Human Rights Day: Are we really all equal?

Date: December 9, 2010
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It was a Sunday night, I was bored, and so I decided to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’ve been an activist for years and thought it was probably long overdue.

Article one states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

But you can imagine my surprise when on a first, real thorough reading of the entire document, I discovered that the very instrument which is supposed to be the pillar which upholds, promotes and protects human rights, is in fact gender insensitive. The text is littered with references to “he”, “him” and “his” rights.

I did not see myself and how these rights relate to me. Nowhere in the document is there any reference to “she” or “her” rights.

So what does this mean? That women do not have rights? That men have more rights? How has such an important document made women invisible? And if they are invisible in this key universal human rights instrument, how do we ensure that they receive the same rights as men, and that they are seen and heard?

Feeling a little deflated I decided to consult South Africa’s very own Constitution, which is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. According to The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 “The Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy” in the country which enshrines the rights of all people and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.

These are very important democratic values but what do they mean, especially to women and how far have we come as a country in realising these values? On paper the rights exist, but what about in practice? One just has to open a newspaper, turn on the television or visit the internet to realise that we still have a very long way to go. We are bombarded, on a daily basis, with messages that tell us that despite the progressive laws women in the country are still seen as less equal to men.

A recent study conducted by Gender Links on women’s representation in the media, the gender and media progress study (GMPS), found that in the six years since the baseline study, women as sources in the news increased by a paltry 2% from 17% in 2003 to 19% in 2009 in the SADC region. South Africa is only 1% above this regional average at 20% and only improved by 1% in the six years since the first study.

The study also found that regionally, issues of gender equality and gender violence still receive far less coverage (1% each in the region) compared to politics (19%), sports (18%) and economics (12%) and that issues relating to HIV and AIDS are also not being covered effectively with a mere 2% of stories on this topic. South Africa does not fare any better: none of the articles monitored were about gender equality.

My problem with these findings are many. In a country with such unacceptably high levels of gender-based violence, how is it that are we not seeing more stories about this in the media (outside of the 16 Days of Activism, when the media wakes up to the problem)? Why is the media not raising awareness, 365 days of the year, about this most huge problem?

In another recent study, on the prevalence of gender violence in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, more than half the women interviewed (51%) admitted to experiencing some form of gender violence (emotional, economic, physical or sexual) in their lifetime. Even more shocking to me, however, is that more than three quarters of the men interviewed for the study admitted to perpetrating some form of violence against women.

How equal are we when more so many men openly and unashamedly admit to violating the rights of women? How is this happening when we have a Constitution which says that everyone has the right “to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources”? And how and why is this not being addressed at every possible level, through the media, in the courts and in our communities, schools and homes where much of this violence takes place?

When we look in more detail at how women are represented in the media we see a range of glaring gaps. One of the areas where South Africa is faring quite well in terms of gender equality is women’s representation in political decision-making. With 43% women in parliament, South Africa is 19% above the regional average of 24% and rates third globally, but yet when we look at their representation in the area of politics in the media the findings from the GMPS show that women made up a mere 19% of sources on politics.

Finally, as a citizen and gender activist in a country with one of the highest levels of HIV and AIDS in the world, I think it is unacceptable that only 2% of stories in the media are about the epidemic that is destroying our communities, making our children orphans and forcing women to be unpaid carers of the sick. It is not equal or fair that the women bearing the brunt of caring for those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS are the minority (17%) of the voices heard on this topic. But this is what happens when you silence half of the population, when you ignore the contribution they make to society. You also miss half the story.

So, in answer to the question above, are we really all equal? I think there is overwhelming evidence to suggest we are not. We still live in a world where the views of men are more valued to those of women, where issues that affect women are sidelined, where gross violations of women’s human rights are overlooked and ignored. If we are to fully realise a society and a world in which every person has a right to life, equality, liberty and security of person, we are going to need to hear, see and feel the presence of women in all spheres equal to their numbers. We need them to be visible in every declaration and law, in all public and private spaces and in all media on all topics. Only then will we be able to say that we are truly equal.

Susan Tolmay is the Gender Links Monitoring and Evaluation and Advisory Services Manager. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to



0 thoughts on “Human Rights Day: Are we really all equal?”

Georgie says:

I wonder how could man have more rights than women if we are all equal and women also have the same powers as men.

Georgie says:

Human rights are enshrined in our Constitution which is one of the best constitutions in the world.

Georgie says:

We all have a right to access health facilities and a right to get medication

Georgie says:


Georgie says:

for me it is true that we have the best constitution in the world, but more workshops has to be made on the constitution for most of the people only see the constitution outside but did not know what is written inside or the acts.

FIONA says:


Georgie says:

i think people have the right to have shelter clothing but from my point of view theres no changes

Georgie says:

for me it is true that we have the best constitution in the world, but more workshops has to be made on the constitution for most of the people only see the constitution outside but did not know what is written inside or the acts.

Georgie says:

I think we are all equal so that every one must a shelter and saved all the time.

jannie says:

I’m so glad that i have a right to life. A right to live and be able to express myself freely. Although there is violation of other more serious rights, i have siomething to be thankful for.

Georgie says:

for me it is true that we have the best constitution in the world, but more workshops has to be made on the constitution for most of the people only see the constitution outside but did not know what is written inside the constitution or about the acts.

Deborah Walter says:

Hey there,
Just to let you know this is NOT the cyber dialogue. In order to access the cyber dialogue, please go to the Login link at the top righthand side of our homepage.
Thank you,

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