SEATTLE — Prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights in South Africa, women were treated as second-class citizens, being under the social and even legal control of their fathers and husbands. Black women were even at more of a disadvantage because of their race. It was not until the South African Bill of Rights was introduced that women in the country were legally recognized as equal citizens.
Introduced in 1994 when the country became a constitutional democracy, the Bill of Rights served as a catalyst for women’s empowerment in South Africa. Like the United States’ Bill of Rights, South Africa’s gives its citizens basic human liberties, such as freedom of religion, and it emphasizes the democratic values of equality and freedom. Ever since the establishment of the Bill of Rights, South Africa has been passing laws that have promoted the equality of women.
In 1998, South Africa passed the Domestic Violence Act and the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act. The Domestic Violence Act established that domestic violence would no longer be a “private matter,” but a “serious crime against society.” The protections offered by this legislation extend to unmarried women as well. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act establishes that the spouses in a customary marriage have equal status, overruling the Black Administration Act of 1927 which gave married black women the legal status of children.
The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000 seeks to ensure the transformation of South African society to be in line with the ideas expressed in the Bill of Rights and the legislation passed previously. Hate speech, harassment and discrimination are the main targets of this law.
Despite the passage of this legislation, women’s empowerment in South Africa still has a long way to go. According to Human Rights Watch, South Africa is still dealing with widespread violence against women, including rape, within the country. It was reported that sexual offenses had decreased slightly, by three percent from last year. However, the occurrence of rape is widely underreported.
“If a woman brings a case to court she cannot set foot in the courthouse. A man must represent her,” wrote Melissa Turley in an article for the Pulitzer Center. “If a woman wants to acquire land, she cannot apply for it on her own. A man must assist her.” Rural areas still mainly practice customary law, which essentially ignores the Bill of Rights and the laws proceeding it that promote equality and women’s empowerment in South Africa.
Women who live in rural South African areas under leaders who rule under customary law are largely unaware of the freedoms and rights provided to them by the government. Sizani Ngubane, who founded the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), has been working for years to educate women of these rights.
Founded in 1998, RWM seeks to give women the tools needed to access, own and control land and natural resources. Their focus is primarily on poor, indigenous women who do not have access to land. Founded in 1999, The Women’s Legal Centre also has a goal of women’s empowerment by making it easier for women to exercise their constitutional rights through the court system.
In August, South African activists used Women’s Month 2017 to call for an end to the gender-based violence that occurs within the country. There was a strong emphasis on men to take action and do their part to help end widespread sexual violence against women. With activism like Women’s Month and organizations like RWM and The Women’s Legal Centre, the nation seems to be determined to achieve women’s empowerment in South Africa.