Contemplating “Gender Equality”

This summer I interned at the Women’s Legal Centre, and I thought about feminism and women’s rights more than I ever have in my entire life. I chose to intern at the Women’s Legal Centre because of my interest in law, social justice and human rights. Before this summer, I didn’t even actively consider myself a feminist (largely due to the stigma associated with the word “feminist” among my peers and my own misunderstanding of what the word “feminist” truly means). I had always believed that men and women should have equal rights, but the topic was not one which I often pondered. I fortunately have never had an experience in which I was discriminated against due to my gender and I did not feel that my gender would impact my future success or lifestyle.

This summer has truly opened my eyes to a whole new branch of social activism: the campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. While South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, I feel that many of the realizations regarding women’s rights and gender equality which I have come to while working at the WLC are just as relevant within the United States. For instance, one of the research projects I did at the WLC was on the legal rights of female domestic partners who were separating from their male partners after years of performing household labor, or “informal sector” work, and raising the children. Such a separation clearly poses a women’s rights issue: the male partner is about to walk away with his salary and all of his savings while the woman does not have any source of income or money saved up. This scenario also occurs frequently in the United States.

Previously when I contemplated women’s rights under the law, I believed that women and men should be completely equal. However, after spending the summer at the WLC, I find the term “gender equality” to be somewhat misleading because it does not acknowledge the differences between the sexes and the different accommodations which need to be made for each gender. The woman in the aforementioned scenario was naturally placed into her role in the partnership, in which she stayed at home and took care of her kids, because she is female. As culture dictates, she is to raise the children and perform domestic duties because she is a woman; furthermore, she is the partner biologically impaired by the birth. Do equal rights in this scenario translate into gender equality, or does the law have to go above and beyond to protect women and guarantee an equal playing field?

Sexual Assault in the Black and White of the Law

As an intern for the Women’s Legal Centre, I had the opportunity to accompany my boss to the University of Cape Town’s Refugee Law Clinic. The Clinic was holding a workshop aimed to educate refugees about South African law, and my boss was giving a presentation on the law surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault. At the end of the presentation a man confidently asked, “I don’t believe that a husband can ever rape his wife. Can you explain why some people believe it is possible for a husband to rape his wife?”

My boss handled the situation extremely well, explaining how in South Africa the law defines rape as any non-consensual sexual act. Even if the sexual act is between a man and a wife, she expounded, if the wife does not want to have sex and the husband proceeds to have sex with her anyways, then legally the husband has committed rape. The man appeared genuinely confused, and went on to share how he frequently has sex with his wife while she is asleep but, “surely that is not rape.” He quickly added how he would never force his wife to have sex immediately after they had an argument, because that would be “inhumane.” My boss again explained that for sex to be legal within South Africa it had to be consensual, even if the sexual act was between a man and his wife: if the man’s wife was not alright with him having sex with her while she was asleep, she could press rape charges against him.

The feminist within me instructed me to be disgusted with this man who believed he was entitled to have sex with his wife whenever he wanted, but for some reason I did not feel outraged by this man’s comments. He was a newly arrived refugee to South Africa, and he was honestly beguiled by the sexual assault law. My boss sensitively explained how in South Africa, all citizens, regardless of gender, have a right to equality and bodily integrity. Yet citizens also have a right to whatever culture or religion they may choose. She told him that legislators and judges always have to be careful to balance these rights, but she also emphasized that there is no constitutional right to sex.

Watching this interaction take place, I was reminded how challenging it is to mold the grey area of sexual assault into the black and white of the law. I was not pleased with this man, but I also understood how he viewed having sex with his sleeping wife to be completely different from a forced or violent sexual act between two strangers. A part of me sympathized with him; I am perhaps equally incredulous that the justice system can categorize such a wide variety of sexual assaults as “rape” when the matter is so much more complex, cultural and personnel. I do believe that non-consensual or forced sex is wrong, but I do not feel that the justice system in either South Africa or the United States has succeeded perfectly in addressing sexual assault and rape.

The Best Constitution?

A noticeable number of South Africans have boasted about their incredible constitution. According to many South Africans, it is the “best constitution in the world,” and for a while I agreed with them. The framework for the Republic of South Africa is exceptionally progressive and entitles all South Africans with the right to “dignity” as well as basic provisioning such as housing and employment. While I was very enamored with the forward thinking legislation during my first month in South Africa, I have recently been pondering if it’s really beneficial to have such a wonderful, progressive constitution if the government cannot deliver and actually ensure the standard of living promised to all South Africans.

As an intern for the Women’s Legal Centre, I had the opportunity to observe a rape trial in the Magistrate’s court. The accused had raped a 14 year old girl. South Africa has a minimum punishment statute of life imprisonment for the rape of a minor. As the Judge delivered his sentence, I was confident I was about to witness justice prevail. The Judge eloquently stated how rape, especially rape of a minor, violates the fundamental human rights, such as dignity and bodily integrity, protected by the South African constitution. Yet he only sentenced the accused to a 15 year prison sentence.

The judge tried to justify his disobedience from the minimum life imprisonment mandate by citing “mitigating factors” about the accused which I did not view to be credible. He claimed that because the accused was only thirty-seven years old, he could be rehabilitated and an asset to society in the future. He also cited how this charge was the accused’s first offence, which did not provide me with any comfort: the rate of rapes actually reported to the authorities is disturbingly low, so just because he had never been accused before does not mean that this was the first time he’d raped a minor. He also referenced other cases in which judges had granted the accused less than the “mandatory” life sentence for raping a minor to support his own decision. My boss later informed me how judges are continually setting a precedent to give out shorter sentences, therefore making it easier to ignore the minimum life imprisonment mandate.

Through interning at the WLC I also had the opportunity to sit in on the Department of Social Development portfolio report to Parliament. One of the Parliament members made a statement that really stuck with me: “all South Africans are entitled to a good retirement, whether they had a good job or not a good job or no job at all.” At first this statement seemed fair; we’re all human, and so we should all be ensured the same comfort and stability when we reach old age. However, once this statement sunk in it left me with an uneasy and confused feeling. Does someone who didn’t take initiative to seek employment and didn’t work a day in his life really deserve the same quality of retirement as someone who labored through terrible conditions, arduously long hours and supported a family? Deepening my feeling of unease, the chairwoman discussed only a few minutes later how government grants are often abused and how the government is currently seen as a “cash cow.” Where does one draw the line between a state which is a proponent of human rights and equality and a welfare state whose citizens feel entitled?

Back to the Starting Point

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

My Duke Engage experience has taught me just as much about the United States as it has about South Africa. I am only two weeks into my Duke Engage experience, and yet I feel as if I have already gained a valuable and comprehensive comparative education. The similarities between the U.S. civil rights movement and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement are striking. Moreover, inequality within South Africa has caused me to reflect upon the rampant and growing inequality within the United States (South Africa is currently the most unequal country in the world, and is reportedly more unequal now than it was at the end of apartheid).

I’ve found it incredibly refreshing how open and honest South Africans are with the less savory aspects of their past as compared to Americans. The palpable and unavoidable remnants of racism in South African society have helped me to more fully understand the complex nature of discrimination and prejudice present in the United States. Learning about apartheid in South Africa has helped me to realize that racism is still very present within the U.S., even if we attempt to conceal our history with layer upon layer of political correctness. Of course, it is important to consider the different logistical challenges each nation faces when confronting its history. In South Africa the formerly marginalized black population composes the vast majority of the country’s population, whereas in the United States African Americans remain a small minority. Pretending racism doesn’t exist is thus much easier in the United States due to the country’s racial composition; since blacks aren’t as prevalent within U.S. society it is easier to ignore the horrors white Americans put them through.

As I contemplate U.S. segregation and apartheid, I nervously wonder what today’s societal injustice might be. Just as I am incredulous of all the people who did not view and treat Blacks as human beings, I fear that one day people will be equally perturbed by my own generation over some terrible human rights violation. We were fortunate enough to meet with the prominent South African journalist Allister Sparks who reminded us that racial segregation is still taking place in the United States, as well as all over the world. Sparks equated our restrictive immigration policies and heavily fortified Mexican border to Apartheid, through which we are keeping colored people out of our affluent, primarily white society.
Ultimately, South Africa’s constitutional “right to dignity” is something we could use in the United States. While there are still terrible human rights violations taking place within South Africa (note the recent Marikana mine workers massacre), at least the constitution recognizes the importance of protecting human self-worth. One of the greatest problems with inequality is that the lives of the lower class are often regarded as cheap and replaceable, something I’ve witnessed not just in South Africa but also in the United States.