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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

South Africa: Gender Inequality

South Africa: Gender Inequality
Date distributed (ymd): 990822
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+ +gender/women+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains excerpts from a Women's Day speech to the Professional Women's League of KwaZulu Natal, laying out the implications of gender inequality for strategies for economic development. The focus is on South Africa, but the clear explication of the themes is relevant for other countries as well

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Note to readers: The Africa Policy Electronic List resumes with this posting after a three-week vacation break. The last previous postings were on July 31. A reminder to new and old readers: This selection of two to three policy-relevant documents a week does not provide regular "news" coverage on any of the topics or countries covered. To the extent possible, each posting refers to original sources which can be consulted for more extensive and regular information. For links to a wide variety of country-specific and thematic links to news and background information, visit:

Gender Inequality and the Economy:
Empowering Women in the new South Africa

Keynote speech at Professional Women's League of
KwaZuluNatal, August 9, 1999

Excerpts only in this posting; the full speech is available on Womensnet (

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By Zarina Maharaj

This is the last Women's Day of the last decade of this century and of this millennium. This last decade of the 1990s in SA is destined to be stamped in history with two outstanding achievements. One is the birth of a constitutional state and multiparty democracy based on one-person-one-vote. The other is the constitutional commitment to eliminating discrimination in our country, particularly the racial and gender discrimination responsible for the gross inequalities that divide and haunt us as a nation.

One such inequality is in income. South Africa has one of the largest income inequalities in the world. The average income of the richest 20% of South African households, largely white, is 45 times more than the average income of the poorest 20% of households, largely black and mostly African. ...

Where do women fit into this picture of income inequality? The majority of the nation's poor are women. Of these, rural African women, whose incomes are mainly from pensions and remittances from relatives, are the majority of the poorest of the poor, defined as those belonging to households which fall in the poorest 20% of South African households with an income of between R400 and R700 per month. According to Statistics SA (SSA), which has compared the incomes of households headed by women with those of households headed by men, over 37% of women-headed households in non-urban areas fall in the category of the poorest 20% of households in the country, as compared with 23% of male-headed households in non-urban areas. In urban areas, 15% of women-headed households are among the poorest 20% of households, as compared with 5% of male-headed households there. ...

Apart from inequalities in income, there are other racial and gender inequalities. In SA there is glaring unequal access to social resources like land, healthcare, credit, information, education and decision-making power between the races and between the sexes. ...

What unites us as South African women across the diversity of our race, religion and socio-economic status is that we do not enjoy the same access as the men in our social groups to our country's resources. But precisely how male domination and female subordination in society play out in South Africa and how it affects our particular experiences and the quality of our lives, differs sharply according to whether we are white, African, Coloured or Indian. It is African women who make up the majority of those suffering the experiences of being poor; it is rural African women who make up the majority of the poorest of the poor, those who do not have enough to eat.

Male domination arising from such inequalities is reflected in the rapes, femicides and other sexual violence affecting mostly poor women that have today reached such crisis proportions. One in every three women in SA is in an abusive relationship, a woman is killed by her partner every six days and there is a rape every 35 seconds. No wonder we are the rape capital of the world! This is now being seen as a national disaster requiring emergency measures. Let us for a moment remember, with South African women across the country, the victims of sexual violence, murder and assault.

Such violence, which is putting an enormous strain on health facilities and costing the economy millions of rands each year, is being nurtured by gender inequalities which make women poorer than men. I will discuss some of these here.

Let me start with the inequality in the wages of men and women in the formal sector of the economy, the sector whose goods and services are counted in calculations of the GDP. This discussion is based on a study by Carolyn Winter, the results of which were shared with women activists by Judith Edstrom when she was in SA with the World Bank.

The educational attainment of the South African population varies by race from an average of under six years for Africans and Coloureds to eight years for Indians and almost ten years for whites. But surprisingly it is relatively equal for both men and women, compared with many countries, where men have more schooling than women

Of those in the labour force, women have an average of 1,2 years more education than men. Globally, years of education is a predictor of occupation and occupation is a predictor of wage levels. We would therefore expect that South African women would do reasonably well on the remuneration front, especially in professional and technical employment where 21% of economically active women are represented as compared with only 12% of economically active men. This strong showing of women in the professional and technical fields lies partly in their orientation towards teaching and nursing.

However, South African women's wages average only 87% of men's in the formal labour force. The breakdown by race presents a further surprise: African women's wages are actually identical to African men's. But African women average two more years of education than African men. On this basis their salaries should be 20% more. Moreover, white women's salaries average 67% of white men's despite having equal educational attainment. Coloured women's educational advantage over men also fails to translate into a wage advantage. Indian women do not have an educational advantage over Indian men so their lower salaries in relation to their menfolk does not irk as much.

... Women's wages do not reflect their human capital. And simply because of their sex.

As is to be expected, the average hourly earnings of all women employees across both the formal and informal sectors (and this includes domestic workers) is also less than that of men employees. According to gender statistics produced by Statistics South Africa (SSA), African women's earnings average 89% of African men's; white women's average 60% of white men's; Indian women's average 74% of Indian men's; and Coloured women 's earnings average 82% of Coloured men's.

There are also statistics revealing inequalities in levels of employment, levels of education, decision-making positions, access to health facilities and so on. But I will not go into these here. Instead, I want to turn to a very useful single measure of the overall extent of gender inequality in a country. It is a measure used by the UNDP, which devised it, for comparing the levels of gender inequality both in different countries and at different stages in the development of one country.

This measure is based on the UNDP's so-called Human Development Index, HDI for short. The HDI allows countries to be ranked in order of their human or social development. In extracting the indicators needed to calculate the HDI, the UN asked: what are the basic capabilities that people must have to participate in and contribute to the devlopment of their society? The answer was: an ability to lead a long and healthy life, to be knowledgeable and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. These factors translate into a society's life expectancy at birth; its level of educational attainment; and the income regarded as adequate for a decent standard of living. The HDI measures a country's achievement in providing these basic capabilities to its population as a whole.

Now when such achievement in basic capabilities is measured for only the women of a population, it is called the Gender Development Index or GDI. The difference between the HDI and the GDI thus amounts to a measure of the gender inequality in these basic capabilities - capabilities which impact on a person's access to the rest of society's resources. As such, the difference between the HDI and the GDI is an indicator of the overall gender difference in access to society's resources, an indicator of the overall gender inequality in a nation.

I have used this measure in previous writings about women's situation in society and have introduced a name for it because it is so useful. I have called it GIM, the Gender Inequality Measure, not previously named (GIM is not to be confused with GEM, which is an indicator of the decision-making power of women).

If you look at the HDI and GDI of South Africa for 1996, 1997 and 1998, you will find GIM has steadily been increasing. This means growing gender inequalities in SA, in spite of some women's empowerment efforts already having taken off. The increase in GIM can be explained by gender inequalities in life expectancy implied by the higher rate at which women are becoming HIV-infected relative to men. More than 90% of South Africans with Aids are Africans, mainly aged between 15 and 40. Over two thirds of these are women, whose infection rate is escalating faster than men's.

The rate of infection is greatest among people between 15 and 25, the majority of them African, with girls and young women especially at risk: for every one male that is infected, two females are. In fact, while a third more South Africans have contacted the virus since 1997, there is a shocking 65% increase in the rate of infection of women of all races aged between 15 and 19. And a 40% increase since 1997 amongst women as a whole.

The huge costs to the economy, direct and hidden, is a topic in itself, which time does not allow me to discuss.

The increase in GIM is also explained by the trend of women's incomes falling more rapidly than men's to below the poverty line. Globally, it has been established that 50% more women as compared with 30% more men have become income-impoverished over the last few years. This is the so-called 'feminisation of poverty'. ...

Let us look at this growing inequality in South Africa picked up by GIM from the point of view of its effect on the economy. I will show that such inequality is bad for the economy because it stifles the contribution women make to social development and economic growth.

In an article in a 1997 issue of Agenda, a South African women's journal, the economist Dori Posel discusses her research on the expenditure patterns of households in SA. She has found that households headed by women spend more income on the nutritional needs of children than male-headed households. And that if consumption patterns in male-headed households were to mirror those in female-headed households, the incidence of malnutrition in SA would fall by at least 12%. She found also that women, even in households that they share with men, tend to spend more on children on items other than food. Unlike men, who even in poor households withhold income for personal consumption of things like beer and cigarettes, women's income is more tied up with the collective needs of the family. A woman would be more likely than a man to spend her overtime pay or bonus on something like a winter coat or school fees for her child.

Such evidence is telling. An income in the hands of a woman has a bigger multiplier effect in terms of greater benefits to child health and family welfare and education than the same income in the hands of a man. Put differently, women's incomes go further towards household survival and human capital investment than men's. This finding is backed by research in other countries. ...

Because women spend a greater proportion of their income on family nutrition and welfare than men, raising their incomes amounts to accelerating poverty alleviation and the quality of life of their families more rapidly than doing the same for men. This means quicker improvements in productivity and economic output.

But spinoffs via the family to the economy have been found to come not just from improving the income generating prospects of women. Improving women's health and education has been found to be another cost-effective route to growing the economy.

A World Bank report entitled 'Enhancing Women's Participation in Economic Development' starts from the premise that economic development is best served when scarce public resources are invested where they yield the highest social and economic returns. It shows, on the basis of worldwide studies that it has carried out, that such returns are, on the whole, greater for women than for men.

For example, in countries where modern agricultural technologies have been introduced, returns on an additional year of women's education range from 2% to 15%, more than the returns for the same educational investment in men. Policy experiments in Kenya suggest that primary schooling for women agricultural workers raises their agricultural yields by as much as 24%.

Improving women's educational levels also lowers fertility and slows population growth, which is a return central to sustainable development. Better educated women also means a reduction in infant mortality. It was found that even with an extremely poor country with a GDP per person of $300, a doubling of female secondary school enrolments reduced the infant mortality rate from 105 deaths to 78 deaths per 1000 live births.

Such a drop is greater than that achieved by direct health interventions that cost the same as doubling the secondary school attendance for girls. In developing nations like ours, children of educated mothers perform better on pre-school tests and daughters of educated mothers hold fewer stereotypical sex attitudes than do daughters of non-literate mothers. Moreover, the school participation rates of rural girls increase far more when their mothers' education changes from none to primary level than when their father's education changes in this way.

There are also significant payoffs to development when scarce resources are invested in the health of women. Take one example. It has been found that public spending to improve the healthcare for adult women aged between 15 and 44 - women of reproductive age - offers a bigger return on healthcare spending than for any other population group of adults. The major causes of disability and death of women of this age worldwide include illnesses associated with pregnancy and childbirth, respiratory infections and anaemia, TB, STD's and AIDS. All six of these illnesses can either be prevented or treated for less than a $100 per woman for a year of healthy life gained. For men on the other hand, only 3 out of the 10 illnesses afflicting them can be prevented or treated for less than a $100.

Similar analyses are still to be made in SA, but the statistics disaggregated by gender required for such studies are already coming together. Statistics on Aids together with others such as those in the SSA booklet 'Women and Men in South Africa' constitute a baseline for such analyses as well as for measuring and monitoring progress in women's access to various resources from year to year. As such gender statistics are a tool for monitoring progress in the empowerment of women.

Such findings by the World Bank provide overwhelming evidence for what is becoming received wisdom in economists' circles: that investing in women's education, health and income-generating opportunities strongly contribute to an improved quality of life of a nation and to poverty alleviation, thus providing a more cost-efficient route to economic growth and human capital development than if this growth were left to men alone.

This is why empowerment and economic growth need and feed each other. This is why empowerment aimed at the equality of women is a catalyst for economic growth. This is why women's issues are issues of social justice as well as of economics.

Perhaps those reluctant to support the cause of gender equality in SA will change their minds when they realise that their pockets are affected by this issue: the bigger the national cake, the bigger all our slices, men's and women's. If nothing else will persuade them, men have an economic stake in women's well-being. Gender discrimination stunts our economic growth and everyone's development. ...

To conclude: As SA sheds the legacy of its iniquitous past into a future founded on social justice and equality, there are 1001 issues clawing for attention. But there are real resource and capacity constraints which limit giving each one of them the attention they deserve. It is therefore critical that from this multitude of issues a set of priorities be extracted that will deliver efficiently on the goal of the upliftment of our society. I have tried to show why the empowerment of women is one such priority issue - advancing social justice through gender equality has an economic spinoff: it accelerates social and economic development.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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