South Africa: Long walk to women’s freedom

South Africa: Long walk to women’s freedom

Date: February 12, 2020
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By Colleen Lowe Morna

Cape Town, 11 February:  Thirty years since Nelson Mandela walked out of jail, South Africa is still the most unequal country in the world and the gender pay gap shows little sign of abating. These are the findings of the Inequality Trends Report launched by Statistics South Africa and several partners in South Africa’s legislative capital on 11 February, the anniversary of Mandela’s historic release from 27 years in prison. When he opened parliament as the first president of a democratic South Africa four years later, Mandela declared that every South African must understand that freedom could never be complete until the glaring race and gender gaps inherited from the apartheid are overcome. The facts show that change is painfully slow.

The report, launched at the Philippi Solutions Centre the Cape Town high density suburb of Khayelitsha is a joint publication of  Statistics South Africa, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU); Agence Francaise de Développement (AFD) with partial funding support from the European Union (EU) and African Centre of Excellence for Inequalities Research (ACEIR).  The official Stats SA data sources used included the Income and Expenditure Survey (IES);  Living Conditions Survey (LCS); General Household Survey (GHS);   Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS); National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) and Post-Apartheid Labour Market Series (PALMS).

The Gini coefficient is the commonly used measure of inequality and it  ranges from 0 to 1, where 0 indicates perfect equality  and 1 indicates perfect inequality. At 0.65 the National Gini coefficient dropped slightly from 0.67 in 2006 to but remained uniform between 2009 and 2015, the year of measure. The Gini coefficient is 0.64 for men and 0.61 for women, showing that levels of inequality between men in South Africa are higher than between women. This is to be expected, considering men’s more privileged position.

Overall, South Africa has the highest Gini Coefficient, or level of inequality in the world. The report reveals that 10% of South Africa’s richest people own 90% of the country’s wealth if assets are included. The vertical wage gap (the ratio between highest and lowest paid) is also the highest in the world. And women are still at the bottom of this ladder. On average women’s income is 70% that of men, and 55% at the lowest income levels. The income differential includes women and men with a tertiary education. Why in a nation that outlaws discrimination do these differentials persist?

The answer rests partly in the gender division of labour, which results in women predominating in the “soft” skills while men predominate in the “hard” skills. Society still values and rewards the hard skills much more than the soft skills, that are regarded as a continuum of women’s unwaged care work. Policy interventions required include challenging gender stereotypes (un-stereotyping, to quote a UNWomen campaign) especially in education and career guidance.Vertically, women are kept out of top jobs by the proverbial Glass Ceiling. Formal factors include rigid, family unfriendly work environments and practices that fail to accommodate the dual role that women play. Informal factors include the old boys network, sexual harassment and GBV in the work place.

Women constitute 43% of household heads yet these households only account for 25% of expenditure. Social security is cited as an important safety net for these households. This however, is a band aid solution. Thirty years on, women need to claim their own agency and power, especially in enterprise and business. The informal sector, in which women predominate, is still ill understood.

The care economy – the domestic work that women do outside of the formal labour market- is not accounted for in national accounts. Time use studies in South Africa and elsewhere show that women work, on average, at least one third more hours than men, but these hours are their “free” contribution to societal well-being. “Making care work count” would lead to many policy interventions such as state support for day care for children; support for care givers for the terminally ill; mechanisation to lighten domestic work and campaigns to get men to share domestic chores.

There is some cheer in the report on women’s improved access to services. The gender gap in access to the Internet, water and sanitation is closing. Women now have greater access to electricity than men. This is due to the deliberate efforts to ensure gender responsive governance at the local level, where women constitute over 40% of councillors.

Some suggestions for strengthening the gender lens of the Inequality Report going forward include:

  • Ensuring more consistent disaggregation of all data by sex. For example education and poverty data, crucial for understanding gender disparities, is not disaggregated.
  • Stronger policy interventions based on the findings. The report concludes that women live longer than men (a phenomenon globally) without probing the persistent inequalities and how these are to be addressed, for example use of the Employment Equity Act to close the gender gap.
  • A stronger emphasis on intersectionality with gender as the most cross cutting of all factors of exclusion that include race, ethnicity, class, spatial location, disability and age.
  • A recognition of other forms of sexual and gender identity and expression in the context of inequality.
  • Ensuring that South Africa’s SDG reporting not only place a strong emphasis on SDG ten (inequality) but also SDG 5 (gender equality) including the 32 gender indicators that cut across the SDGs.

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. These comments were made at the launch of the Inequalities Trends in South Africa report).

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