Outcome Note: Panel Discussion on International Women’s Day 2008

By | 27 March 2008

The global development community, led by the United Nations, adopted the theme of “Investing in Women and Girls” as its advocacy platform for International Women’s Day 2008. The objective of this exercise is to urge policy makers to ensure that more resources are mobilized and dedicated to programmes that support gender equity and the empowerment of women.

In South Africa, with its impressive gender responsive policy frameworks, its globally acknowledged institutionalized gender policy machinery and its statistics of women’s representation and participation in Government, it may well be argued that the Government has invested in women and girls. Yet in spite of its gender policies and the significant presence of women in high office, South Africa continues to face deeply entrenched gender inequities including epidemic levels of violence against women and girls.

This begs the question: does the South African context, where gender equity is politically perceived as a core democratic principle but where women outside the formal political structures remain at a critical disadvantage entail a different understanding of “investing in women and girls”?

On this year’s International Women’s Day, commemorated by the United Nations on 6 March, a number of gender experts from cross sectoral practices in South Africa came together in a panel discussion organized by the UN Country Office in Pretoria, South Africa, to discuss this issue and to examine the kind of investment South Africa needs to accelerate gender equity and development in the country.

The experts argued that while gender equity is a constitutionally mandated policy, in South Africa, the status of women is far from the constitutional ideal. It is important for policy makers in South Africa to confront this “rhetoric-reality gap” that exists between policy and its implementation in the country. Policy frameworks supporting women’s empowerment exist alongside the traditional patriarchal worldview, which defines iniquitous socio-cultural attitude among South Africans.

Hence rights-based policy interpretation and implementation continues to be compromised. Even the significant presence of women in policy making positions has not been able to substantively address this lacuna because women in the work sphere are often times compelled to negotiate patriarchal perceptions in their work place. The work space then becomes a “contested space” for these women, where negotiating their identities and interests in and through the space/ place of their work is an issue of critical import as they strive for professional regard from their male peers. In such an environment of anxiety, women policy makers, in an effort to blend with the mainstream, often adopt the same priorities as their male colleagues at the cost of gender priorities in policy implementation. Hence the representation of women in power has not necessarily translated into better implementation of gender responsive policies.

The experts debated that the most effective way in which the rhetoric-reality gap could be closed would be through a comprehensive transformation of gender relations in which men, women, community and traditional leaders all participate to promote and support gender equity. The roles of government and civil society institutions in this are crucial as these institutions are key in the development of institutionalized social processes that truly promote UBUNTU and development for all.

It was also discussed that the 15-year review process of government performance that is currently underway should consider some key gender parameters for monitoring the state of gender equity in South Africa. Civil society should be constructively involved in this exercise. Some specific suggestions that were made include:

  • The need to invest more in social policies that promote equity and rights oriented attitudes and the need to involve communities, including men in implementation;
  • Promoting institutionalized and sustainable engagement and information sharing mechanisms between civil society and government so that they can communicate more effectively on reviewing policies for women and girls;
  • Strengthening gender budgeting and assessment modalities – this should be part of the 15-year review process;
  • Women’s representation in policy making is not enough to bridge the rhetoric reality gap in South Africa – there needs to be strong policy focus on bringing about transformation of gender relations at all levels, including government;
  • There must be a focus on curriculum development that addresses the issues of rights- and gender-based social transformation so that young girls and boys are educated about gender values and gender equity;
  • Skills development programmes for traditional leaders should be promoted so that they can be inculcated in the principles of constitutionally promoted gender equity;
  • Private sector and industry must be encouraged to invest in women and girl empowerment programmes and in community programmes that involve men in gender transformation.

In summary, the panel discussion emphasized that in order to live up to the constitutional ideals of gender equity in South Africa, there needs to be much more effective and accountable investments in programmes that promote the transformation of gender relations in society.

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