THABI LEOKA: Covid-19 pandemic slows fight for women’s rights
Lockdown has hit many who work in labour-intensive, low-income sectors hardest
The Covid-19 pandemic has set women back even further as many who work in labour-intensive, low-income sectors have been hit the hardest by lockdown and economic stoppages.
A recent article by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg drew attention to the “double-double shift” Covid-19 is imposing on women. Sandberg said women play a dual role, as income-earners in the professional economic space in addition to being unpaid care providers in their private space.
In situations where domestic violence and physical abuse prevail, often aggravated by male spouses who have lost their jobs and are fast becoming frustrated and feeling emasculated, women are facing more than a “double-double shift”: they are becoming silent, second-round sufferers of the pandemic and an outlet of the anger and frustration. As we celebrate Women’s Month and the milestones women have achieved in the face of huge challenges, the scourge of gender-based violence remains unrelenting.
SA has some of the most progressive laws and policies intended to advance women’s rights and gender equality and yet women are still not equal to their male counterparts. Women are disproportionately represented among the poor, unemployed and hungry. Women are an exploited labour force, marginalised from the formal economy, paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same work and often face inadequate access to essential services such as health care, education, water and electricity.
Progress has been made over the years, but despite these gains many challenges remain. Women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of leadership roles. More women graduate from tertiary institutions in SA than men, but it is not reflected in the gender demographics in the workplace.
It is fashionable to eulogise women during August but acknowledging, mentoring and promoting them is a dread
Some women marry and raise children, but only a small percentage of women opt for this. Despite women leading the way in education, there are still more men in management and senior management positions than women. Sectors such as construction and engineering remain dominated by males, even where machines have replaced the need for physical strength.
Women’s Month is bittersweet for many women. It is a month in which we try to forget the many challenges facing us, but our daily realities are a constant reminder that the battle is far from over. Young female professionals who aspire to one day lead organisations have few role models, not just in SA but globally. In 2019, the global proportion of women in senior management roles rose to 29%, the highest number yet recorded. In Africa, the percentage of women in senior management is 38%. In SA, only 6% of companies listed on the JSE are led by women. It is fashionable to eulogise women during August, but acknowledging, mentoring and promoting them is a dread.
I recently heard a story of an executive who asked one of our few female CEOs why her children and husband are in another country while she is in SA running a big entity. The comment was obviously made by a man who did not see anything wrong with asking his principal such an intrusive and personal question. He obviously thought it irresponsible for her, as a woman, to delegate the child-rearing duty to the father of her children. As those around the room shifted in discomfort, the boss-woman gracefully explained her choices to her underling. So even when women are at the top, they are constantly reminded of the “terrible” choices they have made.
Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for achieving sustainable economic prosperity, social cohesion and peace. If we all saw women as equals and genuinely believed in the importance of equality, we would do better than just celebrating women only in one month. Many studies have shown that women’s participation in the economy is good for economic growth and prosperity. Give women equal pay because it is the right thing to do.
Gender pay gaps are a cost to the economy. Gender equality and race equality are intricately linked. When race is considered in gender equality, it improves race equality at the same time. Poverty rates are the highest among women and young girls. Gender inequality keeps women and their families trapped in cycles of poverty. When women receive better education, health care and job opportunities they can thrive.
The end of Women’s Month is nigh, and I am pleased it is ending. Instead of truly celebrating the wonderful women of SA we might just be celebrating the survival of women. This is the month in which we are flooded with news of women who have been maimed and raped. This is the month in which the police minister delivers crime statistics reminding us that women are still violated and that the policing system continues to let women down. August is the month in which the Mthwalume serial killer is reported to have killed at least five women.
This is why I support the objectives of the Women of SA movement, a nonpartisan, woman-led advocacy initiative formed to demand women’s fair share of the SA economic dividend.
The organisation’s key objectives are to:
- Criminalise gender-based remuneration disparities for equal work.
- Promulgate the Women Empowerment & Gender Equality Bill.
- Establish an annual gender barometer to measure women’s participation in the economy.
- Increase the economic participation of women in economic decision-making structures in the private and public sectors.
- Design and promote a gender diversity charter to be signed by corporates and state-owned entities, signalling a commitment to the economic progress of women.
I have signed the petition on womenofsouthafrica.org. I implore every woman to do the same.
• An economic strategist, Leoka is a board member of Corruption Watch and has held senior positions at Renaissance Capital, Standard Bank Corporate & Investing, Barclays Wealth and Investec Asset Management.
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