The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill (WEGE) is currently before Parliament in South Africa. One of its main aims is to ‘give effect to the letter and spirit of the Constitution’ by promoting gender equality. Such legislation might be considered a welcome step for a country infamously struggling to grant its women their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to equality, freedom from violence and security of the person. But instead, WEGE has provoked fierce and almost universal criticism from women’s rights organizations. At a workshop on WEGE last December, many participants regarded the Bill with outrage, declaring its provisions paltry and insignificant in the face of the huge injustices perpetrated against women on a daily basis. Some even called for civil society to refuse to engage with the government on the bill.
WEGE’s key provisions are found in Chapters 2 and 3. In summary, Chapter 2 deals with the ‘social development’ of women, via education and training aimed at eradicating gender-based discrimination and violence and increasing education around access to healthcare. Chapter 3 deals with equal representation and empowerment of women through the progressive realization of a minimum of 50% representation and ‘meaningful participation’ of women in public and private decision-making structures, including businesses and political parties. This chapter also addresses the socio-economic empowerment of rural women and women with disabilities.
All of these aims sound laudable. But on closer inspection, the legislation is far too vague. WEGE lacks real detail as to how it will realize its ambitions for South African women. Each section follows the same pattern: ‘designated’ public and private bodies must submit plans for realizing the bill’s goals to the Minister, followed by further plans for their implementation if the Minister so requests. But the bill is silent on the form that such plans and measures should take, and there is no detail offered on the selection process for the designated bodies or the capacity of the relevant government department to embark on such a wide-scale project.
More fundamentally, the mere creation of a plan is not a guarantee that it will be adhered to. The lack of enforcement mechanisms in the bill is one of the main reasons why it has been widely discredited. In its first draft, the bill envisaged the creation of a ‘super-ministry’ to enforce its provisions, but this was later removed for fear that it would usurp the powers of the Commission for Gender Equality, an independent body created by the Constitution. The bill now lacks any enforcement features whatsoever, and many are concerned that this will result in its provisions being disregarded.
Amongst the other criticisms in the public submissions to the government on WEGE are its overly broad definition of gender equality, the lack of serious engagement with both patriarchal structures in society and the root causes of the very high rates of gender-based violence, and the lack of consultation carried out with women living in rural parts of the country, where roughly 80% of the population lives and works.
Another problem is the huge overlap between WEGE and existing legislation. A large proportion of the provisions in WEGE can be found elsewhere, most evidently in Chapter 5 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, which still has not been brought into force. As the submissions made by the Women’s Legal Centre note, should both pieces of legislation be brought into force, a lack of harmonization would ensue, which is undesirable from a policy point of view.
Recently, feminist critics have questioned why WEGE reiterates the ‘existing rights and protections [for] . . . some women’ whilst simultaneously ignoring the ‘equality rights of other groups of women,’ pointing out the 20-year delay on the government’s part in recognizing Muslim marriages or reforming the law on sex work. The answer is that those issues are simply not vote winners. WEGE, on the other hand, with its grand, albeit vague, goals to improve the lot of South African women, and due to be rushed through Parliament just before the national election in May, is far more politically palatable if ultimately toothless.