Take Note, Women Vote!

by Shelley Anderson

In late November, 1993, the Dutch Southern Africa Committee organized the seminar "Women and political participation in South Africa" in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Several days later, the University of Utrecht held its annual Southern Africa Days with a program that focussed on women's perspectives.

The three-day long program brought together women's studies teachers and students from Dutch, Zimbabwean, Namibian and South African universities. The emphasis was on research that could be used by community activists. While women spoke about personal experiences in union organizing and the anti-apartheid struggle, the emphasis was on violence against women.

A university teacher from Harare, Zimbabwe, spoke about an incident that received national media attention: a male student ripped the short skirt off a woman visitor to the campus. Predictably, some commentators claimed the woman had ´asked for it' by dressing so ´provocatively'. The incident angered many others and gave impetus to a group of university women working on developing guidelines on sexual harassment and assault. Such guidelines gave women more options: if state courts failed to protect them, they could then try to prosecute the harasser under university rules. Likewise, if the university rules failed to stop the harassment, women could go to the state criminal court.

Violence Against Women in South Africa

Violence against women in South Africa is common place. In 1992, the official figure for reported rapes was 23,921. It is estimated that only one in twenty rapes is reported, which means that more than 1,000 women are raped in South Africa every day. Some researchers calculate that one out of every four women in South Africa is a rape survivor: 95 percent of the survivors are black. One in every six women is beaten regularly by her male partner: every week, an average of four women are forced to flee from their homes because their lives are endangered by their male partner.

Violence against women is not restricted to physical violence. Researchers found that many women were pressured into not using contraceptives by their male partner or parents; unwanted pregnancies lead to some 250,000 illegal abortions each year. Women's human rights are often violated: a woman married before 1984 (for whites) or 1988 (for blacks) cannot legally enter into certain contracts or negotiate a loan without the permission of her husband, who controls her property. The police and courts are dominated by white men--there is one woman judge in all of South Africa. Only five out of the 178 members of the white, Coloured and Indian Parliament are women.

Women Fighting for Equality

Despite these figures, awareness is growing throughout South Africa of the need to promote women's rights. Women are organizing as never before to make sure the new South Africa is both non-racial and non-sexist. Groups like the Women's National Coalition support a Women's Equality Charter as part of the new constitution; women in the African National Congress are pushing for equal political representation; women in trade unions are organizing against sexual harassment and for better working conditions. Women constitute 53 percent of the electorate in South Africa, so their votes could be a decisive factor in the upcoming elections.

The fight will not be easy. Last year members of the Rural Women's Movement threatened to boycott the elections when a group of traditional leaders submitted a proposal that African women should be excluded for two years from the Bill of Rights. One traditional leader explained that rights for women would destroy tradition: his daughter would be able to contest her brother's ascension to the chieftainship under the Bill of Rights. Customary law may also allow men to marry more than one woman, and to retain control over land and custody of children. But women are determined. Democracy is coming to South Africa, and women will be a part of it.

A 56-page collection of articles on women in South Africa (the majority in English, with some Dutch articles), Take Note, Women Vote!, is available from the Dutch Committee on Southern Africa, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 173, 1012 DJ Amsterdam, the Netherlands.