Challenges of Rural Women Thabiso Bobo

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Challenges of Rural Women

Thabiso Bobo
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in which equality of all citizens is guaranteed. Chapter 2 of the Constitution guarantees the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. The country has also ratified and signed a vast range of regional and international human rights instruments. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) enacted in the United Nations and ratified by South Africa on the 15 December 1995 provides an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s human rights. The Beijing Platform for Action seeks to accelerate state mechanisms for advancing gender equality. There is also The SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, The Africa Charter on Women and People‘s Rights, as well as the Maputo Declaration on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
However, while there are all these instruments in place for the protection of women’s rights and to ensure the full participation of women in society, women, especially in the rural areas, still struggle to access these rights. The community research led by Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, undertaken nationally for the CEDAW Shadow Report of 2011, revealed that while some women have gained a measure of equality with men, and while some women no longer experience discrimination; the majority of women are mired in poverty and face untold discrimination in the family, the workplace, communities and society as a whole. This discrimination is manifested in numerous ways but, most critically across the country, in violence against women and girls.
A South African Household survey shows that 52% of South Africa’s total population is women. Of those, almost half (47%) are living in non-urban/rural areas. The number of rural women differs drastically between the population groups. 57% of African women live in rural areas as compared to only 17% of ‘Coloured’ women and 8% of White women. South Africa’s unemployment rate, increased in 1999 to 36.2%, with a higher unemployment rate of 45% in non-urban/rural areas as compared to 32% in urban areas. The unemployment rate amongst rural women amounts to 53% for all population groups as compared to 37% amongst rural men. In addition, amongst rural African women the unemployment rate amounts to 56% as compared to 21% amongst rural ‘Coloured’ women and only 5% amongst rural White women.
The above statistics indicate that the majority of black women continue to live under extremely poor conditions in rural areas. These areas are characterized by lack of socio-economic development and infrastructure, as well as lack of opportunities for employment and income generation. Additionally, rural women are faced with limited access to education and skills training, which further contributes to a life of poverty. Historically, rural women have lacked access to basic services and opportunities, a situation that, sadly, persists even today. This paper will examine the disjuncture between the desired position stated in government documents and the lived reality of rural women in South Africa.

South African Policy on Healthcare 2007 requires an active participation in health decision making by patients, enabling self-care especially for chronic and disabled patients and community participation approach. It further acknowledges that in these areas, there needs to be targeted development efforts and new methods of delivering quality healthcare. For example, good quality care cannot be provided without high-quality doctors, but in many remote rural areas there are too few doctors. One approach is to limit new private medical practices in areas where there is already an oversupply of procedure contained in the National Health Act, i.e. Act 61 of 2003. Poor women are particularly affected by long distances to clinics and associated transport costs since they generally have lower salaries, are more frequently unemployed and have less access to transport than men. Because of a strong patriarchal system, the ability of women to engage in decision making about their own health is a further inhibitor to them accessing health care. Maternal mortality rates are alarmingly high and of grave concern to the state and communities.

Accessing health care in the public health clinics and hospitals is challenging for young rural women. Many are too far away from health facilities. Many health facilities are poorly resourced. Women face healthcare workers who are critical and judgmental towards young women and do not maintain confidentiality. Female condoms are not easily accessible to females compared to male condoms and this creates barriers as well in achieving the elimination of teenage pregnancies and HIV infections. This is serious as it results in school drop-outs, maternal deaths and stigmatization of young women. This has also proved that particularly rural young women are more likely to be HIV infected than their male peers because they are predisposed to violence and risky sexual relationships.

One has to evaluate the government policies and programs to alleviate the plight of women using the constitution, stated policy of the government and how far it has met its own goals and the demands of the people and women in particular.


General Household Survey {GHS} 2006) indicates that South Africa has made enormous progress in addressing the education of the previously marginalized black population. The previous government did not promote formal schooling for black children but the new government has succeeded in enrolling 98% of all children at primary school level. This was achieved by making schooling for children between the ages of 6-14 compulsory. The proportion of girls under 19 years attending school increased from 21% to 66% between 1995 and 1999. In the years from 2002-2006, 81% of the population aged 15-19 was attending school and the majority of the students were women. Despite the above, rural young women still face many challenges including delayed and cut education due to long distances to get to school, poorly resourced school, educators who sexually harass them, bullying and others. The physical infrastructure alone in many rural schools still falls far too short. Eastern Cape Province alone has 421 mud structures which they call school.
Even though there has been much reform, in rural areas social and cultural patterns, combined with the relatively poor quality of schooling, place girls and their education and development in a disadvantaged position. One major challenge is the unacceptable rate of violence and harassment against girls. Girls and their education are also disproportionately affected by cultural and economic issues like domestic duties, transport, and school fees. Many girls drop out of school before they reach grade 12. Other girls drop-out to head households in cases when the children have been orphaned by HIV-AIDS.

Harmful and cultural practices
The South African Constitution guarantees the right to equality of all citizens although established cultural norms are often at odds with these Constitutional provisions. However, government and the judicial system have consistently upheld the rights of women against culture based oppression and entrenched the supremacy of the Constitution. Women remain subjected to numerous harmful cultural traditional and religious practices across all sectors and in all communities. This impedes their access to rights. Rural women are especially vulnerable as they are forced to subscribe to tribal authorities who do not favour women‘s rights. (eg The princess NomaXhosa Sigcawu who claimed her chieftaincy and felt discriminated against on the basis of sex and gender, based on customary law rule on that community that only the oldest male heir could become a chief).
Access to land in rural communities is male dominated. Inheritance after the death of a spouse is taken up by male members of the family and women are often left destitute. Many women‘s groups report how they are requested to assist women who have lost their homes and possessions after the death of a partner. Some are thrown out into the street without any further support. This practice increases poverty and women‘s vulnerability in general.Customs or traditions further contribute to the poverty of women. An example of this can be seen in the Eastern Cape, where some women are subjected to the customary assumption that only men can own property
Forced marriages of particularly young women and girls, interrupts their education. Forced marriages include the rape of the victim which often leads to enormous health problems compromising sexual and reproductive health and rights including women being denied the authority to negotiate safer sex practices. This leads to further mental and physical ill health which prevents full participation of the young women in family and community life. Culture, tradition and religion play a very significant role in women‘s lives guiding and influencing most aspects of their lives. People in rural areas believe in ancestors, traditional healers and so on and witchcraft is believed to be the casual agent in HIV transmission. Witches /sorcerers are often blamed for illness and misfortune (and we all know that the majority of those are unfortunately women- who are brutally murdered, burnt, etc)
Harmful cultural and traditional and religious practices mar the lives of rural women increasing their vulnerability to poverty, violence and other forms of oppressions and discrimination. These beliefs should be taken into account and integrated into HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. Much more is required of the State to ensure substantive equality for rural women.
Service delivery and Lack of opportunities

Service delivery or lack thereof, impacts not only on standards of living, health status and well being, but also affects the overall socio-political and socio-economic conditions of communities, and therefore impacts on the overall quality of life. Socio-economic development and the level of services are closely interlinked with gender. Women are the ones who have little or no provision of services. Since women, based on their reproductive and care-taking roles, are the main consumers of services, they are mostly affected when services are inadequate. Women carry the brunt of the burden of finding alternatives for lack of service provision or when services are inaccessible due to costs. In other words, the provision of basic services is not only 'fundamental to women's health and well-being' but also impacts on the quality of life of their family and therefore the community as a whole. (Water, electricity/wood, roads/transport)

There is a huge lack of opportunities in rural areas particularly for women. Young women travel to cities in a hope to find job opportunities and to improve their standard of living. The South Africa government is trying to fill this gap but there are still challenges. This is evident in a recent case of a 19 year old woman named Akhona Geveza who was training as a sea cadet under a South African government programme. The programme was designed to encourage women to take up positions in areas of work that are largely outside of the ambit of women’s work opportunities. Transnet developed this programme and recruited about 100 young women and men from previously disadvantaged and rural communities to participate in this training. It was an exciting opportunity for the young people concerned. However for Akhona it was the end of her life as she reported being raped and disappeared before the hearing could take place.
In conclusion, for the majority of women in South Africa, existing socio-economic rights, as guaranteed in the constitution, remains inaccessible resulting in the perpetuation and increase, as well as the feminization of poverty. Furthermore, especially for rural women and women on farms the constitutional guarantees of equality and nondiscrimination remains merely theoretical rights that lack practical implementation. What remain are women's day-to-day realities marked by the struggle for pure survival that is additionally determined by deteriorating socio-economic conditions and lack of development. In summary it can be argued that only the effectiveness of the translation from the theory of equality and non-discrimination into the practice of empowerment and socio-economic upliftment of rural women and the poor will be one of the main criteria determining success or failure of South Africa’s transformation process.

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