminent improvements.
However, by National Women's Day 2011, it seems that little progress has been made with the implementation of the Bill, which has not yet been presented as a white paper. Despite consultations, a succesful workshop run by civil society organisations and the use of agovernment-backed survey of women conducted by 'Elle' magazine, the bill has not yet been presented to the cabinet. Despite the ANC's proposition to 'fast track' it, and the constitution's commitment to achieving gender equality 'without delay', the Bill seems a long way from being introduced to parliament.
The Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, in the keynote address at the National Women's Conference in Boksburg on the August 9 2011, submitted that the government would address issues that have 'fallen through the cracks'. It is incumbent upon the government to ensure that a similar fate does not befall the Gender Equality Bill.
The new minister for WCPD, Lulu Xingwana, said the Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities will advance its efforts to develop the Gender Equality Bill that will enforce 50/50 gender parity in both the public and private sector. Xingwana expects the bill to be submitted for consideration by Cabinet by March 2012.
Even if Xingwana's target is met, and, given the bill's past progress, it may well not be, it is unclear when or whether parliament will consider it. If parliament considers it, there is then no guarantee that any eventual act will share the same provisions outlined in the Green Paper.
It seems therefore that we should not expect or hope for radical legal change in the near future, if at all. Given that exisiting law is ineffective, and that the treatment faced by many South African women is still appalling, this is to be deeply regretted.