WORKING to end gender inequity is one of the key issues addressed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) in its celebration of World Population Day on July 11.
The UNPF advocates that women are the key to development. Despite this, poor women are less likely than men to own land or have access to credit, adequate employment or economic security in old age. Poor girls receive less schooling, less food, less health care and less pay for their work. Better education and income means healthier pregnancy and safer childbirth. Also, women invest larger shares of their income in their families than do men. When women engage in development, families, societies and nations gain substantially, economically, socially and culturally.
Associate Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), is an authority in race and gender studies. She describes violence against women as the most prevalent form of gender-based violations of women's human rights.
"Given the prevalence of rape and abuse of women in South Africa, it is evident that we do not have full access to rights of safety and security in our homes and in public spaces. This has an impact on all women, but is experienced more acutely by women who are living in poverty and this is another form of violation that is experienced by the majority of women in our country," she said.
De la Rey believes that this violation has its roots in the complexity of the web of gender relations, which may be simply stated as the inequality between men and women. "We have to reconsider how we become socialised as feminine and masculine persons. We need to re-examine the connection between aggression and masculinity, the beliefs that men are dominant over women within the family, that men do not articulate their emotions and that being feminine means being passive and an object of pleasure. All these connections require re-examination."
De la Rey says that this is not merely an individual issue as all our social institutions function in ways that reinforce these gendered roles and attitudes. "Because of the complexity of the problem we have to implement changes at different levels. This means that change has to happen at the level of the society as a whole, within institutions and organisations as well as at the level of the individual.
"The Constitution and many of the policies introduced since 1994 are examples of change at the level of society as a whole. These changes have to be implemented within schools, places of work, cultural institutions and, very importantly, in the media. The media plays a highly significant role in transmitting attitudes about gender.
"We need greater representation of women in positions of authority and leadership and as women we need to exercise our rights as citizens. We must lobby and advocate for change, we must speak out about our experiences. There are several women's organisations that are making an important contribution to achieving change. We can join these groups. Critical mass is important. The history of the liberation struggle shows that we can achieve immense change by working together.
"Empowering women transforms lives. Empowerment is about having autonomy and control over one's life, being able to make informed choices, having access to basic services and having one's basic needs met. Empowerment also means having self-confidence to enable one to act, to take on new challenges and to engage in social action," she concluded.