On the 4th of June this year Egypt’s first National Convention of Women took place. Women (and some men who support them) were gathering to make their voices heard. After playing a leading role in the January 25th revolution that ended the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, they were worried about the signs that the process of transition to a new constitutional system would sideline them.
The Alliance for Arab Women and the Egyptian Women Coalitions therefore embarked on a process of drafting a Women’s Charter that spells out the things the women of Egypt need to see in the country’s new constitution. The process included discussions in 27 of Egypt’s governorates and a signature campaign that collected half a million signatures by June.
The process and content of the Egyptian Women’s Charter shows a striking similarity to that of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality adopted by the National Convention of the Women’s National Coalition in February, 1994 in South Africa. The South African Charter came out of similarly motivated concerns, was drafted through public discussions, supported by millions of signatures and spelt out what women needed in the constitution South Africa was in the process of creating.
The similarity of the two Charter processes allow for the drawing of useful lessons for Egyptian ‘charterists’ from the earlier South African experiences and specifically from the outcomes of the South African charter.
What is the situation for women in South Africa today? What does this say about the success of the Women’s Charter? What lessons can the supporters of the Egyptian Women’s Charter learn from the experiences of their South African counterparts?
August is Women’s Month in South Africa. The biggest non-scandal that escaped mention in both the Women’s Day speeches of the president and the deputy president is not simply the oppressive social conditions imposed on women, but the fact that it is getting worse. The Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women reports that this year, while gender based violence rises steadily, just 8% of monitored police stations complied with their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. In 2007 compliance had stood at 57%. Maternal deaths during childbirth now stand at 625 per 100,000 – four times the number it was at in 1990; during the same period the much poorer Sub-Saharan African region as a whole reduced maternal mortality rates by a quarter!
Two recent comprehensive assessments of gender inequality bear out this picture. The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) had its 48thsession from 17 January to 4 February this year. Three organisations – People Opposing Women Abuse, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women – together submitted a shadow report on the implementation of CEDAW. The authors of the report assess South Africa’s performance by systematically measuring the social position of women against all the articles of CEDAW using the latest data.Their findings cannot be ignored, except by presidents and deputies with selfish agendas. On legal equality the shadow report says, ‘Whilst the State has embedded the right to gender equality in the Constitution, the legislature and executive have failed to fully honour their resultant constitutional obligations.’ But the main failure is with regard to the central demand of the Women’s Charter for real, effective equality. The report laments that ‘there is a systemic failure to effectively translate these laws into meaningful change in women’s lives.’ It then identifies a strong trend towards ‘a consistent failure to move effectively from de jure to de facto enjoyment and realisation of the rights in question.’
The second comprehensive assessment was released last year by the statutory Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) as a report entitled ‘What gets measured, gets done’ – A gendered review of South Africa’s implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. It should be more difficult to ignore watchdog bodies appointed by the constitution rather than civil society ones, but so far the government has done so with ease. Their motivation must be that, if anything, the CGE report is even more scathing than that of the three civil society groups. After documenting in detail how spectacularly South Africa is failing to come even close to achieving the Millennium Development Goals for women, the commissioner overseeing this review writes, ‘Despite Constitutional guarantees underpinned by groundbreaking legislative provisions, and gains on the front of political representation, access to equality and justice, and freedom from discrimination remain a pipe dream for the majority of women.’ Both the stipulations of CEDAW and the Millennium Development Goals are much more moderate than the demands of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality and the manner in which this society is not making progress on achieving the first two means it is moving away rather than towards effective equality.
So, yes, this is where South Africa is at. For the majority of women, freedom, justice, equality or just some peace is a ‘pipe dream,’ which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as an ‘illusory or fantastic plan, hope or story.’
South Africa’s constitution receives a lot of praise for enshrining human rights. A big part of the reason is its commitment to achieve gender equality by eliminating discrimination against women in the present as well as the effects of such discrimination in the past. This aspect of the constitution, plus the associated laws, policies and institutions making up the National Gender Policy Framework and the National Gender Machinery testify to the great success of the Women’s National Coalition. There is nothing in this coalition’s Women’s Charter that was not inserted in either the constitution or the laws and policies designed to carry it out. A hundred percent success therefore. Why, then, are women’s social conditions deteriorating?
According to the diagnostic overview of the National Planning Commission – a presidentially appointed commission under the leadership of Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Planning, whose task is to develop a long term development plan for the country – the reasons are ‘cultural “norms” and patriarchy’, ‘social fragmentation and passive citizenry’, and unemployment and a lack of access to an enabling social wage, which combine to undermine the aspiration of the constitution towards “Healing the divisions of the past and establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. In this diagnosis the problems of women are getting worse in spite, not because of the constitution. Government is not alone in having this view; it is in fact a near universal consensus.
A critical look, however, reveals the central responsibility of South Africa’s constitutional order for the worsening oppression of women here. For a start, take the three reasons put forward by the National Planning Commission. Cultural norms that underwrite patriarchy all depend for reproduction on institutions such as churches, traditional (tribal) leadership and families. None of these institutions were created in South Africa through free association. Christianity was imposed through violent dispossession and racist indoctrination. The current traditional leaders are the political heirs, not of Shaka and Hintsa, but of the chiefs that administered the violently imposed Bantustan system that was rejected over and over by black liberation movements. Families that teach women and children to submit to patriarchal authority also impose themselves through violence, abuse and the capacity to deny care, particularly when challenged; the wife/daughter that obeys out of fear and the one that gets beaten are both victims of this. The constitution ostensibly protects the victims of patriarchy, but it also protects these institutions, which are patriarchy’s perpetrators, and are much richer and more powerful than their victims.
What are the causes of social fragmentation and the alleged passivity among citizens? Certainly the way the political system is structured plays the major role. The state carefully assigns a particular status to every individual in the territory of South Africa. This status determines the relationship of this individual to the state as a whole – this one is a president, that one a prisoner, that one a police officer on duty, that one an ordinary citizen, and that one an undocumented immigrant. Everyone gets a position in a strictly constitutionally designated hierarchy where power is concentrated at the top. The competition and conflict that this concentration of power engenders is responsible for a major part of the social fragmentation in South Africa and other societies with a similar political structure. It also induces the alleged passivity, because people are not really passive politically, they are (sometimes) pacified by repression or by the frustration of being ignored or fobbed off. The power that South Africa’s political elite uses for socially fragmenting competition for more power, and to repress, ignore and fob off those of lower political status is given to them by none other than the constitution.
Growing unemployment, poverty and economic inequality are probably among the most acute of all the reasons fuelling the worsening position of women. A large part of the power of churches, chiefs and family heads flow from the fact that women have to submit to misery or face destitution. It is not possible to envisage the liberation of women without a radical redistribution of society’s wealth that would give black women control over most of it, and that would deny patriarchal institutions any of it. The constitution, of course, is dead set against such a redistribution. Instead it protects the property rights of the rich and facilitates neo-liberal policies that take even more from the poor to give to the rich, with devastating consequences for women.
The constitution and the gender laws and policies contain everything the makers of the Women’s Charter asked for, but it also contains and protects the cultural, political and economic institutions that destroy the hopes of this charter. It is like serving the women of South Africa a meal, full of delicious and nutritious ingredients, liberally sprinkled with poison.
The lesson for the makers of the Egyptian Women’s Charter is that the South African charter came up short not for what it contained but for what it left out. In capitalist societies such as Egypt and South Africa, the state concentrates power among few, capital concentrates wealth, and both these institutions play a crucial role in maintaining the patriarchal power of men over women, to the extent of nullifying legal victories as we have seen in South Africa. Historically the socialist movement fought to end capital as an institution, and anarchism fought to end the state, while feminism or women’s movements veered between taking on these struggles and maintaining neutrality. The South African Women’s Charter stayed silent on whether capital and the state are compatible with the liberation of women. The present role of these institutions in imposing increasing misery on women arguably indicates that such a silence in the Egyptian Women’s Charter would be a mistake.
Inserting into the Women’s Charter a commitment to struggle against capital and the state would not necessarily spell the end for these institutions in Egypt, and neither would it necessarily have done so in South Africa in 1994. However, this is precisely where the South African experience speaks the loudest. When the demands of the Women’s Charter became part of South African law and policy from 1994 onwards, the Women’s National Coalition disbanded and its leading members took up positions in political parties and the state. When from 1996 the neo-liberal onslaught came, there was no national women’s movement to oppose it. Up to today South Africa has no national women’s movement, which is part of the reason for the confidence behind the reassertion of patriarchy. So no, a declaration in a charter will not end capital and the state, and yes, such a declaration might scare of those activists with a strong attachment to capital and the state, but it will provide a rallying point for a women’s movement that cannot be neutralized by paper concessions.
It is in such a women’s movement, and not in capitalist laws and policies, that women in Egypt will find the best protection against the marginalization the men in charge of the state and business surely have planned for them.
Egypt today, being in a transitional phase, offers vast scope for a women’s movement not just to mobilize political pressure against patriarchy and its supporting institutions, but to launch direct actions and take over significant resources to dedicate to the liberation of women. With the police discredited and the military nervous about antagonizing the people, an action to take over, for example, a hotel owned by a multi-national or by the elite of the Mubarak era and use it as a women’s shelter, communal kitchen or feminist school has more chance of succeeding than at any other time in the recent past. It is such direct actions that will enable the Egypt women activists to transcend the dependence on the state that has proved so terribly costly for their South African counterparts. Of course women activists have to be prepared politically to take such actions. A giant step in such preparation would be to place the necessity for direct actions in a prime spot within the Egyptian Women’s Charter.
Ronald Wesso (*): Making Women’s Charters in Egypt and South Africa
(*) Ronald Wesso lives in Cape Town. He works at the Surplus People Project, an ngo supporting community struggles for agrarian reform and food sovereignty in South Africa.