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RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: Women Celebrate Gains

By Gumisai Mutume
JOHANNESBURG, Aug 10 (IPS) - Women groups in South Africa have celebrated their achievements by marching to the capital Pretoria to demand for more rights.

''I feel very proud of South Africans because over four years we have made encouraging gains,'' said Speaker of Parliament Frene Ginwala.

Ginwala, however, said the celebration did not mean the struggle for gender equality was over.

The National Women's Day, which fell on Sunday this year, has been set aside after the 1994 elections to honour women. The day itself is a milestone representing the gains for equality women in South Africa have achieved.

During the ages women have successfully fought for the right to vote, they fought against the extension of the notorious pass laws to women under apartheid, demanded and attained legal abortions and have risen to the ranks of parliament.

Women now make up 25 percent of legislators compared to the 3 percent figure during apartheid and are aiming to raise their profile at next year's general election.

''Today, with the help of our women and their crucial contribution and support, we have achieved a progressive constitution along with a gender-sensitive government which insists on visible women's representation,'' deputy arts minister Bridgette Maban Dla told 10,000 women who marched to Union Buildings in Pretoria Sunday.

The Labour Relations Act recognises women's rights against sexual harassment in the workplace and their maternity rights.

The Employment Equity bill requires employers to employ equitably across the lines of race, gender and disability.

A Commission on Gender Equality is now running, and perhaps the most celebrated piece of legislation granting women the right of choice -- the Termination of Pregnancy Bill is now law.

''When we are measuring our progress, we must measure it against the progress we make among women,'' said deputy president Thabo Mbeki. ''The majority of the poor are women, particularly rural women, particularly black women.''

The gains achieved so far do not mean there are no more battles to be fought. One of the most urgent being dealing with shocking levels of violence against women.

South Africa has one of the highest incidents of rape in the world. While women marched to the Union Buildings an 11-year old girl was raped by a 46-year-old man believed to be the boyfriend of her mother.

In the home, it is estimated that one in three married women suffer domestic violence.

In the area of business, women are still to break the dominance of white, middle-aged males. Not much research has been done in this area but last year McGregors Information Services said there were 88 women directors of listed companies, compared to more than 6,000 men.

South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality says that a white man is 5,000 times more likely to be in a managerial position than a black woman.

Getting a job is also tough and last year the number of women in formal employment declined to 22.3 percent compared to 26.4 percent the previous years.

''The bulk of our women are still lowly paid, under paid or employed as domestic labour,'' said the ruling African National Congress (ANC) women's league president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Many South Africans, especially men, do not accept let alone understand gender discrimination.

In Soweto, a sprawling black township near Johannesburg, elders warned of a backlash if government continued to extend rights to women. At one of the seminars marking women's week, the elders warned that this would lead to more domestic violence and to an increase in the divorce rates.

''I am a traditional man,'' said 69-year old Joe Ntuli. ''There is no way society is going to maintain its values and keep the family unit intact if women can stand up in the home and tell their husbands to get off. We are following the wrong path.''

Despite this, South African women this year intend to make into law, the Customary Marriage Bill which gives women rights to property currently denied them in traditional marriages.

They are also pushing the Domestic Violence Bill aimed at criminalising the scourge.(END/IPS/GM/MN/98)