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Q&A: Failure to Translate Women’s Legal Rights into Action

Kristin Palitza interviews NOKUTHULA MAGUDULELA, executive director, Agenda Feminist Media

DURBAN, Dec 17 2008 (IPS) - Each year, for 16 days in December, the world’s focus shifts towards taking action against gender-based violence. Governments and civil society organisations raise awareness around women’s rights and lobby for gender equality. But activists lament that little action is taken throughout the rest of the year and women’s legal rights often fail to be implemented and put to action.

Nokuthula Magudulela Credit:

Nokuthula Magudulela Credit:

IPS: What are the key successes for women’s rights in South Africa? Nokuthula Magudulela: Firstly, our policies and legislation – starting from our Constitution and other legislation related to women’s rights and gender equality. Our country has managed to articulate this very well on paper, which is a very good starting point.

Secondly, women have successfully broken into the economic sector. There are opportunities and spaces for women to actively participate and contribute towards economic growth. We have started to see more women moving into leadership positions.

And thirdly, the rise in male feminists and men’s organisations that support gender equality and uphold women’s rights. Despite the fact that we live a patriarchal society, it is very encouraging to know that men are moving away from just being ‘bystanders’ to becoming champions of women’s rights. We need to acknowledge and applaud initiatives and activism by men. The existence and impact of organisations, such as Sonke Gender Justice or Men’s Forum, are testimony to this.

IPS: There also remain many challenges. What are the key obstacles to gender equality? NM: Failure to translate what is on paper into reality is our main obstacle. Lack of political will to implement, monitor and enforce policies and legislation is our downfall. As long as we still have a huge gap between the rich and the poor, we are still far from attaining gender equality. Women are in many ways bearing the brunt of the existing poverty and the HIV and AIDS scourge. As long as these issues are not addressed adequately, women will always remain in perpetual oppression and never reap the fruits of our democracy.

IPS: What role should government play in empowering women? NM: Over and above the existing legal frameworks, the South African government says it subscribes to the principle of ‘batho pele’ [‘people first’] in terms of how it should render its services. If politicians and public servants would show some integrity by implementing what they have put on paper, it would make a very big difference to people’s daily lives. Putting people first, particularly the needs of the poor, addressing unemployment and poverty, reducing of HIV infection rates, will alleviate a lot of social ills that render women vulnerable and marginalised. Our government has an obligation to deliver on this and it must be held accountable.

IPS: South Africa is often hailed for its progressive legal framework – but how can we ensure that gender policies are implemented? NM: Commitment and political will from government and politicians is critical. Constant monitoring, evaluation and enforcement is needed. Coordinated multi-sectoral collaboration between government, civil society and the private sector is also pivotal in addressing this issue – with our government taking a lead.

IPS: What should women’s rights organisations focus on within the next decade? NM: Firstly, strengthening advocacy and lobbying. Taking into account that women will not win this battle alone, we will need more men to take part in the struggle for gender equality. There will be nothing better than men and women coming together to create a harmonious environment for all of us.

Secondly, focusing on raising awareness and capacitating at community and grassroots level, the re-socialisation of gender roles in a manner that puts boys and girls on the same par. Because childhood is when the seed of gender-based violence is planted, when the 'power scale' begins to tilt.

IPS: One of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to achieve gender equality by 2015. How likely is South Africa to achieve this goal? NM: There is still a lot that needs to be done. I doubt that we can say we have ‘arrived’ by 2015. But I believe that our commitment and political will as well as the appropriate distribution of resources that we have at our disposal are likely see us scratching the surface by 2015.

IPS: How can South Africa work against the feminisation of poverty? NM: By addressing key socio-economic issues. For example, by creating more employment opportunities, through poverty alleviation programmes, a vigorous strategy and action plan for combating HIV and AIDS, enforcement of compulsory basic education for every child, both boys and girls, so that they are equally empowered, by creating an enabling environment and space for girls and women to get into the scarce skills industry.

One other critical issue that exacerbates feminisation of poverty, but remains a 'sacred cow', is that our men are not held responsible for fathering children. Every child that is born has a father somewhere, but men often disappear from their children’s lives and refuse to take responsibility or play an active father role.

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