CEO Notes

A law that will hurt women  

The newly reintroduced Traditional Courts Bill has too many flaws and will only contribute further to the misery of millions of women in the rural areas - women without a voice or power to address issues that directly affect them. Parliament is urged to reconsider the need for the bill.

This was clearly expressed by the vast majority of the participants at a seminar hosted at our video conference centres in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria in May this year, asking the fitting question of whether this bill is ‘reconciling the irreconcilable’ in a constitutional democratic state (article available here).

From research, we know that the gender dimension is vital in understanding equality within relationships. In every society, males and females are expected to behave in prescribed ways. In some cultures in southern Africa, men are expected to have multiple partners, while women are expected to be monogamous; the age of marriage is often lower for females than for males; and men are expected to have younger sexual partners. Common law and customary laws reinforce these expectations.

Most harmful practices have their origin in patriarchal societies that promote the superiority of men over women; gender-insensitive and gender-biased laws are passed in parliaments which are usually male dominated. In a study on human rights and gender issues in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe it was observed that while these countries have acceded to the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, there was evidence of common and customary laws that encourage gender discrimination.

Few of these countries have applied domestically the international conventions to which they agreed, and their laws keep women subservient to men and thus put them at increased risk.

Crucial measures

Firstly, it is essential for governments to implement gender-sensitive policies and it is crucial that governments and civil society collaborate to create a social environment of equality between the genders. Governments should domesticate international laws and conventions to ensure women do not remain subservient to men. This includes challenging through the courts the customary laws that disempower women in property ownership, land ownership and inheritance.

Second, we must adopt strategies that involve traditional leaders to lead a campaign to change the traditional practices and stereotypes that increase vulnerability of women and children.

Finally, appropriate gender-sensitive training programmes for the judicial system must be developed and implemented to ensure that in instances of gender discrimination, offenders are punished.

A law that will hurt women

It is my considered opinion that in a constitutional state like ours that bars discrimination on the basis of gender, the Traditional Courts Bill that relegates women to minors, has no place. In a democratic state that prides itself in having ended apartheid there is no room for legislation that catapults us back to the dark days where different laws existed for different population groups.

This bill, if passed, will affect that segment of the population living in rural areas, and they are black and largely women. We need more laws that protect women; this one will hurt women.

Dr Olive Shisana