Do women leaders necessarily mean better things for women?

Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

This week at the Mangaung conference the new ANC top six leaders were elected. Despite the ANC’s own 50/50 gender quota policy, only two of the six were women – Jessie Duarte, who will fulfil the role of Deputy Secretary General, and Baleka Mbete who will fulfil the role of National Chairperson. No women contested the position of President, Deputy President, or Secretary General. Are we to be critical of the ANC for a lack of women leaders? Does the high number of women leaders in the DA mean better things for women?

At a recent public dialogue hosted by the CGE Monitor[1] to assess the efficacy of the Commission for Gender Equality over a period of 100 days, Lisa Vetten[2] expressed concern that there were many women in government, as well as many gender focussed structures, yet these did not always have feminist aims. She continued that there was a lack of clarity around what the term ‘gender equality’ actually means. These statements make clear two questions we must ask ourselves:

  • do we know what we want from gender equality and what it actually means in practical terms, and
  • do we do enough to empower the women leaders we do have in government to further feminist aims?

These questions are relevant to the ANC, as well as all other political parties. They essentially force us to ask ourselves whether women leaders necessarily mean better policy, legislation, and livelihoods for the women of South Africa.

Without a doubt, ‘gender equality’ has a nice ring to it. But what does it mean? There is more than one type of equality[3], and in a South Africa where women face multiple and varied forms of oppression (race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, health status etc), it’s possible to use the term gender equality as a rubber stamp, or a marker that the issue of ‘women’ has been dealt with in government.

What we have seen a lot of is ‘formal equality’ or the right to be equal to men, for example by occupying political office. This is valuable in itself, because the very fact that women occupy office makes it theoretically easier for other women to envisage themselves in roles similar to this. This is particularly important for young women in South Africa, who need powerful female role models to assure them that they can break the barriers and glass ceilings that still exist. Yet, often female parliamentary representatives feel compelled to vote according to their political party’s requirements, and not necessarily in the interest of furthering women’s rights. Gender equality should not be limited to this narrow definition.

Real and meaningful gender equality requires something more of our political representatives across all parties – it requires that we aim for substantive or lived equality. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[4] recognised that formal equality structures, whilst important, are not always enough to ensure that women can actually enjoy the same rights as men. For example, if I have the right to freedom of movement, but I am constantly threatened by the risk of sexual violence when I do move about, then it cannot be said that I enjoy the full expression of my rights. Unless women political figures are able to vote against the male-orientated policies and legal preferences of their parties, for example the traditional courts bill, they cannot be said to enjoy the full expression of their right to hold political office.

Feminism thus becomes incredibly important. If we look at feminism in an extremely broad way, as a “movement to end sexist oppression”[5] we must ensure not only that women occupy meaningful political positions that have clout, but also that they occupy them with the intention of improving the lives of women. Women in politics should not be tokens.

Thus, we shouldn’t then be looking at simple numbers, or only to criticise political parties based on these, though those numbers are certainly a start. Without the freedom to make decisions that impact law and policy, or its implementation, in a way that truly improves the status of women, our women MPs, members of the executive, or judiciary, will not make a difference for women. What we need therefore is feminists in office who are going to take this risk, and push the interests of women, even at the expense of their party.

[1] A group made up of women’s rights, gender equality, and human rights organisations across the country.

[2] For more on what happened in this discussion, follow the twitter hashtag #CGE100

[3] For more on the various forms of equality, follow this link

[4] For an interesting discussion of equality in relation to this convention, follow this link

[5] From bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody.


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