Annually, on August 9th, South Africa joins in unity to commemorate Women’s Day. This day holds deep historical and cultural significance, paying tribute to the bravery, resilience, and strength of women across the nation. Beyond its role as a mere public holiday, Women’s Day in South Africa stands as a compelling reminder of the ongoing struggle for gender equality and the continuous efforts required to foster an equitable and all-encompassing society.

The origins of this observance can be traced back to the inspiring 1956 Women’s March, a watershed moment in the fight against apartheid and gender-based discrimination. On that fateful August 9th, over 20,000 women from diverse racial and social backgrounds marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings. Their collective stance against the prejudiced “pass laws” which curtailed the movement of black people, underscored the instrumental role women played in the pursuit of freedom and equality.

Beyond serving as a commemorative event, Women’s Day serves as an occasion for introspection into the progress made since the 1956 march. While also acknowledging the enduring challenges. South Africa has experienced progresses in women’s empowerment and gender equality, particularly in realms such as politics, education, and the workforce. The nation takes pride in its tapestry of pioneering female leaders who have shattered barriers and paved the way for future generations. This commemoration acts as a reminder that despite substantial advancement, there is still a journey ahead to eradicate gender-based violence, ensure fair compensation, and promote women’s involvement across all facets of society.

Women’s Day transcends being a historical reflection; it acts as a clarion call for future action. In contemporary South Africa, this day unfolds through a spectrum of events, seminars, workshops, and dialogues designed to raise awareness about the challenges women face. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations seize this opportunity to spark discussions surrounding gender equality, women’s rights, and the multifaceted struggles encountered by women in various communities.

Central to Women’s Day is the empowerment of women with the tools and knowledge needed to seize control of their lives and contribute meaningfully to society. By fostering conversations about education, career advancement, healthcare, and reproductive rights, this day serves as a platform for women to access invaluable information and resources, enabling informed choices for their futures.

The celebrations of Women’s Day in South Africa mirror the nation’s rich cultural diversity. From musical and dance performances to art exhibitions and poetry recitals, the day encapsulates the essence of unity among women from varied backgrounds. It is a moment to celebrate the unique contributions of women to the nation’s arts, culture, and heritage.

As South Africa marks Women’s Day, it issues a profound call to society at large. This rallying cry impels the dismantling of entrenched norms and stereotypes that constrain women’s potential. It urges active involvement in eradicating gender-based violence and an unwavering pursuit of equal opportunities. Despite substantial strides in gender equality, gender-based violence remains a dire concern in South Africa. Alarming statistics reveal that one in four South African women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, and a woman is murdered every three hours in the country (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2017, 2019; Africa Check, 2020). The national Afro barometer survey conducted in 2021 indicates that most South Africans believe gender-based violence has increased over the past year, attributing alcohol and drug abuse and unemployment as major factors contributing to this crisis. Women report feeling less safe than men at home and in their neighbourhoods. Around three-quarters (73%) of South Africans view gender-based violence as a criminal matter requiring law enforcement involvement, rather than a private issue within families.

This day extends a universal invitation, transcending gender boundaries, encouraging all to stand as steadfast allies in the pursuit of gender parity and contributing to a country where every women can thrive unhindered.

The distressing issue of gender-based violence persists, aggravated by the lack of responsiveness that amplify existing cycles of abuse, while resources for survivors remain insufficiently allocated. The South African Reconciliation Barometer, drawing on data from the COVID-19 pandemic, underscores the unsettling fact that gender-based violence ranked as a prominent concern for approximately 13.5% of respondents, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive action and societal transformation.

Women’s Day in South Africa serves as a poignant reminder of past struggles, present achievements, and the potential for future gender equality. It stands as a focal point for women to unite, celebrate their achievements, and collectively envision a society where every individual is treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of their gender. As the nation continues to mark this day, its unwavering commitment to dismantling barriers, challenging disparities, and forging a brighter future for all its citizens remains resolute.

Felicity Harrison Head: Sustained Dialogues Programme

The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely that of the author, and not the IJR.