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Female Empowerment in South Africa

Female Empowerment in South Africa

On April 27, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and ended the era of apartheid in the country. This shift to universal suffrage allowed those that had been disenfranchised and abused during Apartheid rule to finally assume a greater role in the course of their country. Yet, more than a quarter century on, equality amongst the various ethnic groups – economically, socially, and culturally – remains elusive. 

Enshrined in the 1996 South African Constitution are founding principles that create an inherent drive in the South African state to realize: “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”. Yet, according to the World Bank’s Gini Index, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. This begs the question: how did Mandela’s dream fail to alleviate the struggles of the black majority?

Due to South Africa’s history, it is vital to understand the divisions across racial lines. Indeed, the legacy of apartheid created deep inequalities amongst the population and in order to discern a suitable path towards equality, one must understand the struggles in the case of non-white women. 

The National Development Plan (NDP), which aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by the year 2030,” is a natural starting point to examine the intentions of the government to address gender inequality in the country. The NDP’s road map to success includes cultivating an inclusive economy and building leadership throughout society. An examination of sectors allows for the NDP to improve implementation on a more individual level with the help of “evidence-based monitoring and evaluation.” Although there is no dedicated chapter to the plight of women, it does recognize that they do constitute a large portion of the poor population. 

In addition to the NDP, there is a widespread acceptance of various factors affecting female employment across multiple metrics. For instance,  the Gender Statistics of South Africa, released in 2011, delves into issues such as child care in order to better discern the impact that it has on job opportunities for women, particularly non-white women. 

Childcare+in+SA.jpg

The circumstances that women, particularly those in the black population, deal with, such as being the only parent in a household or the lack of child care facilities, makes it difficult for many women to have a job. This creates a form of income trap where, despite aspirations to have a job, these mothers instead spend their time taking care of their children.

This comes despite efforts by the government to empower women. In fact, there exists several programs aimed to do just that. For instance, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act (BBBEE) promotes “increasing the extent to which black women own and manage existing and new enterprises, and increasing their access to economic activities, infrastructure and skills training”. It further notes that “to comply with the equality provision of the constitution, a code of good practice and targets therein specified may distinguish between black men and black women.” However, the act has been subject to controversy as inequality and poverty have both increased in the time since its inception in inception in 2003. Other programs with similar aims have not had widespread success either.

Given the gross inequality that persists across gender and race, several programs have been launched in order to close this gap, including the Women Economic Empowerment Programmes which aims to increase the number of women in technology and business. Part of the plan includes the B'avumile Skills Development Initiative, a training program aimed at “[developing] women's expertise in the production of marketable goods and the creation of formal enterprises in the creative industry,” such as crafts and textiles. While the Initiative discusses its success in helping women run businesses, it is limited to only one province a year and the number of women enterprises allowed to participate each year is rather restrictive. The Community Work Programme (CWP) also provides some work opportunities for women.  However, the CWP only offers “basic level of income security through work” versus full time employment. Furthermore, the programme guarantees work for two days a week, suppling the “job safety net” which the CWP aims to provide, but it is severely limited in its long term impact. 

Graph showing a steady increase in opportunities created

Graph showing a steady increase in opportunities created

Perhaps in light of the failings of the previous programmes, the South African government established the Department for Women in 2014 in order to “accelerate socio-economic transformation and implementation of women's empowerment and participation through oversight, monitoring, evaluation and influencing policy.”This allowed for a more intensive, legislative system to be built through which measures, such as oversight and the ability to pass relevant legislation, can be reasonably enacted. This has allowed for sufficient emphasis to be created in order to construct a “multi-faceted approach” to tackle gender and income inequality.Yet, there has been criticism of this top-down approach to gender equality with some pundits believing that it is ignorant to “localized realities” and the need for greater “inter-agency coordination.” Gender- based budgeting,for example, was first implemented in 1995 by the Gender and Economic Group of the Joint Standing Committee. These good practice models were wholly adopted by some government departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health. Other departments, notably those dealing with violence, have instead seen that form of budgeting undertaken by “civil society organizations” rather than through government programming.

The seeming wealth of empowerment programs and plans certainly constitute a remarkable initiative to tackle inequality within the country. However, there remains a sufficient difficulty in measuring a causal link between these programs and increased equality for women. The statistics paint a picture of continued inequality with issues, such as childcare, constituting just one layer of an incredibly complex picture that shows that many obstacles remain. While initiatives and programs have made progress, major issues persist. One notable example being women’s “[exclusion] from decision-making at a local level.” A lack of representation at the most intimate community level creates a cycle that often forces women out of employment, and therefore limiting women’s abilities to take advantage of larger government programs. These issues are often derivative of the historical, economic, and geographical, that have, in the past, prevented women, especially those of color, from having the same opportunities as men. The abject failure of the aforementioned programs to close the gap sheds some light on why other programs to close racial inequality may also have failed. Though these programs have noble intentions, cronyism and a lack of sufficient follow-through by the government and South African businesses prevent a more equitably solution from taking hold.

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