For South Africa's Women, Hopes Still Remain Thwarted

Cheryl Carolus, one of South Africa's most prominent female politicians, says she has no complaints about her acceptance as an "honorary man" by her male comrades.

But the way her colleagues treat their wives stokes the ire of this deputy secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC).

She says she sometimes has to force them to introduce their wives, who are carrying food in and out of the kitchen while Ms. Carolus and the men talk politics in the lounge.

"I become quite rude and say, 'Excuse me, who is this person?' They often then say dismissively 'That is my wife,' as though they would say, 'This my dog.' "

Perhaps nothing better sums up the mixed picture for women since Nelson Mandela's ANC formed the first black majority government in 1994.

During its decades as a liberation movement, the ANC championed equal rights, and women like Carolus held high-level positions. But the story told by many of the country's females since then is of second-class citizenship.

Expectations were widespread that this ANC government would prove more enlightened than those in other countries, partly because of what was seen as a genuine commitment by President Mandela to better the lot of women. However, most analysts, including Carolus, feel these things take time and that other men in the government lack the president's vision.

Women's-rights activists concede that the government may be well-meaning. The new post-apartheid Constitution, for example, enshrines equal rights. But no gender antidiscrimination laws are on the books, and sexist traditions - particularly among the rural poor - mean policy is often not translated into action.

The problem facing women in South Africa is universal across Africa, where there has only been one female president in recent history (in Liberia). But South Africa was seen as an exceptional case, both because of its superior economic development and the political maturity of its leaders.

"The government's commitment is often just rhetoric," says Cathi Abertyn, head of the Gender Studies Program at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg.

To the government's credit, women can finally open their own bank accounts without their husbands' permission. Pregnancy is no longer grounds for job dismissal, and pregnant women enjoy free health care. Abortion was legalized earlier this year. Women head four ministries. The Speaker of Parliament is a woman. Women hold about a quarter of Parliament's 490 seats.

But that is where the good news stops for 54 percent of the country's population. Little has changed, especially for black and poor women, who make up the majority.

Many are still bound to customary law, which makes them subject to their husbands. Rural women still have to hike long distances to fetch water and firewood. Their husbands can seize their land. Incidents of violence against women are among the highest in the world, with a rape occurring every 25 seconds.

Ms. Albertyn notes that 24 government departments have committed themselves to advancing opportunities for women. But few have specific plans. Even when laws exist, it can be hard to enforce them. For instance, the government recently promised to make curbing violence against women a priority after a series of high-profile rapes. But so far, little has been done.

The biggest enemy to equal rights is the patriarchy that is entrenched in this deeply conservative society, says Mohav Pekoe, head of the National Women's Coalition. In her view, patriarchy is as serious as the problem of poverty. Attitudes are proving difficult to change.

"Does representation [in the government] mean participation? We feel no," she says. "We still have a situation where men stand at the feast table while women [can only] smell the hors d'oeuvres."

She cited as an example a survey by the South African National Defense Force earlier this year. It found that 1 out of 2 female soldiers and civilians in the Defense Department had been sexually harassed at work or subjected to sexist remarks by male colleagues.

Patriarchy, she says, is an obstacle to women in obtaining jobs and land. It is one reason why it is so difficult to mobilize the rural and poor. Such women, many of whom were involved in the fight against apartheid, are now often intimidated by their husbands not to join women's workshops. Or they just don't have time after cooking, working, and caring for children.

Even for women who have made it in the public realm, life is difficult. Albertyn cites one study that shows nearly half the women in Parliament do not plan to stand for a second term in 1999 because they find the masculine environment so hostile.

She does see some hope for change with the creation of two bodies: the independent Commission on Gender Equality and the government Office on the Status of Women.

But it will continue to be a struggle. "The ANC is streets ahead of everyone else, but it's not satisfactory," Carolus says.

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