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By Cyril Ramaphosa

Dear Fellow South African,
 
It is a quarter of a century since the world came together in Beijing for the landmark Fourth UN World Conference on Women, which adopted a far-reaching platform for action for the emancipation of women.
 
That was a historic moment that changed the global struggle for women’s rights and gender equality. But the question we must now ask is what progress have we made in the last 25 years?
 
As we celebrated International Women’s Day yesterday, we had to reflect on whether the lives of the women of the world have improved. Are we closer to ending patriarchy and achieving gender equality?
 
Here in South Africa, progress has been uneven.
 
We have made significant advances in improving the lives of our country’s women in the social, political and economic spheres. We have advanced the rights of women and improved their representation in nearly all spheres.
 
We have implemented policies and programmes to give practical expression to the rights of women and girls to education, to reproductive health care, to basic services, and to social support. We have several gender-responsive laws around reproductive health, sexual orientation, access to justice, customary law, and protection against domestic and sexual violence.

But vast discrepancies exist between the protection these laws offer and what women experience.
 
In South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, women continue to bear the brunt of poverty and unemployment. They are less likely to own a business, less likely to be employed, less likely to be promoted.
 
While the representation of women in the public service has increased dramatically over the last 25 years, we have not seen similar progress in business or academia. There are some areas where we have gone backwards; for example, nearly all directors-general in national government are men. This highlights the fact that there is still a long journey ahead, and that the gains we make can be undone unless we are vigilant and focused.
 
As South Africa assumed the chairship of the African Union last month, we placed the empowerment women firmly on the agenda of our continental body. In particular, we will dedicate this year to the economic and financial inclusion of African women.
 
During our term, we will work with other AU members states on a range of measures, such as increasing the percentage of state procurement that goes to women, and encouraging member states to reduce barriers to entry for women-owned businesses. We will work to ensure that women benefit from the opportunities that will be created by the African Continental Free Trade Area, which comes into operation this year.
 
Economic inclusion is essential not only for advancing gender equality, but in fundamentally changing the living conditions of women. It enables them to take greater control over their lives. It also makes them less vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation.
 
The empowerment of women also means that we need to end all forms of violence perpetrated by men against women. We are urging AU member states to ratify the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the Workplace, to work to repeal discriminatory laws within five years, and standardise responses to gender-based violence.
 

Our efforts on the continent must start at home. We need to urgently address the continued economic marginalisation of South African women and their vulnerability to gender-based violence.
 
It is six months since we began implementing the Emergency Response Plan to combat gender-based violence. Though there has been demonstrable progress in key areas such as access to justice and support for victims, women and girls continue to die at the hands of men.
 
We must use this year to consolidate our work around ending gender-based violence and urgently address deficiencies and shortcomings. We must address with equal vigour the issue of economic opportunities for women. We must strengthen existing mechanisms and frameworks to support women in economic activity, and ensure that new pathways are opened up.
 
The women of South Africa and of the continent must be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy and oppression, but most of all they must be given the means to improve their material condition.
 
It is only when women have their own means, when they can earn their own income, when they have assets to call their own, when they have skills and capabilities, then they are able to fully control their destinies.
 
When we empower women in our society, what we are in effect doing, is to raise incomes and standards of living, alleviate poverty and build more stable communities. By unleashing the economic potential of women, we are unleashing the potential of our economies to grow and benefit all.
 
Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees or by doing unpaid care work at home. We need to ensure that they realise the full benefit of their contributions.

An entire generation has been born and grown to adulthood since the Beijing conference 25 years ago. We cannot wait another quarter century before we achieve gender equality. Let us make this the generation that achieves equality, empowerment and emancipation.
 
With best wishes,
Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is the President of the Republic of South Africa.

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