Women's Month: Safeguard women and ensure they access opportunities available to them

21 August 2020

By Phumla Williams

As South Africa celebrates women’s month we also remember the many formidable women across our continent. Every day these women, like many in our country, strive to uplift their families and communities often in the face of insurmountable odds.

While our nation marks Women’s Day on 9 August each year to honour the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against unjust pass laws, countries on the continent celebrate Women’s Day on 31 July.

The African Union recognises the day as the Pan African Women’s Day in commemoration of the first Pan African Women’s Conference held in Tanzania in 1962. The day is used to reflect on progress countries have made to advance women’s rights as well as to bring attention to issues women still face today.

Women’s rights in Africa have come a long way and it is encouraging that African governments have in the last few years, signed a number of commitments to promote women’s rights. These include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa - generally referred to as the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Despite this, progress has been uneven and women remain vulnerable. It is therefore incumbent on leaders of the Continent to translate these commitments into real tangible improvements for women in Africa. For example, women continue to be affected by gender-based violence, sexual harassment, poverty, forced marriages, trafficking and forced prostitution as well as social and economic inequality.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the pressing challenges faced by women across the continent. These include having limited access to reproductive health care services, constraints to employment opportunities and economic resources.

This pandemic should serve as a reminder to all leaders their obligation to take concrete steps towards protecting the rights of humanity in particular women and prioritising their empowerment.

As the Chair of the African Union (AU) for 2020, South Africa will put issues that affect the equality of women in society at the top of the agenda of the continental body. In his acceptance speech as Chair of the AU in February this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined this vision to mainstream issues that affect women.

“We have to find more practical and sustainable ways of empowering the women of our continent: ways that go beyond the clichés and pronouncements made from podiums” ”, he said.

Writing in his weekly newsletter to South Africans in March this year, the President further stressed his intention to dedicate this year to the economic and financial inclusion of African women.

“We will work with other AU member’s states on a range of measures, such as increasing the percentage of state procurement that goes to women and encouraging member states to reduce barriers to entry for women-owned businesses. We will work to ensure that women benefit from the opportunities that will be created by the African Continental Free Trade Area, which comes into operation this year,” he said.

While we have made numerous strides towards the advancement of women in South Africa, much work still needs to be done. Although we have broadened access to education, the provision of health care and social support still requires more interventions.

The promises enshrined in the Constitution must be translated into lived realities especially on eradicating gender-based violence and economically empowering women.

South Africa is confident that through a number of Bills it is in the process of enacting further impetus will be given to the fight against gender-based violence. These put the rights and needs of victims at the forefront of any response by the South African criminal justice system. These Bills proposes the tightening of bail conditions, strengthening parole conditions, ensures stiff consequences for contravening a protection order, as well as increasing the minimum sentence for perpetrators of sexual offences.

With these amendments, there will no longer be a requirement for warrants of arrests to be issued prior to law enforcement agencies responding to reported sexual crimes. This will go a long way towards ensuring that urgent steps are taken to limit the risk of violence faced by women.

To further support women entrepreneurs and expand access of women to economic opportunity in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Women’s Day this year that the South African government aims to set aside 40 percent of public procurement for women-owned businesses.

As we strive to safeguard women across Africa we must ensure they are able to access and make use of the many opportunities that will contribute to their economic empowerment and emancipation. Through our collective effort, we can build a new future, where all sectors of society grow our continent’s economy.

Phumla Williams is the Director General of the Government Communications and Information System.