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This year Parliament celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Constitution, and one of the major achievements of the “supreme law” of the land was the entrenchment of gender equality, women empowerment and non-discrimination.

The Chairperson of the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus (MPWC) in Parliament, Ms Rosalia Mastorey Morutoa, believes the Constitution has cultivated a culture of human rights and women rights and paved the way for the enactment of a number of legislation empowering women in South Africa.

“Ever since the Constitution came into being, our Parliament has passed several legislation, empowering women, such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention on Unfair Discrimination Act (Pepuda) and many others.

“It is a great achievement not only on gender equality but also about the role played by women in the drafting. Women such as our Speaker, Ms Baleka Mbete and Ms Brigitte Mabandla, the former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, and many others, played a major role in the process, that’s how we value the Constitution as women,” said Ms Morutoa.

She said the Constitution must be celebrated every day for entrenching the rights of women, making an example that before the Constitution came into being, married women, especially those who got married under the African Customary Law, were considered perpetual minors.

Other achievements brought by the Constitution include affirmative action for appropriately qualified women, which has an increase of women in positions that were previously dominated by males.

“Now we have more women in the judiciary, in business and other sectors and that is quite fascinating and worth mentioning as we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of our Constitution,” she said.

During the month of August, South Africa celebrates the contribution of women in the struggle against apartheid, since that historic march to Pretoria by 20 000 women against the pass laws, on 9 August 1956.

Ms Morutoa said the Constitution must also be celebrated for instilling the dignity of women in society. “It also outlawed all customs and beliefs that considered women as minors, and this is a big achievement in the history of women development in the country worth celebrating,” she added.

The Multi-Party Women’s Caucus is a collective platform for the consideration of issues affecting female Members of Parliament and women in general, it is also a support structure for female MPs.

Its programmes includes all forms of human rights violations against women and young girls, like ukuthwala (forced marriages), human trafficking, rights of widows and many others.

“We are also involving men in our programmes, in everything that we do, like the HeForShe programme that Parliament launched in December 2016, a campaign for the advancement of women initiated by UN Women.

The campaign encourages young boys and men to take action against negative inequalities faced by women and girls.

“There are too many things that are going wrong, human trafficking and the violation of rights of widows, culturally and otherwise. Last term we focused a lot on the problem of Ukuthwala and even engaged the Commission for Gender Equality and traditional leaders, I must say they were quite cooperative,” said Ms Morutoa.

The Multi-Party Women’s Caucus will be part of the International Women’s Conference to be hosted by Parliament later this month.

“The conference will address a lot of things affecting women beyond Africa, it is a programme of the Speaker and the Chairperson of the NCOP (National Council of Provinces) and we will be part of it representing all women from all parties, we are the voice of women,” she said.

During the launch of the Commonwealth Women’s Parliament (CWP) Chapter in Parliament earlier this year, the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus made a commitment to lobby for amendments in the country’s electoral laws to make the equal representation of men and women in Parliament and provincial legislatures a legal obligation.

At the time Ms Morutoa said: “It is surprising that at this time of our lives in South Africa we still do not have legislation mandating gender quotas for national and provincial elections.”

“We only have discretionary legislation for local government elections like the Municipal Structures Act and for national and provincial elections we are at the mercy of voluntary gender quotas set up by political parties, the African National Congress to be specific,” she said.

She said equal representation of men and women was one of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals – now called Sustainable Millennium Goals) that South Africa has failed to achieve.

“South Africa is Number 10, at 42% in terms of women representation in Parliament and provincial legislatures. Engagements are going on, we are working of fixing this situation. We think we must convince other parties to encourage them to make it compulsory for 50/50 representation on the electoral lists,” said Ms Morutoa.

She said the plan is to push for amendments on the current Electoral Act, to make sure it is in operation by the 2019 during the next general elections.

In addition to violence, human trafficking and other forms of human rights violations, Ms Morutoa said women also faced the challenge of “gender-responsive budgeting”, something in which they were not getting the response they want.

“For the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus gender-responsive budgeting means prioritising the needs of women and children, we started fighting for a women’s budget long before we had the Department of Women, some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) even took the matter to the United Nations.

“We think there is still a lot to be done, we are not getting the response that we want from the departments when it comes to gender-responsive budgeting, we also welcome the initiative of the Speakers’ Forum to introduce gender budgeting to advocate for that during the parliamentary processes of debating and passing budgets,” she said.

She said there is also hope in the reports that the Ministry of Women is developing a gender-responsive budget framework.

Another battle that the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus hopes to win in the near future is the roll out of sanitary wear to all school girls and tax exemption on all sanitary products.

“We have even involved the National Treasury to explain this issue of sanitary dignity. It is not about comfort but about health – poor sanitary health can lead to ovarian cancer and problems of infertility.

“It seems we are not getting the response that we want. However, we are very grateful to business and the NGOs that are voluntarily already distributing sanitary products to school girls in poor areas, that’s a great improvement.

The Multi-Party Women’s Caucus is also being lobbied by sex workers to support their campaign for the decriminalisation of the industry in South Africa.

Represented by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) organisation and Sisonke, a national movement of sex workers, they have asked the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus to pledge Parliament’s support as they advocate for the decriminalisation of their work.

They are proposing amendments to the 1957 Sexual Offences Act (previously called the Immorality Act) which outlaws selling and buying, making both sex worker and the client guilty of a crime.

“We have been involved in the matter for some time, in 2015 we made a declaration in the Women’s Parliament that we should support the decriminalisation of sex work.”

The MPWC also involved the Deputy Minister of Justice and the South African Law Reform Commission, but the report of the commission did not support the matter.

“Now that the report of the Law Reform Commission did not support the matter, we are going back to the drawing board,” she said.

By Sakhile Mokoena

18 August 2017