Gender equality

Women are affected by inequality across many levels of society – in the local community and at a national level, on issues such as health, education and the economy

Women’s exclusion from economics, and limited independence over financial and personal decisions are among the key issues that act as barriers to many southern African countries achieving gender equality. Improvements in access to education and initiatives that help girls to continue schooling have seen higher numbers of young women complete their education. These developments, along with changes to sexist laws across a number of countries are creating progress, but there is still work to be done to change cultural norms that are often deeply ingrained in local communities and wider societies.

A Closer Look

The Background

Gender equality has improved in recent years but there is still a long way to go before women are seen as equal to men in a number of social, economic and political areas.

Women’s lack of independence to make decisions over their education, finances, career opportunities and health means they are limited in taking control over their lives and issues that affect them. For example in Swaziland married women do not have equal legal status to their male counterparts and cannot sign a legal document without permission. Although, South Africa is a notable exception, and has gender equality enshrined in its constitution.

Social and cultural discrimination still exists across the region and from a young age, girls face disadvantage that can impact on them later in life. Furthermore, in some countries unequal legislation serves to legitimise cultural norms such as child marriage and gender based violence.

In later life, it is common for women to stay in the home, take care of the family and complete household chores. These norms all contribute to women being excluded from public and political life, financial systems and employment.

Economic disadvantage: Education & Independence

At a local level, household budgets and a preference to educate boys over girls can reinforce inequality. Traditionally, if there is not enough money for school fees, books, and transport to school for all of the children in a family, girls are more likely to miss out on an education and stay at home until they are married.

However, developments such as the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative and changes at the national policy level have seen improvements in access to female education. Eliminating school fees, supporting girls in continuing education after marriage and children, in addition to the promotion of gender equality in schools, has created positive changes. In Botswana, the enrolment rate females into secondary education is over 65% whereas for males this level is around 56%.

In rural areas where schools are far away from children’s homes, there can be an increased risk in girls experiencing abuse when walking to and from school. Once at school, limited access to sanitary facilities can also serve to discourage young women from continuing in education. As awareness of these issues is becoming more prevalent, access to sanitation is improving.

Social and cultural norms mean that in many countries economic decisions affecting women are often made by their husbands. This removes women’s decision making power and women are rarely in control of household budgets. As a result some women cannot seek healthcare without their husband’s permission and their own health needs, along with their children’s can go unmet.

Legal discrimination in family life and the public sphere

Lower levels of education among women, prevalent health issues and lack of independence add to legal inequalities in Southern African countries. Women face difficulties in accessing land and credit as they are excluded from financial decision making in some countries. For example, in Swaziland women cannot acquire land in their own right, and instead can only access land through a male relative, such as a husband or son.

The situation is preferential to men who find it easier than women to secure jobs and start enterprises. It is more difficult for women to receive financial support to start an enterprise or to buy land to use for generating an income.

We are seeing changes to laws that help women to become more active in the public sphere – on corporate boards and in politics. Laws in South Africa have been passed that promote equality in institutions that are state owned, with gender quotas and all women short-lists. This has lead to women making up around 33% of state employees and over 40% of the members in the National Assembly. But there are still large areas of the economy where women are not represented across Southern African countries.

On a local scale, countries such as Mozambique have adopted more laws that protect women in the family which is a great step forward, but discrimination still occurs. Particularly, women often lack legal protection as marital rape is not illegal and abortions are only allowed in very specific circumstances, all of which limit gender equality.

How do these challenges impact outcomes for Southern African women?

Cultural norms such as child marriage and teenage pregnancy can have detrimental effects on women in Southern African countries. The region has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, meaning large numbers of women die every day in childbirth.

Female education is considered one of the most effective ways to promote development and economic growth in countries. In those southern African countries where access to education for girls is limited, it is unlikely they will gain employment, further perpetuating cycles of gendered economic exclusion.

Although some countries such as Malawi and Tanzania have introduced policies that help young mothers back into schooling after giving birth, many other countries in southern Africa do not offer the same levels of support.

Issues around health and decision making power, particularly gender based violence, contraception and sexual activity impacts on women and girls in the area. These factors can lead to unwanted pregnancies and illnesses that spread through sexual activity, including HIV, which disproportionately affects women in the region.

Where does ACTSA stand?

ACTSA believes that gender equality and the empowerment of women is crucial for advancing development and reducing poverty in Southern Africa. 

In Zimbabwe, we work with key partners in our Dignity!Period campaign to raise awareness and funds to provide women with safe and hygienic sanitary protection. Since 2005 we have distributed more than seven million free sanitary projects.

In Swaziland we continue to fight for gender equality and women’s rights through our campaign Human Rights for Swaziland. From 2012 – 2016 we worked with the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice and the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly on a four year lottery funded project to improve women’s rights in Swaziland – Improving Women’s Rights in Swaziland.  We published a briefing paper, taking a more in depth look at the issues facing women in Swaziland and the role of the growing women’s movement. Follow the links below to find out more.