THE BIG READ: A lousy land for women
The UK, which is ranked third on the list of the best countries in the G20 for women to live in, has women in only 17% of cabinet positions.
South Africa, on the other hand, looks good on paper. With women making up 41% of President Jacob Zuma's cabinet, even after the third reshuffle, South Africa has made enormous strides in gender representation in politics. Five of the nine provincial premiers are women.
Germany, which has a woman head of state, doesn't match South Africa's female representation in executive positions in the private sector. Only 12.5% of German women are board members of publicly listed companies.
In South Africa, 18.6% of executive positions in the private sector are held by women.
So how did we end up as the fourth-worst country for women to live in, in a recent poll by TrustLaw, a legal news service of the Thomson Reuters Foundation?
The survey ranked India as the worst country for women, at number 19, and Canada as the best. South Africa holds 16th place, worse than 14th-ranked China, which has only a 21.4% female representation in parliament.
According to the poll, released last week, though 42.3% of the seats in the lower house of the South African parliament are occupied by women, "two times as many women have HIV than men" and "66196 cases of sexual offences were reported in 2010-2011".
You need only look at newspaper headlines to confirm the results of the poll. Yesterday, The Star led with the story of a five-year-old girl who has been raped three times since her third birthday.
The Times's sister publication, Sowetan, carried reports of "Woman's mutilated body found on farm" and "Raising their fists against violence: Doccie aims to help halt women abuse".
A 2009 gender study by the African Development Bank provided some interesting facts about gender equality and women's rights in South Africa. According to the report, "increasing the number of women in the government and parliament has been a priority for the women's movement.
"The ANC in 1994 adopted a 30% minimum quota for women in national and provincial parliaments. In February 2009, in advance of the April elections, the National Gender Machinery launched a 50/50 target in line with the SADC protocol on gender and development, which was adopted by the ANC only."
The report confirms the progress made in increasing the number of women in parliament: "Percentages of women parliamentarians in South Africa have been high and they increased in 2009. After the elections in 2009, women made up 44% of members of parliament."
The study posed the critical question "whether the number of women in parliament and other decision-making bodies leads to more progressive gender equality policies?"
And herein lies the problem.
According to the study, "the focus on representative equality has dominated the discourse [whereas] less energy seems to have been turned towards implementation of policies that would effectively change the lives of the majority of women".
"In addition, since many women activists entered parliament in 1994 and in subsequent years, the women's movement was weakened."
Commenting on last week's TrustLaw poll, Kathy Selvaggio, gender adviser to USAID's Africa bureau, summed up the irony of the situation in South Africa: "Some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world blight a country where women are well represented in politics."
A reader, Mogau Mabapa, wrote in our letters section that "few events could highlight the significance and severity of parliament's failure to pass DNA database legislation than the impending release of 35000 prisoners due to overcrowding".
He said that, if the database legislation had been passed, "the release of the criminals would be accompanied by the most effective mechanism known to identify those criminals should they commit new offences".
In a country with one of the highest incidences of sexual offences, you would think women MPs would make their voices heard. But, after weeks in which the spotlight was shone on the challenges faced by pupils, especially girls, the biggest women's movement in the land, the ANC Women's League - led by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga - is debating prostitution.
We have reported that 109 pupils in Grade 3 fell pregnant in 2009; two girls were almost raped on their way to school and the community in which they live established and operated an "illegal" school. Just yesterday we learned that a five-year-old Grade R pupil had been raped three times since 2010. These are just a few of the cases that come to mind, and the ANC Women's League is debating the legalisation of prostitution?
What good will 50/50 representation in parliament and the government be if the women's movement is so out of touch with what is urgent? If the lives of the rest of the women and girls do not change?
It is time the ANC Women's League and the women opposition leaders focused not only on the number of women in high-profile positions but pushed for policies that will make South Africa one of the best places for women to live in.