“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Nelson Mandela Quotes)
Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and subsequent President of the newly unified nation, is known for dedicating his life to dismantling the legacy of the apartheid. While his tireless efforts to end institutionalized racism and poverty have garnered the most attention, as he lays in critical condition we think it’s important to note that his efforts to increase gender equality are just as significant.
South Africa offers women, at least on paper, one of the most comprehensive sets of rights and protections in the world (South Africa Women’s Rights). The nation signed the U.N Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often referred to as an international bill of rights for women, in 1993, and ratified it in 1995, something the United States has yet to do. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, promulgated by President Mandela in 1996 and taking effect in 1997, states: “Everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right (a) to make decisions concerning reproduction and (b) to security in and control over their body.” The constitution also provides legal protection for women from discrimination, rape, and domestic violence. As demonstrated by the challenges faced when reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act here in the United States, seemingly obvious protections against domestic violence are often anything but, and the inclusion of these provisions in the South African Constitution cannot be overlooked. These are protections that every women deserves to have, something Mandela recognizes, saying, “We ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, firm principles upholding the rights of women” (Message by President Nelson Mandela on Women’s Day in 1995). The Constitution also created the Commission for Gender Equality, an organization whose vision is a “society free from gender oppression and all forms of inequality,” which aims to achieve that goal through research, public education, policy development, legislative initiatives, effective monitoring, and litigation (Commission for Gender Equality).
I don’t mean to imply however that the presence of these protections and bodies means that South Africa does not have its share of gender inequality, as unfortunately most nations do. What the existence of these national laws does indicate though is that advancing gender equality is a priority for the nation, thanks in part to the efforts of Mandela. Together, with his wife Graca Machel, an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, Nelson Mandela created a nation that, at its core, works to dismantle not only racial oppression, but gender oppression as well.