Every year in August, South Africa celebrates the Women’s Month in recognition of the role played by women in ending apartheid. One act of bravery by our women that is still etched in the memories of many South Africans took place on 9 August 1956 when more than 20, 000 women, black and white, marched to the Union Buildings, a seat of power for the apartheid government at the time, to express their opposition to the extension of pass laws to women.
The pass laws were a form of internal passport system designed to restrict the movement of black people, force them to settle in townships and homelands, and entrenched a migrant labour that provided labour to white-owned businesses.
This oppressive policy had a devastating social, psychological, and economic impact on black families and women; hence they confronted it. The pass laws were eventually abolished in 1986 and eight years later apartheid ended, paving the way for the arrival of democracy in our country. However, democracy is yet to deliver gender equality between men and women. In fact, no country in the world has attained gender parity although some countries are more gender equitable than others.
The South African chapter of BRICS Business Council acknowledges efforts that BRICS countries are making to accelerate women empowerment in a bid to close the gender gap. Therefore, it is critically important that women are put at the centre of economic development to enable them to contribute significantly to the growth of BRICS economies.
BRICS, which is scheduled to host a summit in Johannesburg from 22 to 24 August this year, is a bloc of five influential emerging market economies that seeks to represent the interests of the developing world and restructure the global economic system. The grouping comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, hence the acronym BRICS.
Together these countries account for about 42% of the world’s population and based on International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) statistics, the contribution of BRICS countries to global gross domestic product (GDP) has surpassed that of G7 countries since 2021. BRICS currently account for about 32% of global GDP while G7 economies contribute about 30% to global GDP. By 2028, BRICS countries are projected to contribute 33.6% to global GDP.
BRICS is playing a crucial role is shaping the future of the global economy and women must be taken on board in this journey. In the past decade, BRICS countries have made considerable progress in improving the status of women in the fields of healthcare, education, economy, technology, and participation in decision-making and management, according to the 2023 BRICS Women’s Development Report.
The Global Gender Gap Report, published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF), attests to the existence of gender gap globally that needs to be closed. The 2023 Global Gender Gap Report found that the gender gap has closed by 68.4% globally, up 0.3% from 2022’s 68.1% score.
At this rate, the report — which measured gender parity across 146 countries in areas such as economy, education, health, and politics — indicates that it will take the world another 131 years to close the gender gap.
Out of the five BRICS nations, South Africa has consistently been at the forefront when it comes to making progress in attaining gender parity. In this year’s Global Gender Gap Report, South Africa is ranked 20th in the world out of 146 countries that are covered by the report.
Women all over the world are still facing discrimination and are under-represented in leadership roles, they are also generally paid less than men, work longer hours, and in many instances have limited access to education and healthcare.
In spite of this, BRICS countries are making progress in elevating the status of women in healthcare, education, economy, technology, and participation in decision-making and management. It is important that the gender gap is closed by including women in the mainstream economy and integrating them in economic value chains as business owners.
According to the 2023 BRICS Women’s Development Report, published by the BRICS Women’s Business Alliance, the proportion of mothers who are delivered by skilled health workers in BRICS countries is generally high and well above the world average of 84%, with China and Russia close to 100%.
In the area of education, the 2023 BRICS Women’s Development Report reveals that the proportion of women receiving higher education continues to increase across the BRICS countries although there is still apparent gender gap in accessing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects in higher education institutions.
The proportion of female STEM graduates in South Africa stood at 42.76% in 2022 compared with men, who made up 57.24% of STEM graduates. Therefore, more efforts must be made to boost the representation of women in STEM occupations because these occupations are well remunerated and generally elevate the economic status of graduates.
It is also imperative that BRICS countries implement measures to improve female labour participation rate, which is yet to recover to pre-covid pandemic levels. During the pandemic, the closure of retail, tourism, education, and other service industries due to lockdowns negatively affected women’s employment.
According to data from the World Bank, the labour force participation rate for women aged 15-64 in most BRICS countries declined at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Only China has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels and managed to achieve a small uptick. However, Brazil, South Africa and India are yet to recover, while Russia has enjoyed a slight recovery.
Across the BRICS countries, progress the development of female leaders is gaining momentum. In 2021, women made up 19.7% of boards around the world, according to the 2023 BRICS Women’s Development Report. The report reveals that South Africa has surpassed the global average. Women made up about 31.8% of South African boards in 2021.
Although perfect gender equality is far from being realised, it is worth celebrating and noting initiatives that seek to promote gender parity and close the gender gap, not only in BRICS countries, but also across the world.