South Africa has many mountains to climb to achieve gender equality by 2030
By Jennifer Smout
According to a report by Equal Measures, the progress needed by South Africa to achieve the gender-related targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals requires ‘strong and renewed efforts’. The report highlighted six specific areas that are vital to shifting the needle.
With just eight years to go until the deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), progress in gender equality and gender SDG indicators has stagnated. This is according to a report launched this month by Equal Measures. As of 2020, more than three billion girls and women still live in countries with poor or very poor scores for gender equality.
The 2022 SDG index covers progress made between 2015 and 2020, a period when the global score for gender progress increased slightly from 66 to 67.8 out of a possible 100. Not one of the 144 countries in the SDG gender index has achieved gender equality, despite many of the central tenets of the SDGs being carried over from the original Millennium Development Goals, which were due to have been met by 2015.
Only one country in every four countries is making fast progress toward gender equality by current measures. If trends continue, approximately 71.5% of gender targets in the SDGs will be achieved by 2030.
However, many countries are making some progress, but girls and women will be left behind if strong and renewed efforts to reach gender-related targets are not put in place over the next few years.
According to the index’s data, South Africa is ranked ‘fair’ with a score of 70.1 as of 2020, above the regional average of 52. Despite a worsening of progress in specific goals, South Africa is doing well in terms of goal five (gender equality), six (clean water and sanitation), seven (affordable and clean energy) and eight (decent work and economic growth) with scores that are all above 80.
It is no time for complacency, however, with the scores for goals 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 13 (climate action), and 17 (partnership for the goals) all below 70%t, and a score of just 42.9 for goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).
In addition, progress across gender indicators for each goal is extremely varied, and progress against specific goals — one (no poverty), two (end hunger), seven (affordable and clean energy), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and 13 (climate action) — has slowed since 2015. The ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown will also continue to affect gender progress, with research from Nids-Cram showing the significant gendered impacts of both.
The progress needed to reach the gender-related targets by 2030 requires ‘strong and renewed efforts’, with the report identifying six areas as vital to shifting the needle on gender equality.
First, countries must reform and apply inequality laws because evidence shows that countries that do so have better health, nutrition, and educational outcomes for women and their families, more resilient employment for women, and more women in their parliaments.
South Africa has a number of these laws as stipulated in the constitutional commitment to equality, including the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act and the Employment Equity Act. Implementation, however, is more complex, with many public and private institutions failing to meet gender equity targets, as is evident from the latest Commission for Employment Equity Report.
The South African government should also urgently take note that countries must move away from austerity budgets and invest in public services and social (including care) infrastructure. This requires gender-responsive budgets, progressive taxation, and substantial investment in public services and infrastructure.
Yet, in South Africa, the 2022/23 budget will result in decreases in such spending, with an average of R2,700 less per person spent on public services than in 2019/20. The government’s commitment to austerity will worsen conditions for women and girls and decrease its ability to achieve the SDGs.
Third, the report recommends the promotion of leadership, participation, and voice of girls and women, emphasising transforming gender norms and promoting good role models and increasing the visibility of women in public life. This is an area where, at least at the national level, South Africa is performing well. As of March 2022, we have the 8th highest proportion of women in parliament globally. At the local level, however, data by the Electoral Commission shows that in the 2021 local government elections, just 38% of the 95,427 candidates and just 37% of the 9,473 councillors elected were female.
According to Dr Lina Abirafeh, Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, Globally, it will take 145 years to achieve equality in women’s political participation. If South African political parties do not make a concerted effort to promote women’s involvement at the local government level, our progress at the national level will not be sustainable.
Fourth, the report urges countries to close the gaps in gender data. In compiling the report, the Equal Measures team found several data gaps and SDG indicators that don’t appropriately capture the gender dimension of the development goals. Speaking at the launch, Dr Mayra Buvinic, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Development and Data 2X, said that even though three in four counties had made progress on disaggregating data and statistics, a continued challenge was the openness of gender data, particularly crime statistics and data around food security and nutrition from a gender perspective.
As Dr Buvinic says in the report, “so much of what women do takes place in invisible spaces — in domestic production, in the informal economy, in unpaid care — and has been overlooked in official statistics.”
Here again, South Africa’s progress is variable — for instance, during Covid-19, crime statistics were released more regularly, which has long been called for. However, despite every police station having a domestic violence register, these statistics are never made public. In addition, South Africa’s last official Time Use Survey — which helps to reflect the gender disparities in unpaid care — was conducted by Statistics South Africa more than a decade ago. However, Nids-Cram surveys have made clear that women continue to take on an unequal share of the care burden in our country. Without precise and up to date data, South Africa will not be able to identify gaps in its efforts to promote gender equality and fall behind.
The report’s fifth recommendation is to invest in, create space for, and listen to feminist organisations and movements. Speaking at the launch, Amina Doherty, Co-Founder of the Black Feminist Fund and Board Co-Chair of the Global Fund for Women, made clear the call for donors to “fund feminist funds” and to provide long-term, core funding to feminist organisations to allow them to “keep the lights on” and do their vital work. Feminist and women’s movements are essential for improving gender equality and for keeping attention on the issues that hold progress back.
“Women’s funds are the partners that are making gender justice happen, but they are not resourced well enough,” said Doherty, citing the statistic that just 0.1% of black feminist movement work is being funded globally, despite these organisations’ vital role in leading legislative and policy change around the world. She also noted that far too many people working at the grassroots level to promote and defend gender equality are doing so as unpaid volunteers.
This is also the case in South Africa, where research shows that many people working in shelters, for instance, do so on little or no remuneration and that the DSD’s policy around funding shelters continues to disadvantage the majority of people who work in them.
Finally, the report calls for increased participation of women and girls and young women — women’s voices should be heard in the decisions that affect them, in the development of laws and policies, and their activity should be funded to ensure progress towards gender equality.
Public participation is an essential part of South African democratic values. Still, it is often a tick box exercise rather than a meaningful engagement with the lives that those policies, laws, and programmes will impact. In addition, Quote This Woman+, a local organisation working to amplify women’s voices, found that less than 20% of sources quoted in the media are women, showing that the absence of women’s voices also limits how we understand the issues facing South Africa. Without this inclusion, we risk making gender invisible and creating developmental policies and solutions reinforcing the status quo.
Crucial to achieving progress towards the SDGs and gender equality more broadly is ensuring that these calls are not just heard by the feminist activists writing reports like this. Too often, as noted at the launch of the report by Dr Abirafeh, these events are echo chambers, speaking to the converted.
Hopefully, with this report and the wealth of data it provides, the work of achieving gender equality becomes something that all sectors of society can get behind. There is much to be done to shift the needle towards gender equality by 2030, and it requires action from all of us.