Friends and compatriots.

When the women of South Africa converged on these Union Buildings forty years ago, from every corner of South Africa, they created one of the enduring landmarks of our country's history. They declared that women would insist on their role in making history.

Then, they vowed to a stubborn oppressor that they would resist and fight for liberation. Today, at the seat of our first democratic government, you have assembled to affirm the wisdom and farsightedness of those who declare: "Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo;uzokufa!"

The presence of so many women from so many parts of our land underlines the weight of the pledge for women of South Africa to join hands with government for Unity, Peace and Development.

That is a daunting task. The legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.

Yet we can acknowledge on this Women's Day that in its short life, democratic South Africa has marked out significant milestones towards improving the status of women. For this we congratulate the women of South Africa: in government; in business; in trade union and community structures; in religious bodies; in women's organisations and elsewhere.

Our participation in the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing last year put the challenges facing South African women in the context of what is happening elsewhere in the world. It has strengthened the forces for change in our country. As a result we adopted the Beijing Platform for Action in common with 180 other countries.

By ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, South Africa has committed itself to specific and practical guidelines for attaining gender equality and the empowerment of women.

These commitments assist us in our task, because they allow us to draw on the experience and the victories of women across the world.

Our new constitution, in whose drafting women played a key role, commits our society to the equality of women. It is one of our most important milestones.

The challenge now, for government, for women, and for men is to seize the opportunities provided by these new formal instruments, so that women can indeed play their rightful role in transforming our society, in generating sustained economic growth, in reconstruction and development.

For its part Government is proud of the start it has made, with its social partners, in improving the lives of millions of our people. Better access to health care especially for women and young children; nutrition schemes for children; provision of clean water and electricity to communities that never had them; and land reform - these are just some of the first steps in our nation's attack on poverty which weighs so heavily on women in particular.

As we build on this start, we have to ensure that the needs and interests of women inform our policies and the way we implement them. This requires the creation of a framework of commitments throughout government and the establishment of mechanisms for mobilising resources, co-ordinating policies and monitoring implementation.

Yesterday, the Commission on Gender Equality Act was brought into operation by a proclamation which was published in the Government Gazette. The members of the Commission will have the important national responsibility of promoting equality between women and men.

It will be my duty as President, acting on the advice of a Joint Committee or both Houses of Parliament, to appoint the commissioners. Nominations may be submitted up to 6 September. I therefore take this opportunity to urge all South Africans, particularly women, to give this important body their support by submitting nominations. I trust that all parliamentarians, especially women parliamentarians, will ensure that the selection committee is set up within the next two weeks, and that it carries out its work openly, impartially but with speed.

The Gender Commission itself will be part of a broader set of bodies charged with issues relating to gender equality. It will include the Office on the Status of Women in the Presidency - which will be up and running shortly - and mechanisms for giving government departments an effective focus on gender issues.

As a whole, this national machinery will help ensure that government does not merely pay lip-service to its policies concerning women, but actively implements them.

The success of these measures will require of women that you organise to define your needs and priorities and bring them to the attention of government. It will require that you speak with a clear and united voice. It will require speedy movement towards a national and truly representative voice of the women of South Africa.

Let us therefore resolve to treat the establishment of these new structures as a matter of urgency. Let us ensure that the Commission and Office are hard at work by November 25 this year, International Day of No Violence Against Women.

I refer to that date because it has special importance. Violence against women is a serious and escalating evil in our society. It is both a part of the subordination of women and consequence of that inequality.

The statistics, even though they are only partially known, are truly shocking. The fact that an estimated one in six South African women is being abused by their male partner is something that should not be tolerated in any society. This pervasive violence against women has as one its most extreme expressions, the terrible phenomenon of serial murders. We must eradicate this violence against women.

I therefore welcome the initiative of the National Network on Violence Against Women in launching the White Ribbon campaign. I would urge all of you to wear your White Ribbons, as I am doing, to unite against this evil. By doing so you are not only show your solidarity with victims of abuse. You will help spread awareness of what has been too long hidden. You will give a clear message to the perpetrators that what they are doing is beyond the bounds of human conduct.

Our anger should strengthen the resolve of all of us, inside and outside government, individuals, organisations and communities to join hands with the police in combating violent crime. Our ultimate victory in the war against criminals depends on the support and co-operation of every sector of society.

We know that the criminals, including those who abuse women, depend on people around them, women as well as men, keeping silent even though they reject what they are doing. The time has come to speak up and expose the criminals.

Only through a partnership of police and those they serve will we truly achieve the Peace to which August 9th this year is dedicated.

Forty years ago, a legion of brave and determined women dared to throw down the gauntlet at the seat of apartheid power. We honour these veterans. Indeed, the fact that we do not yet have a monument in these environs to acknowledge them is a challenge that we face, as we plan to honour the victims and heroes of our history of struggle. Their inspiring example challenges us all to work together to realise their noble ideals and build a truly non-sexist society.

Let us join hands, in response to the call of the women, for Unity, Peace and Development. Let us enter the new century with concrete results to measure our beautiful words.

Equal power and glory to the Women of South Africa!

I thank you.

Issued by: Office of the President