Cyril Ramaphosa | Breaking the cycle of poverty affecting millions of South African women

As we reflect on the Women’s March on Union Buildings 65 years ago on Women’s Day, it is time for us to break the cycle of poverty that affects millions of South African women and to build a truly non-sexist society, writes Cyril Ramaphosa.


Dear South African compatriot,

Today we celebrate Women’s Day.

Reflecting on the historic march of nearly 20,000 women towards the Union buildings in 1956, we recall that just as much as it was a protest against dehumanizing pass laws, it was also an economic protest.

At the time, racial segregation, land dispossession, discrimination against black workers, control of influxes and the migrant labor system were destroying communities and tearing families apart.

Millions of women, especially black women, have been left to fend for themselves and take care of their families on their own.

Many were forced to seek domestic work in white houses in towns and villages. Others have turned to activities like home brewing as a means of survival. The new pass laws would have made them unemployable.

Without being able to prove that they had the right to be in an urban area, they could be arrested and “deported” to the so-called homelands.

In a historical account, a woman participating in the march said: “These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of housing and broken families because of the passes. We saw it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail?

By taking a stand, they fought not only for their dignity, but for their right to move freely around the country in search of work, to earn a living and to keep their families together. As these oppressive laws have been swept aside, women in South Africa continue to bear the brunt of economic hardship.

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A study conducted by Statistics South Africa in 2018 found that across the four ethnic groups, between 74% and 92% of children lived with their mothers.

Of these, African children under the age of 17 were the least likely not to stay with their biological fathers at home. Absent fatherhood is a tragic phenomenon. It has a host of social implications and consequences for child development.

This exacerbates economic hardship in female-headed households, especially if there is no child support. The increase in female-headed households, female unemployment, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, have dramatically worsened the material conditions for women in our country.

The economic empowerment of women is one of the pillars of the National Strategic Plan (PSN) to combat gender-based violence and femicide launched last year.

It recognizes that unless the economic drivers of gender-based violence are overcome, women and girls will remain vulnerable to abuse. On Women’s Day, we are releasing the one-year progress report on the NSP.

It describes the steps we have taken to advance economic opportunities for women. It presents progress in implementing our 40% preferential public procurement policy for women-owned businesses, as well as the extent of support given to women to start their own businesses. The launch of the NSP coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we had to quickly re-prioritize state resources to deal with its impact on health.

At the same time, we have prioritized vulnerable women and children in the support provided to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

Throughout the relief phase, substantial cash transfers were paid to women via complementary social grants and economic relief via salary support from UIF TERS and support to small businesses owned by women.

We recently announced the reinstatement of the Covid Special Relief of Distress Grant, which will now include unemployed caregivers, including around 4.5 million women.

Most of the participants in the presidential employment stimulus are women. This includes 72% of teaching assistants, 65% of general teaching assistants, 87% of early childhood development workers, and 70% of smallholder farmers who received support. Sixty-one percent of the new jobs created through the expansion of the Global Business Services Incentive have gone to women.

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As part of the state land allocation process, we also work to ensure that women’s access to productive assets such as land is a priority.

To date, about 60,000 hectares of state land leases have benefited women. Just as ending violence against women is a collective responsibility, so too is women’s economic empowerment.

We must ensure that workplaces and places of learning are safe for women and girls and that they are protected from harassment, violence and the practice of demanding sexual favors in exchange for jobs, grades, promotion or advancement.

We must ensure that more shelters are available to allow women and children to escape abusive relationships. By working together as businesses, workers and civil society, we must ensure that more economic opportunities are offered to women through the economic reconstruction and recovery plan, the presidential stimulus for employment and programs launched by the private sector.

Businesses need to employ more women, promote them in greater numbers, and provide mentoring and other programs to empower them. As men, let us take responsibility for our children and our families. Let us not deny financial support as a means of punishment or use it as a means of control over the women in our life or our children.

We cannot achieve gender equality without economic empowerment. I call on all sectors of society to take ownership of the NSP and integrate it into their work. We have the plan; are now working together on its implementation.

The generation of 1956 stood up to claim their rights and assert their power.

Let’s break the cycle of poverty that affects millions of South African women and build a truly gender-neutral society. I wish all South Africans a Happy Women’s Day.

With my best wishes.

About Franklin Bailey

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