Making Women's Lives Visible in Public Policy

Updated: Mar 6

In 2020, a quarter of a century after the Fourth World Conference on Women's Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), capitalism, war and the religious right continue destroying humanity and our planet. Capitalism has deepened inequality, precarious employment, poverty and the climate crisis. Intersecting with patriarchy, fascism and white supremacy it has increased racism and gender-based violence. The language of feminism has been co-opted by the corporations who plunder the earth. Beijing+25 is a potentially powerful moment to clarify our feminism and build international solidarity. This multi-media blog series reflects on key elements of the BPFA and hopes to contribute to this clarity and solidarity.


From the United States to Brazil to India, feminists, socialists and ecologists have been organising against these interlinked crises to create substantive equality, peace, justice and freedom.


It is time to claim the foundational right of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 28), "we are all entitled to a social and international order capable of realising the rights in the declaration." Without a fundamentally different social and international order to the current neo-liberal order, all our work for social, economic and political rights will constantly face an ever-increasing tsunami of problems.


This blog series is written from the perspective of a feminist South African who worked in student, education, trade union and women's movements fighting against apartheid and who was elected an MP in SA's first democracy, as part of a critical mass of 100 women elected into SA's first non-racial Parliament. The series draws on speeches published in Hansard accompanied by video clips from SA's first Parliament. This first blog-post reflects on SA's Country Report to the Beijing Conference.



Madam Speaker, yesterday one of the National Party (NP) (Apartheid's ruling party) MPs proudly proclaimed that in the NP they do not see colour and race. Somehow the irony and pathos of his statement seems to have escaped him. The NP is the architect of racial classification that labelled him Coloured in a party that sits here even now as a predominantly White male party.


Transformation is not waving magic wands, mouthing the rhetoric of change, shouting hallelujah and then comfortably proceeding as you have for the decades and centuries of oppression. We sit today with the legacy of the hierarchies of race, class and gender of those past policies and practices. This legacy cannot be pretended into non-existence. We need to systematically chart our progress in eradicating the race, class and gender disparities of the past. We need to measure and compare the changes that happen.


The Central Statistical Service (CSS) could play a potentially significant role in ensuring the development of a statistical and information base that has validity and which could be used as a basis for the development of policy and the monitoring of change. To do this, however, the CSS must fundamentally break with its past that too easily lends itself, in its composition and in the content of its work in the past, to that famous dismissal of statistics, and I quote : "Lies, damned lies".


In editing the Beijing report on the status of women, it became clear that in this instance the

lies translate into the invisibility and the omission of women, particularly Black working-class women, in the official statistics of the past.


Thus, most of the statistics and information drawn on for the Beijing report had to be

obtained from sources other than the CSS. They were obtained from progressive research organisations and individuals, whose overall resources were minimal by comparison.


I would like to mention briefly a few of the statistics that are reflected in the report, as a

pointer to the rest of the report, so that the CSS can begin to include the collection of all statistics in terms of race, gender, and where possible, class, until we reach that day of hallelujah when equality in the Constitution will mean equality in real terms.


At government level there are no women directors-general at present. The 1991 figures

show that 155 of the 168 directors-general, all 16 ambassadors, 43 of the 69 commission or committee chairs, and 4 952 of the 5 071 directors were White men. The first local government elections are planned for next year, and the last available figures of 1991 show that only 5,8 % of the 822 town clerks were women; all but one were White. There were 776 or 94,4 % White men in these positions.


A 1993 study based on three metropolitan city councils found that Black women were generally employed on a casual and temporary basis, thus falling outside the grading system, and enjoying little job security or benefits.


Women-headed households were shown in figures released this year by Saldru and the World Bank to be significantly poorer than average households. The mean per capita income was R243 for women-headed households. Data on poverty must be read against the virtually non-existent system of social security and the inadequacy of the childcare system in our country.


There are several official measures of unemployment in South Africa that differ widely. What they have in common is that many experts agree that they are far too low. They hide large numbers of people who try to live off income in the informal sector, subsistence farming and domestic work.


In 1991 the CSS undertook its first survey of the informal sector. Whilst almost all writers on the subject agree that women form the majority in this sector, the survey, on the contrary, found that there were only slightly more men than women, that is 1 257 635 men as against 1 031 581 women. Undercounting occurs because of the hidden and unacknowledged nature of much of the women's work in this sector, as in most others.


Secondly, many women hide themselves because they fear officialdom, more so because

of the fresh history of the harassment of Black people in this country. The CSS can learn from

the progressive organisations and individuals who contributed to the Beijing report, and

needs also to look at countries like India, which retrained their enumerators.


Part of the training involved re-educating enumerators and redefining what work is. This was done by showing the enumerators pictures of the work that women do, for example the cutting and carrying of wood. In this country, subsistence farming is not regarded as work. The enumerators there were asked to classify these and similar activities as work.


A 1992 national study of young people between the ages of 16 and 30, undertaken by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, illustrates both racial and gender disparities. Overall, 37 % of the working women earned between R100 and R500 a month, and only a

quarter earned above R1 500 a month. African women in the main earned between R100 and R299 a month.


An estimated three million households, mostly rural, collect firewood on a daily basis. Due to a lack of electricity, women in rural areas spend up to four and a half hours a day collecting wood. The absence of street lighting in many areas of our country has additional implications for women's personal safety and their ability to move about freely. They are forced to spend extra time, energy and money collecting water and alternative fuels.


The national statistics that are quoted in the report put the infant mortality rate - the number of infants who die under the age of one per 1 000 live births - for 1991 at 49 per 1000.

Other sources put the figure at 53 per 1 000 for the same year.


The report states that 70 % of all legal abortions in this country are performed on White women. Women who have no access to legal abortion frequently resort to illegal means, and an estimated 200 000 to 300 000 illegal abortions occur each year in South Africa. There is one doctor for about every 700 people in the metropolitan areas. In the former homeland areas, there are between 10 000 and 30 000 people per doctor.


In this country 2,8 % of rapes are reported, according to the police. Bearing this in mind, the

estimated number of rapes which occurred in 1993 would be approximately 966 000, and that is no laughing matter (in response to laughter from the mostly white male National Party members). The CSS could do well to take cognisance of this and other reports.


19 October, 1994


Published in Hansard, South Africa



Pregs Govender served as an MP from the African National Congress (ANC) (1994-2002). She resigned after voting against the arms deal and chairing public hearings on HIV/AIDS during the denial of treatment in public healthcare. Pregs co-edited South Africa's country report to Beijing.

Copyright of Pregs Govender 2019 ©

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