FHR Statement for International Women’s Day 2021

Attention: Current affairs editors and producers

For immediate release

8 March 2021, Johannesburg

It has been 72 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 26 years since the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, more than 25 years into our South African democracy and yet no country in the world has achieved gender equality. [1]

Not one country.

The global theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021 is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.  Sadly, women still face significant cultural, socio-economic and political barriers to accessing leadership. Achieving women’s equality and socio-economic independence are not only important for domestic development and growth but also constitute a vital part of a sustained development and democracy. If we are to meet the ambitious target set by  Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5.5 focusing on ensuring “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life we must address gender imbalances at every level.

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the situation of women and girls in world. Many women and girls have faced an increased burden of care, assuming multiple care responsibilities at home, taking care of the children, the elderly and their families. Many women have lost and are continuing to lose their jobs, and sources of income. Unemployment levels continue to rise and young and black women continue to be at the receiving end. Between April and May 2020,the Foundation for Human Rights conducted an online survey of 127 Community Advice Offices (CAO) throughout South Africa and the findings revealed that 54% of CAOs reported an increase in GBV incidents during lockdown, across all provinces. The pandemic has been a setback to the advancement and progress of women both nationally and on a global scale. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), women make up 70% of the health workforce, yet they hold only 25% of senior roles. In South Africa, in business only one of the top 40 listed JSE companies has a female CEO. About 68% of all senior management positions are held by men and women hold only 32% of executive positions.[2]

Various studies have shown that women are very much capable of leading, just as well as their male counterparts. If anything COVID response has illustrated this, countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Taiwan and Norway, all led by women, have shown low rates of COVID infection and death. So why it is that women continue to lack access to opportunities due to structural barriers and institutional mindsets? Attitudes such as silencing, erasure, discrimination, lack of support, harassment –it is these deeply rooted dynamics that continue to undermine and undervalue women. In this 21st Century, we need a radical shift, new ways of thinking and new strategies to ensure that more is done to give all women the best possible chances of rising to the top. To bridge the gap, businesses must fight against leadership stereotypes that affects their workforce and give women a fair chance to lead. Organisations must create opportunities and provide tools and support to enable them to succeed. The visibility of women in leadership positions is very critical. We know that progress in women’s leadership will not happen automatically, therefore we need to be deliberate about giving women opportunities, creating conducive environments for them to thrive, affording them knowledge, skills and resources necessary to build them into the capable leaders that we know they can be. The increasing levels of unemployed young women tertiary graduates demonstrates overwhelmingly that women remain an underutilized, dynamic pool of talent.

South Africa is a country of many contradictions when it comes to political leadership. Globally it is ranked as the tenth best country in the world in terms of the number of women in parliament. Yet there is not much to there is not much to celebrate when one considers the high levels of gender based violence, poverty and unemployment. Significant numbers of women, mainly Black African women, remain in low-productivity jobs, often in informal sector with very poor access to technology if any at all.  Vulnerable groups of women who already face multiple layers of exclusion are hit even harder by reduced economic opportunities and food shortages. These include women and girls with disabilities, migrant women, and gender non-conforming persons given the barriers to mobility and lack of accessible information and services targeted to their needs.

Whilst we acknowledge there is still a long way to go, women have started to break through glass ceilings in some sectors, especially in previously male dominated fields such as manufacturing, finance, big business, science, engineering, mathematics, technology, ICT related fields, mining and construction. [3]It has been proven that when women are employed and successful in business, it drives economic growth. Money in women’s hands literally means, women are able to feed their families, (reducing food insecurity), have access to basic healthcare, enhance their safety, including protection from the increased risk of gender-based violence.

Deconstructing the barriers to women’s ability to respond to crises and increasing their access to and control over resources is critical in this challenging economic landscape. As we envision a world beyond COVID we need a capable, resourced and strong women’s leadership. The Foundation for Human Rights under its Masibambisane project, has undertaken to partner with local communities in almost every province in the country, to enhance the capacity of women and youth to lead local initiatives aimed at addressing GBV including the formation of local GBV community structures or forums in each community. This project builds on other existing models that take a zero-tolerance approach to addressing GBV and also serves as a follow up to the provincial workshops on GBV that the Foundation held with a specific focus on medical forensics and legal aspects of GBV.

Unless women are empowered to take up space and lead we will continue to face problems in our society and attainment of gender equality will remain a pipe dream.

  • ENDS    –

Media enquiries/requests contact:

Ms Lindiwe Sibiya

Cell:0826347154

Ms Sarah Motha and Ms Rumbidzai E. Chidoori are available for media interviews.

About the Foundation for Human Rights

The Foundation for Human Rights (the Foundation) is a grant making institution supporting civil society organisations in South Africa, and the region, to implement programmes which promote and protect human rights. The FHR’s mission is to address the historical legacy of apartheid, to promote and advance transformation in the country and to build a human rights culture using the Constitution as a tool.


[1] According to the World Economic Forum, no advanced or middle-income economy has reduced the gender gap below 7 percentage points.

[2] Covid-19 and women leadership struggles in South Africa available at https://www.polity.org.za/article/covid-19-and-women-leadership-struggles-in-south-africa-2020-06-03#:~:text=South%20Africa%20also%20scores%20poorly,only%2032%25%20of%20executive%20positions.

[3] South Africa’s Report on the Progress made on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action 2014- 2019 available at https://www.readkong.com/page/south-africa-s-report-department-of-women-6812898

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