We have won battles but not the war

We have won the battle, but have we won the war?

To wrap up our August Women’s Month celebration The Journalist brings an offering from a phenomenal leader from the African continent, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Like many in my generation we grew up during the liberation struggles of our Southern African countries:  Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa of course. This makes us an interesting post-conflict region. In South Africa we fought for equality to end discrimination that is based on race, class or gender. Our Constitution adequately captures our aspirations.

The Struggle for Gender Equality

Our country has achieved a high level of representation of women in cabinet and an increased representation in decision-making bodies that women had never previously occupied.  We have clear strategic priorities embedded in one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and we have been led by highly enlightened men like Nelson Mandela. We have been poised for gender equality, and yet the struggles for that equality continue at all levels.

We have learnt how hard it is for women to truly win. And that winning battles does not mean you have won the war.
This is a universal lesson learnt by all women in the world. Despite many and far reaching changes in every part of the world, no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

Yet when we look at our situation compared to many others in the continent, we can still feel proud.

Glimmer of Hope

South Africa is not at war. We are ranked as the second most prosperous country in Africa. Surprisingly though, as many as 40% of persons responding to a CNN survey recently said for them it’s a good time to find a job despite the high levels of unemployment. We have universal education for all children. And our own government’s report on the status of women in the South African economy starts with the premise that “ensuring women’s full participation in the economy is essential if ideals of equity, prosperity and shared and inclusive growth are to be achieved”.

So where do the women of South Africa stand today? It looks as if we should have everything we want. Have we won battles or the war?

Business and social entrepreneurs like Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane make me think ‘yes”. Their successful sustainable manufacturing operation recycles plastic bags into solar-powered satchels that help schoolchildren overcome power limitations to get their homework done. Indrani Govender runs an operation to distribute and install generators, employing nearly 200 staff. Educationists and pioneers like Stacey Brewer founder of Spark affordable private schools, leading legal lights like Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, Chairperson of the South African Law Reform Commission, financial market leader Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and international diplomats like African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, demonstrate the sophistication and accomplishment of our country’s best minds. In these bright women leaders we have a string of pearls, gleaming across every sector in which we look. These women are concerned about the plight of millions of their sisters, mothers and daughters who are trapped in poverty and very high gender-based violence. Our progress is therefore uneven and requires us to continue the fight for the South Africa we envisaged when we drafted the constitution.

Progress for women everywhere in the world is uneven and global solidarity is still very important.

Call for Global Solidarity

Although we have seen progress in the number of countries in the world introducing legislation on important matters such as outlawing domestic violence, and assuring equal pay, we know that this has not yet translated into change for women’s everyday lives.

Across the world, 128 countries still have at least one legal difference in how men and women are treated. These restrictions elsewhere limit women’s rights, including in family laws, penal codes, nationality laws and laws relating to inheritance, ownership and control of land, and other resources, as well as the ability to borrow money or hold a bank account in their own name.

In South Africa, women have huge potential for success, taking together our country’s non-discriminatory legal and policy framework, and the potential demographic dividend. Our working age population has expanded by 11 million people since 1994. This year it is 65% of our total population and is set to keep growing until it peaks at 68% in 2045. This has been a key to growth elsewhere: China’s demographic opportunity is estimated to have contributed one quarter of its GDP growth between 1982 and 2000, and two-fifths of the increase in East Asia’s income between 1982 and 1990. We must learn from those who have ridden this wave before us and see how to make the most of it. This is urgent.

Despite the clear potential to surge this country into new growth, right now that is not happening. Only 40% of today’s potential workforce is actually working.  It’s a major issue that jobs are not growing as fast as people, because we know that this entrenches women’s poverty. We also know that women have a huge unmet need for family planning services, and their reproductive rights are not respected. A prosperous and growing economy is built on respect of the rights of all its people: equal pay, access to education for girls, guaranteed sexual and reproductive rights. Lifelong learning for women is a need for our economy, not a luxury.

Among its peer group of upper middle-income countries, South Africa has one of the lowest employment rates.  This is a critical lost opportunity and a potential social crisis.

One aspect of the problem is employability. Sixty per cent of those currently out of work do not have a high school qualification. Our young people need education that is not only free but effective. Our teachers need support and training to keep them at the forefront of their profession and feed the hungry minds in their classrooms. And we need to foster the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises. Women are already the majority of the informal market, working for example as market traders and running their own small businesses. These women juggle this with their responsibilities in caring for families, with social protection. We have to find ways to bring these women into the formal sector, better share the burden of care, and increase the opportunities for these small businesses to multiply and grow. Already women’s cross-border trade brings over $17.6 billion to the SADC region. What we have today is a situation of unrealised potential.

Winning the war

We have won so many battles, but we have not yet won the war. Right now, our assets are not harnessed to link our strengths together constructively so that we have a secure, irreversible pattern of progress. The women of South Africa are half of the solution. As we celebrate Women’s Day and Women’s Month we have to seize the moment, and make a commitment, wherever we are, to win the war for the inclusive social and economic prosperity that we envisaged, and of which we are capable. Like many women all over the world, we must still open doors for all women and girls, and for all our people.

As nations adopt the Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030 and implement them in the next 15 years, it will be the time for every country to choose game-changing initiatives that will propel gender equality. On September 27 we will deliberate with heads of state on their commitments to make sure that substantive and irreversible gender equality is achievable in their countries by 2030. Watch the space.