The Ministry of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities: A Cure All for All Kinds of Inequalities?
During the transition to democracy feminist activists and academics recommended an integrated set of structures placed in the state to ensure gender equality. These recommendations resulted in the National Gender Machinery (NGM) consisting of the autonomous Commission on Gender Equality; a Women’s Caucus, a Women’s Empowerment Unit, and the pivotal Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) in parliament. All state departments got a gender desk. Over time many of these structures became dysfunctional due to overlapping mandates and oversight functions, as well as personalized politics.
While the issue of a Women’s Ministry was raised during the transitional phase it was never considered a viable option for the following reasons: limited success in terms of policy impact both in the West and in developing countries, and a dumping ground for all issues dealing with women, while it absolves all other ministries from taking gender into consideration.
Experiences of Ministries of Women’s Affairs in developed countries have shown that they are dependent on the political administration in power. All ministers have to rely on the good will of political leaders who appoint them. In Africa women’s ministries are closely tied to nation building and co-optation by the government in support of the status quo, as well as constant restructuring of these ministries to fit the government’s agenda.
Yet, at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007 the idea of a women’s ministry was raised and when President Zuma appointed his cabinet in 2009 he announced the formation of a Ministry of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities to be headed by Minister Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya. She had to get the Ministry off the ground with a limited budget and experience in matters related to women, children and disabilities. (A fear that lumping all these “identity groups” into one ministry will lose the focus on women is not unfounded). This newspaper (23 December to 7 Junuary 2010) gave Minister Mayende-Sibiya an E on the cabinet report card, mainly for a lack of action in the Ministry.
That the Ministry is struggling to get going is a fact, but given that the ministry now forms part of the NGM it would be more productive to consider the reconfiguration of structures in the NGM to determine if there is space for improvement on previous structures. The JMC has been replaced by the Select Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities (Parliament) and the Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities (National Council of Provinces). These two committees have their own plans of action and work in tandem with the Ministry.
The Select Committee seems to be plagued by a lack of attendance of meetings (the same problem the JMC had to battle) but the Portfolio Committee has a built a substantial track record of action over the past nine months that demonstrates a seriousness of purpose.
The mandate of the PC includes the following: oversight of the executive, monitoring and evaluation of legislation, lobbying, and ensuring that the necessary budgets are allocated. On the legislative side it needs to initiate legislation and ensure that targeted groups are mainstreamed into the functions of government departments. It will also ensure compliance with international treaties and create opportunities for public participation on matter arising in relation to the target groups.
The PC has set aside certain thematic areas for its work for the first five years: 2009 violence and socially vulnerable groups, 2010 poverty, survival and development, 2011 poverty and economic empowerment, 2012 education and skills development, 2013 the ministry and machineries on which it will spend 60% of its time.
Under the chairpersonship of Barbara Thompson the PC has so far liaised with government agencies around issues of gender, children and disabilities and has also build stronger relationships with civil society in the following ways:
The PC was briefed by the Department of Police on violence against women, ukuthwala and child murders. It was also briefed on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, and Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act. The Department of Education briefed the PC on teenage pregnancies and the Department of Justice on violence against women and children. From the side of civil society it was briefed by Tswaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and by RAPCAN on the impact of the Sexual Offences Act on children. The Ministry was also requested to brief the PC on its budget and strategic plan for financial year 2009/10.
Of great importance are public hearings conducted by the PC on the 11th year of the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act from June to November 2009, therefore ensuring that the voice of the public is taken into consideration.
The PC will initiate the following legislation: Recognition of Muslim Marriages, Prevention and Combating of Trafficking, Amendments to Customary Marriages Law of Succession, to the Communal Land Rights Act, Traditional Courts Act, as well as oversight over the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Offences Act and Child Justice Act. Action regarding these laws is well overdue.
Given the comprehensive nature of the work of the PC and its commitment to getting the work done we should ask what role the Ministry needs to play. Rather than duplicating certain areas of work, the ministry would be well advised to have a coordination function of the three units that will be located in it (women, children and persons with disabilities), leaving oversight and monitoring to the Portfolio Committee and Select Committee.
- Amanda Gouws, Women in the executive: Can women's ministries make a difference?, GAP Policy Brief
- GAP & WCNOVAW, Submission on the 11-Year Implementation of the Domestic Violence Act
- Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Domestic Violence Act implementation: 10 year review by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre & Gender Advocacy Programme