In the latest Mo Ibrahim Index on African governance (see article), South Africa is ranked fourth out of 53 African countries for its record on women's rights. In the World Economic Forum's “gender gap index” it comes an impressive sixth out of 134 countries in the world. In the UNDP's “gender empowerment measure” it also does well, being placed 26th out of 182 countries. But in the UN's “gender-related development index” it is ranked a poor 129th, again out of 182. Such a wide discrepancy is not simply because the various bodies measure different things, but also because the picture of women in South Africa is so mixed.
In the “founding provisions” of South Africa's 1996 constitution, “non-sexism” is given equal billing with “non-racialism”. To promote women's rights in what had been a predominantly patriarchal society among whites as well as blacks, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has brought in a slew of laws over the past 16 years, legalising abortion, giving women equal power in marriage, cracking down on domestic violence, criminalising sexual harassment at work, banning all gender discrimination and providing women of any skin colour with the same degree of affirmative action in education, employment and politics as blacks, coloureds (people of mixed race) and Indians. Another gender-equality bill is due soon.
On paper South Africa has one of the world's most impressive legal arsenals for protecting women's rights. But the gap between principle and practice is often wide. In some areas, particularly in politics, it does well. Women played a big part in the liberation struggle and the ANC has promoted their cause. Women hold 44% of parliamentary seats, the third-highest proportion in the world, and 41% of cabinet posts, including many of those often assigned to men: defence, agriculture, foreign affairs, mining, science and technology, and home affairs. Gill Marcus is the first female governor of the central bank. The Democratic Alliance, the country's main opposition party, is headed by Helen Zille.
In other areas, however, women's progress has been slower. More than a decade after the passage of the Employment Equity Act, which requires companies with over 50 people to hire and promote women (as well as blacks and the disabled) in proportion to their representation in the population as a whole (52%), white men still dominate senior management and company boards in both the public and private sectors. The Women's Business Association says that a fifth of the country's private-sector boards have no women (and that only 10% of chief executives and board chairmen are women). Universities, where more than half of undergraduates are now female, have done more, with women now accounting for 45% of academic staff. About a quarter of judges are female.
Although women make up nearly half the labour force, most are in lower-wage sectors, particularly domestic service. So women on average still get less than two-thirds of a man's pay packet. Women are also more likely to be unemployed and to head the poorest households. The introduction of a child-support grant for children up to the age of 15, recently raised to 18, has helped, but it amounts to only 250 rand ($36) a child each month.
It is in the home, particularly in black ones, that attitudes have changed least. There men continue to rule the roost, sometimes imposing their authority with drug- or alcohol-fuelled brutality. In its latest world report, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, describes the level of physical and sexual violence against South African women as “shockingly high”. South Africa has one of the highest incidences of reported rape in the world. In a study by the World Health Organisation, fully 40% of South African women claimed that their first experience of sex was non-consensual. South Africa also has one of the world's highest murder rates.
The (black) founder of a new women's-rights lobby, the Sonke Gender Justice Network, says his biggest challenge is to convince men that abusing women is culturally unacceptable. But women are sometimes complicit, too. Violence is often seen as a normal part of male-female relations. According to recent research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, a Johannesburg-based group, most black women believe a man has a right to have sex with his wife or partner whenever he wants. Another study showed that most black teenagers felt it is fine to force sex on a girl if you know her or if she accepts a drink from you.
Traditional customs die hard. President Jacob Zuma has at least 21 children by at least ten different women, four of whom he married; he is now engaged to another, who is pregnant. In certain rural areas women are still expected to walk a few paces behind their husbands. In KwaZulu-Natal thousands of bare-breasted maidens display their virginal beauty in a dance before the polygamous Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini. In villages in the eastern Cape teenage girls continue to be forced into marriages with older men who treat them as virtual slaves. Women who do not fit into the community are still sometimes burned as witches. Lesbians are gang-raped to “cure” them of their follies.
The lot of ordinary South African women is still hard. But it is getting distinctly better. And a growing number of them are doing very well.