Address by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, Ms Sue van der Merwe, on the occasion of the Celebration of Women's Month by the Department of Foreign Affairs, 30 August 2005

Colleagues in the Department
Representative of the South African Men's Forum
Ladies and gentlemen

It is good to see so many of you here today talk about the achievements of South African women. Since our democracy in 1994, August month has been declared Women's Month. We have come a long way since then. This year's women's month takes place under the theme Women building a South Africa that truly belongs to all - Building on Beijing.

Women's month reminds us as a nation of where we come from and the road that lies ahead of us. It is important for us to recognize the critical contributions made by those pioneering South African women - who in 1956, against all odds, ignored all the warnings and joined forces to march to the Union Buildings protesting against pass laws. Led by Mama-Lilian Ngoyi, who famously proclaimed "if I die, I'll die a happy person because I have already seen the rays of our new South Africa rising", a detachment of about 20, 000 marchers to demand respect and equal rights. Just as the marchers of 1956 demanded respected and equal rights, today we still demand a society that respects and honours its womenfolk. Their stand was a contribution that ensured that women could enjoy the rights they have today.

We are therefore delighted as a Department to join the nation in honouring and acknowledging the contribution of those women who worked selflessly for women emancipation. However, we also have to ask ourselves what progress have we made as an organisation to promote gender equality and women emancipation. What role does the Department play in promoting gender equality and emancipation of women not only within country but in the continent and ultimately globally.

As an organisation we have the mandate of promoting our domestic interests on the global stage and key amongst these is the creation of a just and equal world. Thus, the theme chosen for this year's women's month further accentuates this mandate. There can be no just world until we have seen to the liberation and elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Similarly, poverty and underdevelopment cannot be eliminated until equal rights are granted to both men and women, regardless of the economic, political and social status. There is today in many developing societies a strong correlation between the oppression of women and poverty and underdevelopment.

We must recall that the demise of apartheid came about as a result of a great human rights campaign waged on the global stage. Therefore, to consolidate the gains we have made since the founding of our democracy in 1994, we need to ensure the complete eradication of gender discrimination. In her article entitled: "Getting the Development of Women Moving", Maria del Carmen Solis Hernandez, argues that:

Discrimination against women constitutes a flagrant violation of the principle of equal rights, prevent women from enjoying the same level of participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of a country enjoyed by men, and represent an obstacle to fostering the well-being of the family and society in general, thwarting the full development of their potential and their capacity to be of service to both their country and humanity as a whole.

She further states that:

Living in poverty, women are denied-among other basic necessities a proper nutrition, access to healthcare, school, vocational training and employment opportunities. The establishment of a new international economic order, based on the principles of equity and justice, shall play a crucial role in promoting the equity of men and women.

Thus, until women are liberated we shall never experience the full potential of the contribution they can make towards creating a better South Africa, Africa and a better world. I am reminded of a statement made by Minister Dlamini Zuma to a question posed to her during the recent inaugural Department of Foreign Affairs Imbizo, regarding the role of women in development. She stated:

Women are the people who are moulding our society and indeed our continent today. They are central in the future of this continent. It is no mistake that it is women who nurture life and who are central in the continuity of the human race. Women have special qualities to take us forward towards the prosperity of our country, they are the most important in national service to a country because they ensure jobs, food and education for future generations. It is impossible to exclude them from the center of where our future is shaped, because they are so central to our being. Look at our women, they are peacemakers and can do so much to prevent the suffering under wars and conflicts. Look at the role of women in the rural areas and all the positive energy they are generating. Also as teachers they are playing a central role in education

It therefore goes without saying that building a society that equally belongs to all must remain a core of our foreign policy objectives. In this regard, we ought not only to appoint more women to the Department, but more women in decision-making positions, more Ambassadors and High Commissioners in order to create a diplomatic corps that embraces the true spirit of our foreign policy agenda. Within the broad governmental framework we have already started on this path. For instance, in 1997 we had 32% of our ministers and deputy ministers were women while today the figure is 45%. The current figure for women in the national parliament is 33%, while the average representation at the provincial level is 32% with seven out of nine provinces now having met the minimum 30% quota for women representation. We have met the 30% quota required by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in our legislation and working towards the 50% parity envisaged by the African Union (AU).

Within the Department, we have undertaken some initiatives in this regard by increasing the number of senior women decision-makers with the appointment of two women Deputies Director General's, Ambassadors Duarte and January-Bardill in the last year. These very two Ambassadors also played an important role in convening, at the request of Minister Dlamini Zuma, of a Women's Heads of Mission Conference in March this year.

While in August we celebrate women's month, three months down the line, in December, we have yet another campaign, which is aimed at highlighting the abuse and violence against women and children. This paradox highlights the inherent contradictions in our society in terms of the distribution and exercise of economic, political and social power. Levels of abuse and violence against the vulnerable members of our society, particularly women and children pose a serious challenge and threat to our democracy and development.

Violence and domestic violence in particular compromises the meaningful development and the achievement of a better life for all. In this regard the creation of a culture of intolerance to crime and all forms of violence is central to attaining sustainable development; it is also fundamentally a human rights concern. We will therefore continue to advocate and work towards putting an end to violence against women and children. In about three months time the nation will be focusing its effort to a campaign on 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children. We need to take positive steps and get involved in the promotion of the empowerment of women role models and leaders by engaging in a number of actions, including the following:

  • Encouraging all men and women to join forces in ensuring total eradication of all forms of violence against women and children, in the workplace, at home, in schools and in larger communities.
  • The Department needs to start internally and ensure that amongst other things the DFA environment is gender sensitive and conducive to optimal functioning of the both women and men.
  • The Department needs to continuously contribute to and be an active role player in national initiatives aimed at the promotion of gender equality and contribute to the furtherance of Beijing +10 commitments.
  • In our effort to the consolidation of the African agenda, the Department should ensure that women in the affected areas are involved in post conflict and peace-building processes.
  • Facilitate and contribute to the Peace initiatives such as the South African Women in Dialogue initiative led by Mrs. Mbeki.
  • Facilitate efforts to ensure that women participate in the implementation of and benefit from NEPAD programs.

Of course all of these wonderful ideas require action to bring them alive. While we need to work in partnership with our male counterparts to create the society we envision, the ultimate responsibility lies with us to be at the forefront of creating equal rights for both men and women. While we are also encouraged by the role played by male formations such as the South African Men's Forum to play a positive role towards breaking gender stereotypes and contributing to the upliftment of positive images of women, the ultimate challenge is whether we ourselves are up to the task. As women, we need to take charge and use all the opportunities that our democratic dispensation provides to advance our struggle for women's liberation and contribute to a South Africa, Africa and world that truly belongs to all. Just like our pioneers so many years ago, we should be able to organise ourselves and ensure that Mama-Lilian Ngoyi's dream of "seeing the rays of the new South Africa rising" is indeed a reality. This is the reality of a country that equally belongs to all those who live in it without distinction of colour, race, gender or belief.

I take this opportunity to salute all the women of South Africa on this occasion of women's month.

I thank you.

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