When thinking of Women's Day we remember iconic names such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Adelaide Tambo, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Suzman and so many others who stood up for their rights and who sacrificed for the South African women of today.
In 1956, heroines from all races stood their ground when they marched to the Union Buildings. These mothers and daughters made more than a political statement. They not only said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, they also said that discrimination on racial grounds is just as unacceptable as discrimination based on gender.
We have seen some improvement in the lives of South African women, but there seems to be a new form of discrimination with the implementation (or skewed implementation) of government policies which are meant to empower all women. Just like what has happened with BEE, the empowerment of women has become the empowerment of a few - a woman has to be connected to a certain political party to be helped.
Do we have to remind the powers that be that the 20 000 women who marched in 1956 were united in facing the challenges of their time - they were not divided along party political lines.
Today, South African women face even more challenges than our foremothers. Physical violence (assault, battery, rape and murder perpetrated by husbands and boyfriends); lack of access to resources, employment opportunities, advancement and academic achievement; teenage pregnancy; internet predation, female, single parent headed households and the scourge of HIV/Aids are amongst the foremost challenges facing today's women.
Poverty and poor living conditions add to women's vulnerability to violence and sexually transmitted disease. They are marginalised in terms of economic opportunities, the labour market, access to land, credit and finance. South Africa women are most likely to be poor, least likely to have an education and least likely to find employment. They therefore bear the brunt of poverty and are most likely to suffer at the hands of abusers.
Women in rural areas are affected the worst and they are still subjected to all kinds of hardships; such as carrying water from the rivers, using firewood for cooking and having to travel miles and miles to access to education and medical facilities. The women of the Elias Motsoaledi Municipality are a case in point.
There has been a conspicuous lack of stewardship and leadership in the area of violence prevention from government. Despite a world-renowned constitution, a legislative overhaul that safeguards women's and children's rights and huge social investments, we still do not see the drastic changes necessary to make a discernable and positive change to the lives of South African women.
Lip service is no service - government must put its money where its mouth is. The state has an obligation to ensure that South Africans enjoy their human rights and that the Constitution of the Country is defended. In this regard we were encouraged when we heard of the creation of a Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disability, but we are yet to see significant results.
Instead we see evidence of the ruling party's infighting affecting the work of the Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disability with the Director General and the Minister Lulu Xingwana recently at each other's throats. The memory of the South African delegation to the United Nations gender summit in New York last year still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Why was flying first class, staying at The Ritz and shopping more important than attending to the needs of our women? The reported R6.8 million spent on this gallivant could surely have been spent responsibly at home and made a positive impact on the lives of South African women.
More than half of South African rape victims said they had reported the offence to a law enforcement agency
Government's priorities are skewed and the ministry and the department, in particular, are not meeting the expectations of many women, nor are they addressing the dire situation wherein our sisters find themselves. For what does this department use its budget? Where is the implementation of the programmes that address the needs of our women?
The justice system in this country has failed our children and us; criminals seem to have more rights than law-abiding citizens. Reports state that the level of maternal mortality has increased drastically. We hear experts say that there has been an increase in the number of reported domestic killings.
More than half of South African rape victims said they had reported the offence to a law enforcement agency. However, the most common reasons for not reporting the crime to the police were that the victims feared reprisals, or that the victims felt that the police would not be able to solve the crime or else embarrassment.
We may be free politically, but economically we are not yet free; this challenge needs the government's immediate action. Although this is true of all South Africans, men and women alike, it is a fact the female South Africans are worse affected. We are told that women constitute more than 50% of all unemployed people in this country and they also constitute a majority of all casual or contract workers. The slow pace of empowering women in the workplace, with African women account for only 0.8% at top management level, is of great concern.
There is great merit in the idea mooted by the United Democratic Movement (UDM) that an economic indaba should be hosted to find solutions to the challenges facing our Country. We agree that all stakeholders (such as government, big business, civil rights organisations, traditional leaders, religious leaders, labour, community based organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)) should meet to discuss South Africa's socio-economic future. The women of this country must also make their voices heard in such a forum.
As we celebrate National Women's Day, we acknowledge that we still have a long way to go in order to achieve the full emancipation of women. Maybe we could establish tuition free schools for girls in rural areas where social conventions about the role of women being in the kitchen are still rife.
How about setting a month aside to pay tribute to women who own their own small businesses with emphasis placed on women-owned businesses that give back to their communities in a special way. In turn, such businesses could receive government support and are able to access business expansion capital.
There are a myriad of examples of initiatives and projects, such as the two simple ones mentioned above, that could help the women of South Africa. But all the NGOs in the world cannot tackle this problem alone: government needs to do more and it must do so responsibly.
The United Democratic Women's Organisation (UDEMWO) believes that true freedom comes with socio-economic and gender emancipation; if we do not fight poverty most of our democratic gains will be in vain. UDEMWO adds its voice to that of the UDM in advocating for an indaba to be held where we can come together to find solutions to the problems facing South Africa. As female citizens we want to play an active role in finding solutions to the problems facing us - we want to be part of the process of making South Africa a winning nation.
Thandi Nontenja is the Secretary General of the United Democratic Women's Organisation.