Equal Rights an Empty Promise for South African Women, Black or White


The fading scars on Anu Pillay’s body are signs of the 11 years her husband habitually beat and raped her. Inside, the hidden trauma heals more slowly.

She remembers police officers who were sent to investigate the abuse sitting down to drink with her husband. She remembers hospital staffers releasing her into his custody even though his beatings--once splitting the back of her head open with an iron pipe--put her there in the first place.

“There is a state of confusion in South African culture regarding abusive behavior,” said Pillay, 35, who is now divorced and counsels abused women. “No one understands that it is wrong because it is so pervasive.”

President Nelson Mandela campaigned on a promise of equal rights and a better life for all. But South African women still face laws and attitudes that in many ways relegate them to second-class citizenship.

Although a new constitution and bill of rights guaranteeing full rights for women took effect with the first all-race election in April, social attitudes spawned from male-dominated cultures--white and black--still prevail.


“We have seen democracy spread throughout the government, but we haven’t seen democracy go through the house, through the kitchen and into the bedroom,” said Gille De Vlieg of the Black Sash, a human rights group formed by women.

Women account for more than half of South Africa’s 40 million people. They hold only two of the 28 positions on Mandela’s Cabinet and about one-quarter of the seats in the new Parliament.

In day-to-day life, stark discrimination and disparities exist.

Standard Bank, one of South Africa’s largest, this year stopped requiring women to get husbands’ permission to open their own checking accounts. Despite the change, four Standard Bank tellers recently told an Associated Press reporter she would need her husband’s signature to open an account.

“As a woman, you are treated as a minor--as a person who is incapable of having dreams and making decisions,” said Jean Ngubane of the Women’s National Coalition.

Violence against women--rapes, assaults, battering--occurs often, activists say. Researchers at the group People Opposed to Women Abuse estimate that one of every six women will be physically abused.

South African police say more than 27,000 rapes were reported last year. That is about 1 1/2 times the rate in the United States, where nearly 105,000 rapes were reported for a population six times that of South Africa’s.

The Women’s National Coalition estimates only 5% of rape victims report the crime. It says South African courts have historically treated rape and domestic abuse as private matters, dismissing cases or suspending sentences indefinitely.

Siza Koomba, who works at the nation’s largest black daily newspaper, said her complaints of regular sexual harassment--lewd comments, unwanted touches--go unanswered by male supervisors, sometimes drawing bursts of laughter.

“Men here don’t think that you have a right to complain,” she said.

Abuse is a problem in all racial groups, activists say. But it is particularly bad for black women, who remain tied to tribal customs and traditions that leave them powerless in their homes and lives.

Traditional tribal laws minimize penalties for domestic abuse. White courts often defer to tribal law on family matters.

“Women’s lives are affected by culture, and sexism is endemic to black African culture,” said Thuli Madonsela of the Center for Applied Legal Studies, a human rights research group.

Sinah Themba recalled her parents arranging her marriage 20 years ago to a husband she had never seen for the going price at the time--one cow, three goats and 500 rand ($145). Similar practices continue today, she said.