Early struggles towards gender equality took the sameness approach which encapsulate practices and procedures that seek to ensure equal rights, treatment and same opportunities between men and women especially in the public sphere. The sameness approach has been widely criticized on the basis that women, in this case, would then be expected to perform to the standards set by men and men are set as the yardstick against which women are measured.
At a later stage, the gender struggle changed the focus to address gender equity or issues of difference. This approach embodies preferential treatment of employees based on their special needs. This includes women’s unique (reproductive) needs. To this effect policies/legislation such as maternity leave are put in place to allow women to recover from child-birth without of fear for dismissal from employment on the basis of pregnancy.
However, the main concern with regards to this approach has been that employers may choose to refrain from employing women to avoid having to put in place the provisions such as maternity leave. It is also important to note that in the recent past there has also been advocacy for more time given for paternity and parental leave to encourage the sharing of child-care and domestic responsibility between fathers and mothers.
Another form of special treatment is ‘positive action’ which refers to the adoption of specific measures, on behalf of the disadvantaged groups to remedy past discrimination and as a way of leveling the playing field. One form of positive action is affirmative action, which in the case of women, as one of the designated groups, was adopted to rectify women’s previous disadvantages and increasing gender disparities. These approaches have been embedded in legislation and work-place policies.
However, neither of the two approaches challenge the status quo. For example, positive action addresses equity issues to achieve mainly a gender parity in high positions in politics and the workplace but leaves root of the problem, which is unequal gender relations intact.
To achieve full equality it is important to consider addressing not only equality and equity issues but also mainstreaming gender in the institutional systems, including policies, practices procedures etc.
The third equality approach is Gender Mainstreaming (GM) which emerged in the 1980 and was adopted by the UN Beijing Platform for Action (BPA), in the Fourth World Conference for Women (FWCW) in 1995, to address gender inequality across nations. The BPA was ratified by many countries including South Africa. The BPA requires the establishment of institutional mechanisms to carry out the implementation of gender mainstreaming across nations.
Gender mainstreaming could assist in dealing with complex gender inequality brought about by unjust patriarchal and traditional cultures. Unlike other approaches, gender mainstreaming takes the ‘long agenda’ approach which entails addressing unequal gender relations based on the patriarchal culture, structures and systems that lie at the root of subordination and which perpetuate gender discrimination. This also entails the transforming the decision-making, structures and processes, rearticulating policy-ends and means from a gender perspective.
Many countries, including South Africa, have adopted GM, as required by the BPA, and has legislated it as a ‘soft law’. Such laws have no teeth and are not legally binding. There are no allocations of financial and human resources, no time-table for action, no specific measures for its implementation, no monitoring its application, and sanctioning of non-compliant actors. For instance, the EU sets targets but the implementation of policies is left to member states and monitoring is done only through annual reports on progress made by each member-state.
The last approach is intersectionality. This approach deals with intersectional structural inequalities such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity and pays attention to the cross-cutting and overlapping nature thereof.
As a country where the majority of the people, have suffered on the basis of one or more of the systems of oppressions mentioned above, under the apartheid and hetero-patriarchal state, South Africa requires such an approach.
The state had also created further divisions, among blacks, along the ethnic lines and within these there are also urban and rural divides. However, the intersections and their overlapping nature have not been fully captured in the post-apartheid’s South African equality policies.
All the approaches are relevant to address the complex multi-layered nature of inequalities we are confronted with, in South Africa. To this effect for sustainability, we propose a four-fold framework which draws from all approaches – equality, equity, gender mainstreaming and intersectionality, discussed above.
This would mean mainstreaming all four approaches concurrently and complementarily for sustainability. This four-legged framework would make a complete package to the advancement to sustainable equality in South Africa.