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This is an auspicious year for our country. It is 20 years since our nation emerged from the shadow of apartheid and also the 60th milestone of extraordinary women who fought for our democracy.

Government pays tribute to about 700 women who marched with Charlotte Maxeke in Bloemfontein in June 1913 in defiance of the pass system. We recall the bravery of the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 to present a petition demanding the end of discriminatory pass laws.

The Women’s Charter, which was incorporated in the 1955 Freedom Charter, called for the removal of unjust laws, regulations and conventions deemed repressive to women.

The Preamble of the Charter proclaimed: “We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women and housewives, African, Indians, European and Coloured, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population.”

President Jacob Zuma officially launched Women’s Month on 31 July, with Women’s Day celebrations taking place this Saturday. The launch also falls on the anniversary of Pan African Women’s Day and the government will be joined by the Pan African Parliament in paying tribute to the role the Pan African Women’s Organisation played in the liberation of South African women.

The 20 Year Review highlights the progress the country has made in improving the lives of all South Africans, and advancing their socio-economic rights in areas such as housing, water, education, social development and healthcare.

At the same time we have made significant progress in transforming the apartheid state into a democratic one, founded on the values of human dignity, non-racialism and non-sexism, the rule of law, and universal adult suffrage, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Our nation has moved decisively from a reality where women suffered oppression based on their gender, colour and class, to one where gender equality is now a constitutional imperative. Our Constitution, which has been hailed as the most progressive in the world, borrows from both the Women’s Charter and Freedom Charter.

Government has also put in place legislation to create an enabling environment for women, and to improve their participation in income-generating activities in the economy. Despite these inroads, the 2013/2014 Employment Equity Report indicates that although the representation of women in the workplace has improved, women remain under-represented in management positions. To address this imbalance government has introduced the Gender Equality Bill to accelerate the empowerment of women and attain 50/50 gender parity.

Unquestionably, advances have been made but many women still remain marginalised and vulnerable to social risks such as violence, abuse, rape, unemployment and poverty.

Minister in the Presidency responsible for the Department of Women, Susan Shabangu has vowed that women’s socio-economic empowerment and women’s rights will be prioritised and mainstreamed across all sectors of society in the next five years. Briefing the media ahead of her budget vote she stated that her department would monitor and research existing gender policies to measure their effectiveness.

Twenty years into democracy we can rightly state that South Africa is indeed a much better place; however more still needs to be done. Government, for its part, will not rest until all women are afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

However, government alone cannot achieve gender equity. Business, civil society, political parties, teachers and higher education institutions must work with us if we are to succeed.

We call on society to draw inspiration from the legacy of the brave women who defied the apartheid state. Their hopes and dreams lives on in today’s generation of women who will move South Africa forward.