Is Parliament any better than the Women’s Ministry? Not really.

By Helen Johnston

The recent media release circulated today related to the Ministry of Women in the Presidency’s failure to take women’s rights seriously got me thinking. Earlier this year FeministsSA considered the electoral manifestos of political parties to assess whether they were women-friendly or not. I also wrote a piece earlier this year for Heinrich Boll on whether voting in this year’s election was a vote for gender equality. The resounding answer for most of them was that a lot more could be done.

But if political parties and the executive aren’t fulfilling the constitutional mandate to promote gender equality, who is responsible for checking on them? The answer to that is Parliament.

In the previous term, Parliament had two committees dedicated to furthering the rights of vulnerable groups – A Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities and a Select Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities. In addition, there is Multi-Party Women’s Caucus dedicated to resolving gender issues in Parliament and allowing women to thrive. Over their five years in Parliament they held numerous meetings on issues related to women, including public hearings on the domestic violence act, meetings on the costs of gender-based violence, maternal health, sex work, hate crimes against LGBTI people, the gendered implications of climate change, the empowerment of rural women, the implementation of international conventions, and HIV amongst others.

In the new Parliament, it appears as if all those vulnerable groups have been dropped from the parliamentary agenda. In the new formation of Ministries, issues of children and people with disabilities were re-allocated to the Department of Social Development. It seems as though the Portfolio Committee on Social Development and the Select Committee on Social Services have picked up on this re-allocation and begun to allocate more meeting time to addressing these vulnerable groups. As the issues concerning these groups is broader than grants, it is positive to see meetings related to violence against children and early childhood development. Though more could certainly be done to take up some of the outstanding issues from the previous committees focussed on these issues.

There is still a Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency, that has remained active in its oversight over the new Department, and the CGE, even sending the Department of Women back this week because of a failure to produce documents on time. But to date, it isn’t really clear what this new Department is doing – perhaps the reason why their attempts at  considering gender-based violence are so misguided. It’s certainly not clear what has happened to the National Council on Gender Based Violence, that the former Department went on about as if it was going to solve it all [which is why you should sign the petition after reading this article].

In the National Council of Provinces however, there is also cause for concern. Trying to find the minutes for women’s issues in the NCOP, you are redirected to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs who are already given the mammoth task of oversight over local government issues in South Africa. In the minutes available on PMG this year there only seems to be one reference to women’s issues – one meeting that happened on the 14th of October relating to women and youth unemployment. Can it be the case that out of six meetings at Parliament, only one  has considered the needs of women? Can that be correct?

Is this a problem of political will, or the allocation of too many issues to NCOP committees? With local government elections coming up soon, if women aren’t currently on the agenda, how on earth will they stay on the agenda then? It’s not clear at this stage, but there is certainly the need for all of us to keep our eyes on what is happening for women in Parliament.

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