Sumayya Omar (Political Science Student, Chairperson of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, University of Pretoria)
Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this event celebrating women’s month.
Our post-apartheid democracy has advanced the rights and status of women in South Africa.
In school girls have equal access to boys and are performing at improved levels in many subjects. In higher education women are more than 50% of the student body, and while we all want to see more of them in scarce disciplines we are proud of their progress.
In clinics and hospitals women receive greater support from government than ever before. Access to free health services for pregnant women was a significant endorsement of the progressive ambitions of the Freedom Charter.
The blight of the HIV and AIDS pandemic has eroded some of our advances and women are bearing an oppressive burden in this regard. Infant mortality and women’s mortality during childbirth are also challenges we must attend to.
In the political sphere and other public institutions our democracy has achieved world wide praise for our notable advances. Our cabinet and legislatures are among the top ten most representative in the world.
We are all potential beneficiaries and guardians of the Bill of Rights in our constitution, as all these rights must be exercised with due regard to our responsibilities.
One of our more intractable tasks in this regard is ensuring that all women, whatever their status and location, enjoy full access to those rights.
This task makes our priority of rural development immensely important for women. Millions of women in rural communities bear the brunt of poverty and oppression that is rooted in a partriarchal culture and tradition.
We need to uphold the right to culture, while firmly indicating that the right to culture and other traditional norms and practices have a companion called equality that must be respected. Of course, the effect of the social engineering that has embedded gender inequality in our societies requires us to address discrimination in all sectors and institutions and not to hold to the fiction that inequality exists only in customary low or religious practices.
The evidence of continuing gender inequality in the public and private sectors, in the domestic spaces we occupy, and in some of our key institutions of governance clearly indicates that a great deal more has to be done in South Africa to ensure that women practically feel safe and respected as equal citizens of our country.
Our Parliament, legislatures, municipalities, our courts must protect and empower women. Communities, families and individuals also have a role to play.
Much more needs to be done to ensure that the socialization of males and females inculcates respect for the human dignity of all.
Violence against women, rape, murder and other physical and verbal and psychological evils that women experience daily mean that we should strive to ensure that a safer caring society includes a concerted focus on women’s safety and protection.
Our Constitution contains these protections already. We must make them a lived reality through the laws we pass and the programmes and budgets we support.
In fact, it is in the public service that we continue to see progressive change for women. The social sphere of our homes, our recreation places and our social clubs needs increased attention to ensure that women and girls benefit from democracy. This attention to women needs to be a characteristic of international organisations as well. Many tend to be blind to the distinct needs and experiences of women.
Any society that advocates radical democratic transformation (as we have done) takes on the important duty of ensuring increased human security for all who live in it.
We have done a great deal in South Africa, but the pain of disappearing children, sexual abuse of babies, and the limited protection our courts afford against domestic violence (protection orders) all point to the need to devote much more attention to women’s equality.
Whether direct or indirect, discrimination against women is one of the most destructive forces in the world. We know that it is one of the major causes of poverty and suffering experienced by women all over the world.
For us to be able to deliver a fatal blow to domestic violence, we need to destroy the foundations of domestic violence.
And the best way to do that is to consolidate solidarity among women.
We read each day about women who are killed by their spouses and partners.
Domestic violence cannot be trivialized. It is a sign of societal decay, which is why it is a human rights issue.
The record of the past 19 years suggests that with focus and effective strategizing we can build on the advances we have made.
These advances have enabled women to make better lives for themselves through grasping new opportunities.
Over the last thirty years there have been fundamental changes in occupational structure, in qualifications, and in skills required in different economic sectors.
The overall pattern is for upskilling or an increase in “skill intensity”, especially in managerial, professional, and associate professional occupations.
In fact, gender equality is easier to achieve now in a post-industrial economy than in the past in an industrial economy.
Industrial occupational structures were divided into “male jobs” and ‘female jobs” with those professions requiring technical skills being largely the preserve of males.
However, with the growing importance of knowledge-based occupations - the legions of lawyers, doctors, and managerial professionals - women find it easier to fit in.
The services industry is a case in point, where we see more women entering the management professions and occupying high-level positions.
Today, South Africa has achieved a level of gender equality - in no small measure shaped by our constitution - that has only been accomplished in other countries after many decades of democracy.
For the first time we have a critical mass of women in Parliament. For the first time, we have women leading universities. And for the first time we have women as business executives in South Africa.
But there is so much more to do. What is the point of having better educated women if we find our aspirations blocked and talents short-changed in the world of work. We saw that men got better jobs when they were better qualified. So why didn’t that happen to us when we got better qualified?
I want to say something about Palestine. I was invited here by Sumayya Omar, who amongst her many student commitments is also the chair of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
As a member of the South African government I believe that our position on Palestine is the right one. Our foreign policy is designed to promote the African agenda; peace in the Middle East and the spread of democracy in North Africa are important to achieving the aims of the African agenda.
We identify with the struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination.
We support a negotiated solution and a negotiated agreement that would result in two states, Israel and a Palestinian state. These states must exist side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders.
We believe that the illegal Israeli expansion of settlements into the occupied Palestinian territories undermines the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
We are deeply concerned by the dire situation in Gaza. Refugees live in the worst conditions in the world. The situation is so bad that the UN has recently warned that Gaza will be uninhabitable as early as 2020.
The situation in Syria is getting worse by the day. We deplore the escalating violence and the continued killing of civilians.
We reiterate that the situation in Syria cannot be solved by military means. A military approach may look appealing in the short term, but it will inevitably result in another Iraq.
We wait to see what action will be taken to stop the conflict in Syria.
We know that the popular uprisings known as the ‘Arab spring’ led to the overthrow of autocratic elites. But external intervention, UN or otherwise, was not consistent across the Middle East. There was intervention in Libya, strong support for a mediated settlement in Yemen, yet little was done about Bahrain.
Should we not use our solidarity to place pressure on the Security Council to respond to the plight of the most vulnerable in all conflicts, to strive to create conditions of peace.
Conflict impacts severely on women and children. They are denied the security of peace, of family and community. They are violated and invisible in most global debates about conflict and in peace negotiating fora.
Let me conclude with this comment. Women students are in a majority at universities. Yet women are not present in major national and international debates. The cause of Palestine and the other nations without peace needs to be given a woman’s face. This will ensure that as we devise solutions we address the interests of all humanity.
I thank you.