The 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place from 10 March 2014 to 21 March 2014 at the United Nations in New York. The aim for this year’s session was to examine the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls.
Late on the final day, one particular conclusion was agreed upon; that those of us present can only hope to make a meaningful impact on the lives of ordinary women.
In general, at events as big as these, it is no easy feat to reach agreement on certain conclusions, but in this instance, there was a general concern about the overall lack of progress made in respect of women and girls in the implementation of all the MDGs.
MDG 3, which seeks to promote gender equality and empower women, was identified as a paramount goal, as it impacts on the success of all of the other goals. It was made clear that this is the goal that countries, including South Africa, battle with the most.
South Africa has made slow progress towards realising gender equality. We have recently seen the introduction of the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Bill into Parliament. It is interesting then to note that the conclusions reached at the Commission identify exactly what is wrong with the WEGE Bill and its proposed implementation; specifically through pointing out that a substantive approach to women’s rights is necessary for real change to happen.
A substantive approach accepts that women are not all the same, and that measures taken must address specific and targeted issues. These measures must recognise that women experience increased vulnerability and marginalisation due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and inequalities.
Government must implement concrete and long-term measures to transform discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes, including those that limit women’s roles to being mothers and caregivers, and eliminate harmful practices such as forced marriage (ukhutwala) and virginity testing in order to empower women and girls and achieve the full realisation of the human rights.
The agreed conclusions of the CSW also emphasised the need to increase and cement effective financial resources across sectors.
In order for the agreed conclusions to mean anything for ordinary South African women and girls, government must begin to understand the difference between a formal equality model and a substantive equality model. The government must recognise that it cannot simply address the end results of discrimination, but that it must focus on the root causes (such as patriarchy and women’s unpaid work) of gender inequality.
This will not be done through legislation that prescribes policy development for women in the formal economy. Neither will it be achieved when government promises no additional financial resources will be extracted from the public purse in order to implement it. A commitment to eradicate gender discrimination and empower women must be aligned with a financial policy that ensures proper and adequate financial resource allocation. Until there is a real understanding and commitment to gender equality, the agreed conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women will have no real impact on the lives of ordinary women, and government will continue to fail in its implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.