Female State of the Nation Part 2: The Economy and Women

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist

Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 here.

State of the Nation Speeches often begin with a discussion of the economic situation. So that is where Part 2 of this series will enter the discussion.

Women make up the majority of the unemployed across all age categories, but particularly amongst the youth.[1] What is interesting about this figure is that whilst unemployment in general has grown, and simultaneous the number of employed people has grown (as the population grows, this happens), the percentage gap between the number of employed males and females has remained the same.[2] Essentially, what this statistic tells us is that there continue to be barriers for women entering the job market, and these barriers affect men less than they do women.

These barriers are complex and differ for women from different backgrounds. Whilst the official SONA is likely to refer to the infamous triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, for women there are often more than three factors affecting their ability to find employment, and to remain employed. Academics use the term ‘intersectionality’ to explain how different forms of oppression intersect to create different lived experiences for women, and I think this is a useful term to use here.

The NDP itself notes that patriarchal attitudes remain a barrier for many women. In the old days this might be reflected in a saying like ‘why hire a woman to do a man’s job’. Currently, economic chauvinists are required to keep these opinions to themselves. However, there remain sectors of the South African economy where women are the minority, and often women encounter a glass ceiling to their progress. Most women who were employed in 2013 were involved in trade or in community and social services (including government).[3] As of 2012, only 3.6 percent of Chief Executive Officers were women and 5.5 percent of Chairpersons were women.[4]

Patriarchal attitudes also reinforce stereotypical gender roles meaning that women remain responsible for the majority of household work, even when they are employed.[5] The annual average income figures indicate an even more significant gap between men and women. When the 2001 and 2011 annual income figures of men and women are compared, it is clear that the annual average income of a female in 2011 remains only slightly higher than the annual average income of a male was in 2001.[6]

The NDP also recognises that the provision of basic services to women improves their ability to be healthy and supported workers. The NDP notes that basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” I would further suggest that the development of better transportation infrastructure that is safe, well-lit, and regular would mean that women would not have to brave violence in public on their way to and from work. In addition, I strongly suggest the consideration of equitable paternity and maternity leave so that the gendered division of child care is reduced, allowing new mothers and fathers to raise children together, and support one another during their careers.

We can all agree that unemployment is a bad situation for everyone and that solutions are necessary for both men and women, so why should we care specifically about unemployed women? For a number of reasons. Evidence suggests that around 38 percent of households in South Africa are headed by a single mother.[7] The education of women also affects women in the future – educated mothers are more likely to have healthier babies, and their own children are more likely to attend school.[8] Women’s education and resultant economic empowerment not only affects women, it profoundly changes the gendered functioning of the economy and society.

Furthermore, ensuring that women have access to their own income can mean the difference between leaving a violent relationship and staying. In a response to a 2013 Parliamentary Question, the Department of Justice reported that around 50 percent of women who dropped their domestic violence case did so because they were financially dependent on their abusive partner. Where patriarchal norms remain the norm, and where violence is readily used by many partners to ensure women are ‘put in their place’, the decision of the state to ignore the feminisation of poverty will mean that they relegate women to remain punching bags for the crisis of masculinity.

So women’s economic empowerment is essential to the development of democracy, and to a more equal situation for many people in the country. This is certainly something the Government has recognized, given the fact that the Department of Women in the Presidency has shifted its focus exclusively to this topic as announced in the 2014 State of the Nation Address. Whilst it is positive that more emphasis will be put on this element of women’s lives, it is certainly not the only topic that requires the attention of the Department, and the assumption that other Departments are mainstreaming women’s issues is problematic. In addition, it is not clear that any real progress in this regard has been made by the new Department from a casual observation of the Department’s work since May 2014. In the 2015 SONA it will be important to consider how women’s issues are being dealt with by other departments, and if they are not mentioned, whether any action will happen on them at all.


 

[1] Statistics SA (2014a). National and Provincial labour market: Youth. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[2] Statistics South Africa (2014b). Gender Series Volume 1: Economic Empowerment 2001 – 2014. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[3] South African of Race Relations (2013). South Africa Survey. Page 240.

[4] Businesswomen Association of South Africa (2012). Women in Leadership Survey.

[5] The 2011 household survey.

[6] Statistics South Africa (2012). Census.

[7] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 660.

[8] UNICEF (2014) The State of the World’s Children 2014

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