Programme Director, Deputy Judge President Thoba Poyo-Dlwati,
President of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges and Deputy Chief Justice Designate, Justice Mandisa Maya,
Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa, Justice Raymond Zondo,
Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Ms Maite Nkoana Mashabane,
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Mr Ronald Lamola,
Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UNISA, Professor Puleng LenkaBula,
Members of the judiciary and magistracy,
Members of the legal fraternity,
Academics and students,
It is an honour to address this esteemed gathering of women jurists as we commemorate Women’s Month in South Africa.
Sixty-six years ago thousands of women marched on the seat of the apartheid government to demand an end to the degrading and dehumanising pass laws.
Although nearly four decades would pass before apartheid was abolished and South Africa’s democracy would be born, their activism had far-reaching consequences that extend till today.
The Women’s March of 1956 sent a message to the apartheid regime, and indeed to the world, that achieving gender equality and advancing women’s rights was as important a goal of national liberation as casting off the bonds of racial oppression.
That is why when we became a democracy in 1994 we set ourselves clear and measurable targets to advance the position of women in the workplace, in government and across society.
We produced one of the most inclusive constitutions in the world, with a Bill of Rights that specifically requires equal treatment for all regardless of sex, gender or any other ground of discrimination.
We repealed all laws that discriminated against women, and replaced them with employment equity laws that oblige employers to reflect the country’s racial and gender composition in their hiring practices, and to advance the rights of persons with disabilities.
We prioritised greater representation of women in top management in the public service, with a particular focus on black women.
By 2021, 62 per cent of the entire public service workforce was female, with 44 per cent of senior management positions filled by women.
In 1994, women comprised 28 per cent of members of Parliament.
Today, 46 per cent of our lawmakers in the National Assembly are women.
Of the 28 Ministers currently in Cabinet, 13 are women.
As South Africa, we are proud of the progress we have made with respect to the representation of women in important spheres of public life, notably the state.
This administration has demonstrated its determination to build on this progress.
In 2019, Adv Shamila Batohi became the first woman to head the National Prosecuting Authority.
In 2021, Ms Phindile Baleni became the first female Director-General in the Presidency.
In 2022, Ms Thembisile Majola became the first Director-General of the State Security Agency.
Also this year, less than a week ago, Lt Gen Tebello Mosikili became the first female Deputy National Commissioner of the South African Police Service.
And last month, The Honourable Justice Mandisa Maya – who as you know is the President of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges – was appointed as our country’s first female Deputy Chief Justice.
I wish to once again congratulate you, Justice Maya.
It is a richly deserved honour and yet another milestone in a stellar career.
You are an inspiration to all women on the Bench, at the Bar and in the magistracy.
Today out of 256 judges on the Bench, 114 are women.
Nearly half of all magistrates are women.
Most encouraging is the growing number of young women entering the legal profession.
As at January 2019, more than a third of candidate attorneys were black women.
As a whole, women accounted for 57 per cent of candidate attorneys.
This provides impetus to the broader transformation of the legal profession.
Last week, government published for public comment the Draft Legal Sector Code.
The Code aims to ensure the legal profession is representative of the demographics of South Africa and to enable equitable and representative appointments to the judiciary.
Importantly, it also focuses on the provision of pro bono services and community-based legal services, ensuring access to affordable legal services for all South Africans, particularly marginalised, poor and rural communities.
There can be no doubt that the racial and gender transformation of the Bench is ongoing and can be improved, but we must at the same time acknowledge that we have come a long way.
Not just a long way, but a difficult way.
Gathered here this evening are jurists who have waged titanic struggles to earn the right to reach the pinnacle of the legal profession.
It has not been an easy road.
Besides the fraternal and collegial bonds you share as jurists, there is also a commonality of struggle to overcome bias, discrimination, sexism, racism and other prejudices in the course of your careers.
And yet, still you rise.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou’s eternal poem, up from a past that’s rooted in pain, still you rise.
And it has been the International Association of Women Judges that has been your anchor as you navigate the complexities of progressing as a female jurist in an environment that still remains overwhelmingly male.
But the International Association of Women Judges is so much more.
It is a powerful and influential global network of jurists committed to ensuring women’s equal access to justice in the face of discriminatory laws and practices, barriers to justice for women, and the ever-prevalent scourge of gender-based violence.
I want to congratulate you on hosting this conference, and to applaud you for choosing the theme “Empowerment as a tool to fight gender-based violence”.
As many have said, gender-based violence is pandemic of the same seriousness, destruction and ferocity as the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we were to quantify the impact of gender-based violence in terms of lives destroyed or lost, families torn apart, societies shattered, economic productivity lost, and state resources diverted, we would see that violence against women and children is a far greater crisis than most health emergencies we have faced.
Even as we take a step forward in women’s representation and the advancement of women’s rights, gender-based violence takes us many steps back.
Last week, news of a gang rape of eight young women by armed men brought home once again the horror that confronts many women in our country and around the world.
No society can lay claim to being non-sexist if that country’s women live in fear, and where sexual assault, domestic and intimate partner violence and femicide, is an ever-present threat.
This terrible crime was not an isolated incident.
In the same week, more women were assaulted, raped and murdered in different parts of the country.
We are in the grip of what is no less than an unrelenting war on the bodies of the women and children of this country.
We know that in many jurisdictions in the world, women and girls are also subjected to trafficking, discrimination, abuse, exploitation and the worst forms of violence.
The State has a constitutional and moral duty to protect women against all forms of gender-based violence, which continue to impair the exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Our law enforcement agencies must do everything in their power to ensure that criminals who have violated the fundamental rights of women and children are caught.
Our courts have a duty to prosecute them without fear or favour, and in doing so send a message that gender-based violence will not be tolerated.
As the Constitutional Court said in a 2019 judgment:
“This Court would be failing in its duty if it does not send out a clear and unequivocal pronouncement that the South African Judiciary is committed to developing and implementing sound and robust legal principles that advance the fight against gender-based violence in order to safeguard the constitutional values of equality, human dignity and safety and security.”
Never has the role of female jurists been more important than in South Africa right now, to implement new and existing laws designed to strengthen the fight against gender-based violence, to support and protect survivors, and to ensure that perpetrators face the consequences of their actions.
As government, we will continue to work with our social partners to implement the National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide by affording greater protection to vulnerable groups.
In January this year, I assented to three key pieces of legislation to strengthen the legal framework in the fight against gender-based violence.
Among other things, these laws tighten the sentencing provisions against perpetrators, enable online applications for protection orders, and improve provisions related to the sex offenders register by widening its scope.
We commend you for your commitment to a common programme of action to realise a truly non-sexist society that is free of all forms of gender-based violence.
We commend you for your longstanding commitment to applying the law with a keen understanding and appreciation of the gendered nature of poverty, inequality, unemployment and underdevelopment.
We know that it is women that disproportionately bear the brunt of these and many other social ills.
We know that it is women who are more likely to be unemployed, to have lower levels of education and who shoulder the burden of childcare.
All of these impact on access to justice.
For these and many other reasons, we look to you as female jurists to help shape and strengthen the discourse around patriarchal power relations, and what must be done to dismantle them.
You occupy a privileged position to exercise judicial authority, which is the cornerstone of any constitutional democratic order.
We look with keen interest to the proposals that will emanate from this conference around empowering women judges to effectively use the law to deal decisively with gender-based violence.
Courts are impartial arbiters committed to the administration and dispensing of justice. That is their foremost role.
At the same time, we have a rightful expectation that the courts should reflect in their judgements the foundational principles of our constitutional order, namely human dignity and the achievement of equality, non-sexism and non-racialism.
The struggles of women continue.
For equal pay for equal work.
Against discrimination on the basis of motherhood, marital status and sexual orientation.
To receive an education.
To not be disinherited or married against their will.
To be protected against human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
We must break all barriers and biases against women.
Our courts, enabled by a progressive Constitution, have played a significant role in the promotion of gender equality in South Africa.
It is our expectation that the South African chapter of the International Association of Women Judges should continue to serve as a beacon of progress, a symbol of women’s achievement and as an instrument of change.
I wish you fruitful deliberations.
I thank you.
Source: The Presidency Republic of South Africa