Women must make sure the laws that exist address the challenges they are facing

December 22nd, 2021

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The Black Lawyers Association Student Chapter (BLA SC), President Shandukani Mudau, speaking at the organisations ‘Gathering of Giants’, women’s initiative event held on 23 October 2021 at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, Limpopo.

The Black Lawyers Association Student Chapter (BLA SC) held a women’s initiative programme, under the theme ‘Gathering of Giants,’ on 23 October 2021 at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, Limpopo. President of BLA SC, Shandukani Mudau, said in her opening address, the women’s initiative was held so that the students and legal practitioners can have a dialogue about the challenges that female candidate legal practitioners and female legal practitioners encounter in the workplace and beyond. She pointed out that women are still viewed as unequal to their male counterparts who are still held on high pedestals. She added that this means that the plight of a black woman has remained unchanged. She pointed out that lack of gender equality in the workplace and in general in post-Apartheid South Africa (SA) calls for a serious concern, because women, especially black women are constantly overlooked when it comes to managerial positions, among others.

Ms Mudau said that in their fight for women empowerment, the BLA SC is stating that women should have space in the hierarchy of workspaces just because they are previously disadvantaged. She pointed out that even in Annual General Meetings, it is men who largely contest, and women will be included in the running just for the seats to be constitutionalised. She pointed out that gender equality does not mean men and women become the same, but only that access to opportunities should not be dependent on a candidate’s gender. She added that achieving gender equality requires women to be empowered, to make sure that decision-making powers and access to resources are no longer weighed in the favour of men, that both men and women can fully participate as equal partners. She pointed out that the initiative aims to encourage young inspiring professionals not to be intimidated by male dominated industries and to teach young men not to be apathetic to serious issues, as this denies women much needed economic freedom.

Ms Mudau pointed out that the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) should address gender beyond the formal boundaries of men and women, but further consider the position of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. She added that the initiative also addresses the injustices of violence that students and young professionals are subjected to in the workplace, such as sexual harassment.

National Executive Committee member of the South African Union of Students, Afrika Somthi, spoke at the ‘Gathering of Giants’ women’s initiative.

National Executive Committee (NEC) member of the South African Union of Students (SAUS), Afrika Somthi, said gender oppression has been normalised not only at home, but also in the workplace. She added that patriarchy is institutionalised, and women have no safe space in male dominated industries. She spoke of women having rights and pointed out that having rights is not enough. In a paper that Ms Somthi is writing, she argues that women should have the right to access abortion in a safe space, noting that some clinics do not offer that service, and this may be oppressive if they cannot access those services in recognised safe spaces.

Ms Somthi pointed out that people should be mindful of gender oppression in this day and age. She said when expressing dissatisfaction, some may ask what more society wants and point out that there are rights. Ms Somthi acknowledges that there are rights, however, the problem is accessing those rights. She spoke of those who fought against Apartheid and said she finds hope in the fact that it was possible for them to abolish Apartheid when they were prevented from participating in certain things, such as forming political parties. She added that there are still the issues of salary gaps and discrimination against women who may want children. She said some companies feel that they cannot hire someone who is planning on starting a family, as she will at some point have to go on maternity leave and the company will still have to pay her while she is at home. She said there must be a conversation on how women are treated differently to men. When a man speaks, they are deemed confident, but when a woman speaks, she is problematic.

Legal practitioner and Chairperson of the Polokwane Legal Practitioners Association, Podu Mdhluli, spoke at the event.

Legal practitioner and Chairperson of the Polokwane Legal Practitioners Association, Podu Mdhluli, spoke on the issue of harassment in the workspace. She based her presentation on the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011, the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 and said that legal practitioners must be aware that these Acts are a result of s 9 of the Constitution, which deals with equality. She pointed out that harassment has become such a problem even though SA has the Protection from Harassment Act, which was enacted in 2011 and specifically deals with issues of harassment.

Ms Mdhluli added that harassment happens in different spaces and in different forms. She defined harassment as a conduct perpetrated by a person against a complainant, which conduct is unwanted. It is centred around gender, sexual orientation, or culture discrimination, based on prohibited forms of discrimination as per the Acts mentioned above. She pointed out that harassment falls in the conduct that is not wanted and gave the example of a person making a comment that others might take as a compliment, while another person may take offense to it and that can become a form of harassment.

Ms Mdhluli said that harassment often happens in communities, as a result of certain behaviour being normalised, and that even if they are wrong, they are made to be normal, such as commenting on someone else’s sexuality and appearance without any consequences. She pointed out that sexual harassment does not only happen between men and women, but also happens among women, most often in the workplace. She added that the workplace has the responsibility of handling harassment, making the working environment safe and implementing policies that deal with harassment.

Ms Mdhluli said in many instances the harassment that takes place is in the form of sexual harassment, most often by people in positions of power. She added that in the legal profession, most candidate legal practitioners have been subjected to sexual harassment, adding that employers must have a code of conduct that deals with harassment.

One of the questions Ms Mdhluli was asked was how does one prove that an act of sexual harassment against them occurred? She said that sexual harassment is very rarely done in public. She pointed out that most of the time it will be a case of ‘her word against his word’. She said the judicial officers must be open minded, when assessing evidence put together on a balance of probability to what actual happened.

Representative of the Law Society of South Africa and Principal of the School for Legal Practice in Polokwane, Queen Gopo, said women must address the challenges they face themselves.

Representative of the Law Society of South Africa, Principal of the School for Legal Practice in Polokwane, Queen Gopo, spoke on the rule of law as an alternative mechanism to eradicating gender inequality. She said that transformation is a concern. She focused her address on equality and added that equality can mean many different things. She pointed out that Constitutional law prefers to define ‘equality’ as ‘formal equality’ and ‘substantive equality’. She questioned whether the laws that speak to equality, are enough to solve the issues women have.

Ms Gopo pointed out that SA has good laws, but asked what good the law is if one cannot use it to protect oneself? She added that the current legislation on equality is still in the first phase and not enough is being done to solve the issues that women have. Ms Gopo added that we need to know exactly what SA workplaces have in terms of dealing with inequality, making sure that there is space for women and if these women are being given a platform in leadership roles to make decisions. She noted that the laws are there, but they need to be fast tracked and the only people who can do it are women themselves. Ms Gopo said that women should do it themselves as no one else can understand their issues.

National Executive Committee member of the Black Lawyers Association, Charlotte Mahlatji, encouraged women to stand together and influence each other without being shy.

NEC member of the BLA, Charlotte Mahlatji, spoke on affording women equal opportunities in a male dominated profession. She said that in the 27 years of democracy people are supposed to do better and know better. She said one of the issues that women face is unemployment, she added an example, stating that entering the legal profession can be a challenge for women, as well as sexual harassment in the workplace, which is another challenge that women face. The victims work in spaces where they are not safe or where they have to provide sexual favours, Ms Mahlatji advised that women must not be afraid to tell the person next to them about what is happening, instead of waiting to report it to organisations such as the BLA and South African Women Lawyers Association, as the trauma of sexual harassment might have a huge impact on the victim. She said when victims decide to voice their experiences, when they are ready and strong enough to come out, people must refrain from asking why they never spoke out on time or when it happened. She pointed out that such questions demoralise women, that sometimes it becomes the reason they leave the legal profession and never come back. Ms Mahlatji said there are laws that deal with issues she mentioned that should be utilised.

Ms Mahlatji also touched on discrimination that others in the workplace face. She said if candidate legal practitioners see discriminatory adverts for articles of clerkship, for example a job advertisement that states that a candidate should have a car, they should report it, so that the perpetrator can be exposed and not do it again. Ms Mahlatji said women who are in a position of power should have a positive influence on other women without being shy. She further noted the fact that there is a lack of women occupying Silk Status. She advised that women must reach out to one another and assist each other.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.