Q & A with the Director of the Justice Department’s Gender Directorate, Ntibidi Rampete

July 1st, 2012
The Gender Directorate at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (the department) was established in March 1997. The directorate’s staff is made up of one director, two deputy directors, six assistant directors, two administrative officers and a secretary. De Rebus news editor Nomfundo Manyathi (NM) spoke to its director, Ntibidi Rampete (NR) about the role of the directorate, gender transformation in the legal profession and her career. Ms Rampete lives and works in Pretoria and enjoys spending time with her seven-year-old son in her free time.

NM: What inspired you to choose a career in law, especially at a time when it was difficult to do so because of your gender and your race?

NR: Growing up in the apartheid era and experiencing all forms of discrimination and witnessing harassment, which occurred daily in my community, made me interested in learning how the law can protect citizens instead of oppressing them. After studying and practising the law, I became aware of other areas of study such as gender and the law. It became apparent that the discrimination black women were subjected to was twofold, on the basis of race and gender. While all women were discriminated against in a profession that was deeply male dominated, black women faced an overwhelming amount of barriers in comparison to white women. This fact is also evident when one looks at the statistics of members of the judiciary, which draws most of its candidates from legal practice.

NM: You have been very involved in gender issues in the legal profession, what is it that fuelled your passion?

NR: My desire as a human rights lawyer was generally to live and work in a society that enjoys equal benefits in law and other aspects of life.

NM: What is the Gender Directorate responsible for?

NR: The Gender Directorate, or Gender Focal Point, is part of the broader government National Gender Machinery that exists in all of the departments, partly in response to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which South Africa has ratified, and the Beijing Platform for Action, of which South Africa is a signatory. Some of the provisions of these international instruments have been incorporated into our Constitution and other laws and policies.

The Gender Directorate is responsible for, among others:

  • Facilitating the integration of gender concerns into mainstream legislation and policy development, and all activities of the department and its affiliated structures.
  • Facilitating a working relationship between the department and civil society, including non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations within the area of gender and justice, and between the Justice Department and other government departments and constitutional bodies within the National Gender Machinery.
  • Conducting research for monitoring and evaluation purposes and for informing policy development.

NM: How can legal practitioners benefit from this aspect of the Justice Department?

NR: Female legal practitioners can benefit by joining the South African Women Lawyers’ Association (Sawla). The department launched Sawla in 2006 and has since partnered with the association to facilitate specific empowerment programmes as a way of achieving gender equality in the legal profession. The projects have the following key objectives for female lawyers:

  • Providing networking and collaborating opportunities.
  • Enhancing access to the legal profession.
  • Promoting economic empowerment.
  • Facilitating capacity building.
  • Developing legal research and writing expertise.
  • Profiling women lawyers to improve their visibility.
  • Facilitating participation in national and international transformation and other policy dialogues.
  • Facilitating involvement, advocacy and lobbying to advance women lawyers and other women.

Male practitioners can also become Sawla patrons. It is important to note that some of the interventions will benefit both men and women equally as a way of achieving gender equality. As the department, we regard the legal profession as a key stakeholder in the administration of justice and therefore remain willing to engage and collaborate with legal practitioners in order to achieve a just and equal society.

NM: Why is there a need for a position like yours 18 years into democracy?

NR: Obstacles to women’s access to justice, based on class and race differences and disadvantages, still exist and impede the achievement of substantive equality. A lot of work has been done at a formal level of a legislative framework and policies to demonstrate commitment to promoting gender equality. However, work still needs to be done to translate the laws and policies into practice.

NM: What are the most common challenges women in the legal profession face? How do these differ from those experienced 20 years ago?

NR: Transformation and gender transformation processes in South Africa have enjoyed the benefit of an enabling environment, which includes political will, a legislative and administrative framework and active involvement of women’s rights organisations for the achievement of gender equality. Challenges remain, although they have reduced and they manifest differently from those experienced 20 years ago. Some begin on entry into the legal profession. Research studies indicate that a higher number of females graduate with law degrees, however few of them enter the legal profession at any given period. This is perhaps due to various factors and a detailed study needs to be conducted to understand the nature of the problems experienced that lead female law graduates out of the profession immediately after graduation and, for some, even before their careers commence. Recommendations from this type of study are important to formulate appropriate intervention strategies.

Gender bias in the court rooms, gender disparities in salary, the lack of advancement due to shortages of skill to establish female-owned law firms and the lack of mentoring for women are some of the challenges women experience. While the landscape has changed, some of the obstacles remain in force. It is important that women in the legal profession are encouraged to stay in the legal fraternity and to find and overcome the glass ceiling instead of finding the revolving door.

NM: How far is South Africa in reaching the ideal of gender transformation in the legal profession? What still needs to happen to achieve this?

NR: The current inequality that exists in our society is a direct result of centuries of laws that oppressed women, and therefore cannot simply be eliminated in a specified period. Issues of gender equality should be prioritised in the legal profession as in other areas of transformation in our country. Many areas in our society can benefit from input from women, whether as beneficiaries or benefactors of the laws and policies.

NM: You wrote a paper titled ‘The struggles of black women lawyers in South Africa’s legal profession continues’. Can you share some of your findings?

NR: This was my dissertation for my LLM, which I completed in 2002. At the time, one of the great challenges was the lack of a women’s association that could collectively focus on the particular needs of women in the profession. The fact that black women experience double discrimination is well documented and certainly is noticeable in the legal profession. It is important not to treat women as a homogenous group but rather to take their social and class background into account when developing strategies to ensure effectiveness.

NM: How long do you think it will take to reach that ‘perfect world’ of gender and race equality in the legal profession?

NR: We cannot put a time frame on when we will get to that ‘perfect world’, but we cannot give up hope and say that all our efforts are in vain, because that in itself kills the profession and makes matters worse.

NM: Are women practitioners doing their bit to achieve gender transformation?

NR: Yes, the birth of Sawla gave women in the legal profession a voice. Issues that affect women are receiving the necessary attention and hopefully sustainable solutions will be found.

NM: Do you believe there is a perception that women are more suited to ‘softer’ legal work? If so, how do you think such a perception can be changed?

NR: Most of the unfounded perceptions about women’s capabilities have been eradicated by opportunities brought about by progressive legislation – the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 for example. The creation of an enabling environment and mandatory provisions for inclusion of women in decision-making positions in the corporate sector also prompted a shift in mindsets. Women have made impressive and significant inroads in terms of advancing in the legal profession; it is therefore not accurate to say that women are suited for softer legal work. These views can be eliminated as more women assume and thrive in senior roles in all areas of legal practice.

NM: Is there an argument to be made for flexitime for women practitioners?

NR: I think so. The mechanism employed will differ depending on each company policy. The key is making the working environment conducive to the particular needs of women, like by providing a nursery school in the building or after-school facility that can assist both men and women with child care.

NM: At the Sawla annual general meeting in 2012 you spoke about expanding maternity benefits to women who do not currently benefit from these. Please can you elaborate on this and on how this will benefit women lawyers?

NR: The Commission on Gender Equality and other organisations are lobbying government to sign the International Labour Organization Recommendation 191, which seeks to protect women by providing maternity benefits to those who do not benefit from the current system. These are women who are self-employed, such as informal workers and women lawyers running their own businesses. At the moment, women running practices do not have maternity benefits similar to those, for instance, of women in the private and public sectors. This means that immediately after childbirth women have to return to work or face the reality of not earning an income while they nurse the newborn. Hopefully the proposed law reform will make it possible for this category of women to be able to contribute to a fund which will cover them during maternity leave. At the moment such an option does not exist and this leaves women in a terrible position. Research by various institutions is under way to inform policy and legislative development in this area.

NM: What are some of the trends you witnessed when working as a programme assistant at the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) for the placement and subsidiary scheme, which facilitates entry of law graduates from historically disadvantaged backgrounds into the legal profession?

NR: While at the BLA it was evident from the number of applications we received that many law graduates struggled to find placement to do articles of clerkship and that those at the Bar needed financial support to complete their pupillage. I would say that the same subtle and overt barriers still exist to date, which deny women the opportunity to achieve full integration and equal participation in the legal profession. However, a study has to be conducted to give us the extent of the problem.

NM: What is the department doing to help women lawyers enter the legal profession?

NR: The department, in partnership with Sawla, has facilitated a pilot candidate attorney project, which places candidates in law firms owned by Sawla members. According to the agreement, the department pays the candidate a stipend for the duration of the articles, tuition for legal training and a driver’s licence, if required, and, in addition, offers principals an opportunity to be trained as mentors. The pilot ended in March 2012 and we are hoping to roll out the programme at the end of our financial year in March 2013.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (July) DR 30.

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