The National Assembly this week commemorated International Women’s Day by holding a debate on the topic “A year of decisive action to advance women’s rights in South Africa, Africa and the world”.

International Women's Day is observed on March 8 around the world to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements. It is also call to action to accelerate gender parity and set agendas and goals.

Mr Heinrich April, a Member of Parliament representing the African National Congress in the National Assembly, opened the discussion by giving the history of the struggle for women’s rights, especially in South Africa. He referred to the historical march of August 1956 when women from all backgrounds marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the oppressive pass laws that restricted movement of Black people in South Africa.

He also commended more recent government policies and the work of institutions focusing on gender equality, such as the Commission for Gender Equality, saying these instruments continue to prioritise women’s representation and inclusion in leadership.

“The ANC remains committed to the historical principle that says ‘women’s rights are human rights’ and we will do all that is required to use the state as a vehicle for the advancement and protection of women’s rights. We need to transform our society and the behaviour of boys, men and fathers, as it is our behaviour that will create an environment that is safe for women of our nation and generally around the globe,” he said.

 Ms Gizella Opperman of the Democratic Alliance argued that not enough is being done to advance women’s rights in South Africa. She referred to data from Statistics South Africa showing that women are lagging behind in terms of socio-economic opportunities, and that black women in particular are the most vulnerable, with an unemployment rate of more than 38 %.

“Our femicide statistics are five time the international average, as high as those of war-torn countries. It increased with 52 per cent in the first quarter of 2021/2022 and we have the highest incidents of rape in the world. We need to outlaw child marriages. We must bravely engage the customary law debates about ukuthwala (forced marriage). We banned female genital mutilation in South Africa; let us now fight for it to be criminalised in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leon and Liberia,” she said.

Ms Opperman also argued that obstetric violence must be included as a form of gender-based violence (GBV) to save women against forced and coerced medical procedures, such as sterilisation and caesarean sections without their consent, and assault and neglect during child birth and pregnancy.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)’s Ms Khonziwe Hlonyana argued that little has changed globally, on the continent and in this country in terms of advancing the rights of women and gender equality. “Apart from poverty and economic exclusion, the most heinous of the injustice faced by women in this country must be the violence enabled by the state on women, GBV reinforced and sustained by the deplorable conditions of our people. Therefore, a key to female emancipation is the emancipation of all,” Ms Hlonyana said.

The Inkatha Freedom Party was represented by Liezl van der Merwe in the debate. She said International Women’s Day, just like South Africa’s Women’s Day in August, was about highlighting the issues women face and the distance we still have to go to achieve gender equality. “While we can lament the inequalities faced by women for years on end, I welcome the pragmatic theme of our debate today. Contrary to what is shown by our government, women issues are not soft issues that can be treated as additional matters but must be taken very seriously,” she said.

Ms Heloise Denner of Freedom Front Plus accused the government of failing to implement the National Strategic Plan on GBV and femicide, which was published in March 2020. “There is no decisive action to address GBV and femicide, which are increasing at an alarming rate. Economic advancement of women is another decisive action that could and should be taken to advance women’s rights,” said Ms Denner.

The African Christian Democratic Party’s Ms Marie Sukers spoke against proposed legislation to legalise sex work, arguing that this will further promote gender-based violence and undermine the dignity of women. “How does a government that views itself as serious about the rights of women pursue the legalisation of prostitution? This proposed legislation that deems prostitution work, which it is not, will become law in a lawless country that is overrun by organised crime. Prostitution by its nature promotes violence against women and wherever it was legalised human trafficking has increased,” she said.