Every journey begins with just a single step; most are filled with joy and the promise of a safe arrival. There are however times when taking the first step requires untold sacrifice.
In June 1913 about 700 women marched to the Bloemfontein City Council in the Orange Free State in defiance of the pass system. The campaign led by Charlotte Maxeke soon gained momentum and spread to other areas in Bloemfontein. In the resulting unrest, which spread throughout the province, hundreds of women were sent to prison. The direct result of this campaign was the establishment of the Bantu Women’s League under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke.
These pioneering women stood up and confronted the status quo; their brave actions are undeniable proof that even the greatest tyranny can be defeated by the actions of just a few.
It is now over 100 years since these brave women began the journey for the empowerment and liberation of women. In this time a lot has changed, South Africa today bears little resemblance to our brutal past largely because of the untold sacrifices of women throughout our history.
As a country and government, we have made significant progress to ensure the empowerment of women and achieve gender equality. An array of measures introduced since 1994 to promote women empowerment and uphold gender equality, have drastically improved the position and conditions of women in our country.
That we have to a large extent succeeded in empowering women to take their rightful place in society is heartening. However, as we celebrate Women’s Month this August we do so in recognition that we must do more to ensure that women are firmly entrenched in every sphere.
This year’s Women’s Month is commemorated under the theme: “A centenary of working together towards sustainable women empowerment and gender equality.” We declared August as Women’s Month to pay tribute to the thousands of women who marched in 1913 and 1956, respectively. This year’s commemoration coincides with the 100 years centenary of the 1913 Land Act, and is a prelude to celebrating 20 years of democracy since 1994.
A quick glance at society will reveal that women occupy influential positions in government and play an important role in decision-making processes. Since 1994 the living conditions of the majority of women have undergone significant changes; women have access to housing, water, electricity, education, social services, healthcare and other services.
Addressing fellow women at Freedom Park on 3 August 2013, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana spoke of the progress made since 1994 and on the challenges that still confront women.
“Our policies and programmes that were introduced by this democratic government since 1994 have assisted to improve the living conditions of women. Women now have access to opportunities, rights and services that were a dream about twenty years ago. Despite this progress, women still bear the most burden of the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.”
Minister Xingwana also used this occasion to elaborate on the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill which has been submitted to Cabinet and is under consideration. The Bill will provide the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities with the necessary governance authority to monitor, review and oversee gender mainstreaming and integration of gender equality considerations into all programmes of government and other sectors.
The Bill seeks to give effect to the Constitution by providing for women empowerment to achieve gender equality, equity and mainstreaming in the public and private sectors, and civil society. It will also address all forms of discrimination against women and girls, including women and girls with disabilities.
As a country we can look back with pride at our journey over the last 100 years, and look forward to a better future. The journey however, continues and every positive milestone along the way is but another step to ensure that every women and girl is empowered.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System