December 6, 2013
By Sabrina Willard
“Let us join hands, in response to the call of the women, for Unity, Peace and Development. Let us enter the new century with concrete results to measure our beautiful words.
Equal power and glory to the Women of South Africa!”
In this excerpt from his 1996 Women’s Day speech, Nelson Mandela acknowledged women’s role in society and urged for more female representation in South African government. In light of his recent passing, Jezebel posted an article highlighting what the apartheid activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and first black president of South Africa has done for women throughout his long and distinguished career as a humanitarian.
Mandela was instrumental in the ratification of the United Nation’s Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a pact “often described as an international bill of rights for women” (UN website, accessed December 6, 2013). The document was groundbreaking in that it attempted to establish an international definition for what is considered gender discrimination and set “an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.” The then-President of South Africa signed-on to CEDAW in 1995, setting a precedent for the various political decisions concerning women to follow.
As the article further notes, Nelson Mandela kept the welfare of women in mind throughout his tenure as the first president of a democratically-elected South African parliament. In 1997, Mandela ensured that the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa contained passages prohibiting all types of discrimination and promoting gender equality.
His belief that women should lean into positions of power was reflected in the make-up of his own administration, where cabinet members were appointed regardless of sex. Global Fund for Women board member Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recently commented on the legacy he left in an article posted to the organization’s website. Born and raised in South Africa, Mlambo-Ngcuka witnessed Nelson Mandela’s push for gender equality first-hand while serving as Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry during his administration.
“Some of the key policies enacted during his presidency were free prenatal care postnatal care to mothers in the public health system and free health care to children up to the age of six. He also introduced a social wage in the form of a child grant paid to children of poor and unemployed mothers, as well pensions for older persons and a social grants paid to for disabled unable to work" (Global Fund for Women website, accessed December 7, 2013).
While descriptions such as “civil rights activist”, “humanitarian”, and “peace keeper” may all come to mind when describing Nelson Mandela’s many accomplishments, I think many would be surprised to hear “feminist” thrown into the mix. As we mourn the loss of this incredible man who spent his life fighting for peace and justice, we would do good to note the things he did to make everyday life better for the women of South Africa.