Women’s effective actions in combating the pandemic should be noted

April 29th, 2021
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By Kgomotso Ramotsho

On 8 March 2021, the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA), held a webinar under the theme ‘Gender Inequalities: Current Realities and Future Possibilities’. The President of SAWLA, Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe said that no country in the world can say that they have perfected gender equality. She added that SAWLA, as an organisation, has taken a position to speak out on gender equality without fear or favour, that events, such as the one they hosted, paves the way for women’s voices be heard for the next generation of women.

The Country Vice President and National President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Nigeria, Rhoda Prevail Tyoden, in her message of support to SAWLA said that it is no longer news that COVID-19 has exacerbated the gender-inequalities, with the reported rising of violence against women and girls all over the world. She pointed out that it was unfortunate that over the past 25 years, since the Beijing Platform for Action, gender equality has not made much progress through action and implementation, because there is no single country in the world that can boast about achieving gender equality. She added that this year’s theme seeks to celebrate tremendous efforts made by women and girls around the world, in shaping a more equal future from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Tyoden said it was also worth noting the performance of the 21 countries in the world that are headed by women, countries such as Germany and Iceland. She pointed out that those women too had rapid and effective actions to combat the pandemic. It was documented that those countries recorded the least causalities, showing that women can do it better. She said women worldwide should be celebrated because they did very well in combating the pandemic in their respective countries. ‘[Women] must challenge the status quo, the biasness and inequality’, said Ms Tyoden.

FIDA International Director, Ezinwa Okoroafor said that she was happy about the theme of the webinar, given the fact that the circumstances of the past year – COVID-19 and its restrictions and protocols – greatly affected women’s rights across the world. She added that the theme chosen was appropriate by reviewing the past and present women chart a path for the future that they desire. She noted that in keeping International Women’s Day theme for the year, FIDA SA/SAWLA and women chose to challenge the inequalities, inequities, and injustices that women face in various spheres of life.

The Regional Vice President Africa (East and South Region) FIDA, Laura Nyirinkindi said the theme of the webinar was timely, especially given the prevailing socio-economic, political, and cultural challenges that women in the region, continent and the world are confronted with currently. She added that the critical role of legal aid and legal education that SAWLA has to offer vulnerable women, as well as the potential role of SAWLA as a thought leader in feminist thinking and action, cannot be overstated.

FIDA’s Regional Vice President, North America and the Caribbean, Hadassah Swain, said that the world has changed drastically in the last year and the challenges that women face to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men have been compounded by the unexpected changes in societies. As a result, gender inequality persists. She pointed out that SAWLA and FIDA SA’s commitment to the advancement of the status of women will make a difference and is commendable.

Director of Legal Services at the Department of Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities, Nondumiso Ngqulunga, spoke about gender stereotyping in the labour market. She pointed out that in 2019 her department produced a comprehensive report on the progress made by the country in implementing the Beijing Declaration and the Platform of Action between 2014 and 2019. She said the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action was signed in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, that took place at Beijing. She noted that the objective of the conference was to advance the goals of equality development and peace for all women.

Ms Ngqulunga said that 25 years later the declaration remains the most comprehensive global policy framework for gender equality, the empowerment of women and girls and the realisation of their human rights. She added that as a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, SA must submit a report to the United Nations Commission on the status of women in South Africa (SA). She pointed out that the last report was submitted in 2019 facilitated by the Department of Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities. The report covers a five-year period of work. She said that according to the report, among other things that hinder women from participating in the economy effectively, is the fact that women are more likely to do the work of rearing and caring for children and other household members, cooking, cleaning and fetching water.

Ms Ngqulunga added that men are more likely to be producing goods and services that are exchanged in the market. She said not only are women less likely to be employed than men, but they also earn lower wages than men. She noted that the report acknowledges the transformation effort made by government in the workplace, however, the representation of women in the decision-making positions and in the workplace across all sectors of the economy remains skewed. She pointed out that in order to address these social inequalities that exist between women and men, the state needs to create an environment that enables and empowers women to participate effectively in the labour market and be productive in implementing policy and programmes that cement the gains made and continue to achieve improvements in women’s placed to secure livelihoods and economic resources.

Chairperson of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, said she believes that in the history of the legal profession in SA it is necessary to have honest conversations about access to justice and access to the legal profession for women in SA. She added that COVID-19 has exposed so many inequalities globally and sadly women are always on the receiving end. She pointed out that the South African Constitution provides that everyone has the right to have a dispute referred to a court for adjudication, meaning that anyone can bring a dispute to the court for adjudication, provided that the rules of the relevant court are followed.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu said that courts are open to the public, but sometimes court rules are cumbersome and delay access to justice to those women who truly need it. She added that access to justice should not only be confined to the courts or the legal system, but to access to information and education to everyone who would like access to the legal profession in its entire shape and form. We have to acknowledge that SA has promulgated some of the most progressive laws and policies, intended at advancing human rights and gender equality, but in reality, women continue being the poorest, the unemployed and affected by gender-based violence.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu pointed out that the legal profession itself is still mostly male dominated and that there are patriarchal norms, attitudes and beliefs that need to be confronted head on. ‘This is the time for us to move from awareness to action. We need a true revolution of values. We must bear communal responsibility. It is a tragedy that organised legal profession and community-based organisations have not yet found each other to expedite access to justice for all South Africans, especially women,’ Ms Matolo-Dlepu added. She said that there must be collaborative measures to make sure that there is access to justice for all and reach out to vulnerable women, to assist them and there must be educational programmes on access to justice.

Director-General at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Doctor Mashabane, said that his department pledges to work with SAWLA in advancing women empowerment, particularly female legal practitioners. He added that the issue of access to justice is a very important issue. He said in his new role at the Department of Justice, he would want to work with female legal practitioners in dealing with issues, such as access to justice. He pointed out that the majority of people who would benefit from having access to justice, are women.

Mr Mashabane said that it is important for the Department of Justice to realise this reality and come up with ways on how to work with female legal practitioners or female judicial officers in addressing all the challenges that women face regarding access to justice. He pointed out a possible challenge being the distance women have to travel to get to the next point of access to justice. He added that in order for a broader transformation of legal services for the state, women have an important role to play. He said that as much as there is talk about the historical challenges of legal practitioners, there must also be an acknowledgment that female legal practitioners face more challenges in that space.

Mr Mashabane pointed out that he wants to have regular discussions with the Solicitor General on the issue of briefing patterns. He noted that briefing patterns are important and should be linked to access to justice and the budding capacity of young legal practitioners, particularly young female legal practitioners, so they will be able to remain in the legal profession to assist in addressing the issue of access to justice.

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

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