Contemporary issues: Women’s struggle, 1900-1994

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A tumultuous history has left women in present day South Africa with a number of challenges to overcome. Most obstacles to the development of women can be related to poverty, violence and abuse, and inadequate access to education, employment, health care, and legal representation.

Poverty is perhaps the most historical and common challenge faced. Most South African women are situated in rural areas, where poverty is most rife. Due to the underdevelopment of these areas, employment is particularly difficult to find, making it more likely for women to depend almost entirely on the wages of their husbands or partners. Government initiatives like child grants, which most South African women as primary caregivers can obtain, have done little to lower levels of poverty.

South African women's financial dependence on their husbands, partners or male relatives has increased their vulnerability to domestic violence, rape, incest and abuse. Women who find themselves in situations of abuse are often silenced to maintain the financial support provided by the male abuser. The task of providing education and support to women victims of violence and abuse is left primarily up to Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) such as People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) and Women Against Women Abuse (WAWA), as police intervention in the fight against has been minimal.

Girl children in South Africa are not only affected by poverty and abuse in the home, but also by the discrimination they face at school with regard to subject choices seen as suitable for male learners, like mathematics and science. Many girls are sexually harassed at school, and are often forced to drop out due to a pregnancy, possibly caused by rape. Drug, alcohol abuse and prostitution to support a habit are challenges most frequently faced by girls in urban areas. This invariably affects their chance to receive a good education. Although girls in urban areas tend to be better educated with regard to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) transmission, the rate of infection amongst school girls in this demographic is cause for concern. Despite the many challenges to overcome with regard girl children's education, more girls are participating in higher education in South Africa than before.

Among the health challenges that women in South Africa are faced with, the lack of access to adequate pre-natal and HIV-treatment seems to be the most common.

Under the Constitution of South Africa, women received formal recognition as equal citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities. However, the reality of everyday life in South Africa does not indicate the realization of this, despite recent legislation with regard to the protection and promotion of women's rights.

In one particular aspect of the recognition of women's rights, South Africa has improved remarkably. This is with regard to equality in the workplace. Government and state-owned enterprises seem to be most progressive where this is concerned.

The women's struggle in South Africa has been fueled by both systems of apartheid and patriarchy. It is evident that, with the legacy left by these systems, the women's struggle will continue.

Last updated : 10-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011

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