SA in top 10 – global gender index

I was invited by the Director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies, at the University of Pretoria, Dr Elaine Salo, to sit on a lunch hour panel to mark International Women’s Day today. The topic for deliberation is “South Africa’s progress in closing the gender gap”.

The Global Gender Index seeks to measure the disparity (or lack thereof) in opportunities and access to resources between men and women in any given country and across various countries. In 2008 South Africa ranked 22nd in the world, and in 2009 the World Economic Forum report has ranked the country 6th. South Africa and Lesotho are the only African countries that appear in the top 10. Rwanda is not surveyed at all, although I suspect it would rank notably too.

The Top 10 countries (in order) are: Iceland (0.828), Finland (0.825), Norway (0.823), Sweden (0.814), New Zealand (0.788), South Africa (0.770), Denmark (0.763), Ireland (0.760), Philippines (0.758), Lesotho (0.750). To explain the scale and score, 0 = inequality and 1 = equality.

On the face of it, various things are clear. First, contrary to popular opinion the status of women in relation to men, and the textures of gender relations are not primarily linked to levels of development. Feminists in the global South have been saying this for many years, of course, but now it seems as though we have the World Economic Forum backing us up. We live in interesting times, indeed. The Index, if we take its word, suggests that women and men in Lesotho are closer in terms of access to jobs, seniority in those jobs, remuneration, literacy levels, political empowerment, etc than men and women in the USA or France or Britain. Now isn’t that something? Maybe someone should tell that to the next funder that tries to tell women in Lesotho or the Philippines about better access.

Secondly, these countries have been able to do something that gender progressives in the whole world have been working hard to achieve for a long time. It is notable that the scores are quite high – ranging from 0.750 to 0.828, which means these countries are doing really well in the areas surveyed – they might have serious lessons for the rest of the world. For example, according to the Index, Lesotho has no gender gap in education and health.

Third, the Index says little about the actual state of the resources that men and women have similar access to. So, nobody is saying that the health or the school level education systems in South Africa are not in shambles.

Fourth, nobody scores a full 1, not even those Scandinavians who have almost completely eliminated patriarchy according to lore.

I am ambivalent about this report. It is encouraging to see the great progress we have made as a country – at least on paper and official head counts. We are very often quite despondents as feminists and otherwise identifying gender progressives in this country – so this is encouraging because of what is suggests about access. I don’t quite see how this progress has jumped to much over a year – from 22 in 2008 to 6 in 2009, and think that is a cumulative increase, rather than a real jump.

At the same time though, to say we score highly in terms of legislation that criminalises and punishes gender based violence is not the same as saying that legislation is effective. We know it is not SA Medical Research Council research findings continue to show the varied ways in which gender, health and inequity intersect in ways that are complicated, like, for example, that 1 in 9 women who are raped report rape at all, and that of those cases that actually reach the courts, only 5% lead to a successful conviction. How do we make sense of this in light of the high ranking in the Index?

This is just one area, but the same could be said about the violent masculinities that are celebrated and encouraged to take on an increasing visibility in the country today, the use of ‘culture’ discourses to violate and silence dissent, the shifting patterns of female sexual docility, the bizarre and sometimes disturbing rising power of the ‘traditional’ leadership/polygamy/enactment of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, etc.

Perhaps, as some of us often suggest, the success are the reason for the backlash. Perhaps that is why we have so much to be taken aback by in the brazen actions and words of powerful men in this society.

I think statistics and surveys give us an indication of something otherwise obscured by other forms of research presentation. At the same time, I have been engaged in the research enterprise long enough to know that it is always necessary to retain a healthy level of scepticism when confronted by any research findings.


Posted on 8 March 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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