South Africa

South Africa is ranked 4 out of 86 in the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index.

The country was ranked 49 out of 102 in the 2009 Social Institutions and Gender Index.

South Africa’s score in the 2011 Human Development Index is 0.619, placing it in 123rd place (out of a total of 187 countries). The country’s Gender Inequality Index score is 0.490 that places South Africa at 94 out of 146 countries. In the Global Gender Gap Index for 2011, South Africa is ranked in 14th place (out of 135 countries), with a score of 0.7478 (where 1 denotes equality and 0 denotes inequality). 

Discriminatory Family Code: 

The rights of South African women within the family depend on the type of marriage contract into which they entered: civil marriage, customary marriage, and religious marriage, (Christian, Jewish or Muslim).[12] The government of South Africa has taken steps to equalize women’s rights within all types or marriage, particularly customary marriage, which the state now recognizes under the 1998 Recognition of Customary Marriages Act.[13] 

The legal minimum age for marriage for all forms in South Africa is 18 years for both sexes, and marriage requires the consent of both spouses, including for customary marriage.[14] Early marriage does occur, but only in certain ethnic groups. The 2003 Demographic and Health Survey estimated that 4.4 percent of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed.[15] Further the 2003 DHS found that just 2 percent of ever married women aged 20-49 were married by their 15th birthday.[16]

Polygamy is prohibited in civil marriages. However, South African law does recognise polygamous marriages performed under customary law, although not (currently) those performed under Islamic law.[17] As a result, the property and inheritance rights of women in customary polygamous marriages are legally recognised. One commentator has noted that the law now makes polygamous marriages expensive, thereby discouraging them.[18] The 2003 DHS found that 3.9 percent of married women aged 15 to 49 were in a polygamous relationship.[19]

Under South African civil law, parental authority is shared by the mother and father. In addition, under the 1998 Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, both spouses in a customary marriage also have equal parental rights and responsibilities, including in regard to the economic maintenance of their children.[20] A law passed in 1993 stipulates that divorced parents have joint custody of their children. However, it is sometimes the case that women are not granted custody because they lack sufficient resources to provide for their children.[21] In addition, time use data included in the 2009 ECA report indicates that women still perform the bulk of domestic labour in South African households, spending on average nearly 16 hours a day on domestic and care work, while men spend 5 hours.[22] 

There have been a number of developments with respect to women’s inheritance rights in South Africa. The Intestate Succession Act 1987 provides that for civil marriage widows and daughters have equal inheritance rights to widowers and sons respectively. Depending on the type of marriage widows either inherit half the property or keep their own property. Previously, this law did not apply to customary marriages. However, a recent constitutional court case found that stipulations in African customary law that only males could inherit were invalid and unconstitutional.[23] As a result of the Constitutional Court’s decision, in 2009, the government introduced the Reform of Customary Law of Succession and Regulation of Related Matters Act 11 so that the rights of women to inherit property under customary law are now governed by the Intestate Succession Act and this includes the recognition of polygamous marriages.[24]

[12] CEDAW (1998) pp. 104-107 [13] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) pp. 140-141; Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, 1998 (Act No. 120 of 1998); Knox et al. 2007, p. 9; CEDAW (2010) p.143 [14] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p. 148, 142 [15] DHS (2003) [16] Department of Health, Medical Research Council, ORC Macro (2007), Table 2.17 [17] CEDAW (2010) p.145 [18] Meer and Severe (2004) [19] Department of Health, Medical Research Council, ORC Macro (2007), Table 2.19 [20] CEDAW (2010) pp.143, 147 [21] CEDAW (1998) pp. 107-108 [22] ECA (2009) p.129 [23] The Bhe case, in ECA (2009) p.49 [24] Women’s Legal Centre (2010)

Restricted Physical Integrity: 

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 consolidates South Africa’s laws on sexual offences, expanding the definition substantially to include various forms of penetration and makes the offence gender neutral.

The law prohibits both rape and spousal rape, with sentences of up to 25 years.[25] However, women’s access to justice remains a challenge with UN Women reporting research which shows only around 1 in 6 reported rapes reach court, and just 6% ending in a conviction.[26] In a recent court case (Carmichele) referenced in the 2009 ECA report, the State was found to be negligent and in breach of constitutional and international legal requirements to protect the rights of women, after a man awaiting trial for attempted rape was released without bail, and brutally attacked another woman.[27] The Constitutional Court case of Kern v Minister of Safety and Security 2005 (6) SA 419 (CC) has also found the government to be vicariously liable for the rape of a young woman committed by 3 on-duty policemen. 

South African law makes provisions for protection of victims of domestic violence, under the 1998 Domestic Violence Act.[28] The law also gives the police authority to arrest alleged perpetrators without a warrant at the scene of the incident on suspicion that they have committed a violent offence.[29] However, there remain challenges with the application and enforcement of the law. As the 2010 CEDAW report notes, ‘one of its limitations is the absence of social interventions that address the causes or influencing factors in any domestic violence situation.[30] As a result, some women who have obtained protection orders under the Act have then been subjected to further violence, or even murdered.[31] In 1999 the government set up the Sexual Offences and Community Affairs Unit to coordinate its response on various forms of gender-based violence. Among its activities, it has financed shelters and care centres for women who are victims of physical and sexual assault, has organised sensitivity training for police working in this area, and implemented community awareness programmes.[32]

Sexual harassment is prohibited by law, and is covered by both the Labour Relations Act and the Employment of Educators Act.[33] In many cases, claims are not taken seriously, however a recent legal ruling has strengthened women’s rights to protection from sexual violence in the workplace, establishing that the employer is responsible for the actions of individual employees, and for protecting women employees from sexual harassment.[34] 

Despite concerted government action, gender-based violence against women persists.  The US Department of State 2010 human rights report notes that NGOs estimate as many as 1 in 4 women to be living in an abusive relationship.[35] The CEDAW report for 2010 states that for the period 1 January to June 2007, 45,454 cases of domestic violence were reported to the police, but that underreporting remains a serious problem, as does ‘revictimisation’ of women who have experience domestic violence within the judicial system.[36] According to a 2009 study, between 40 and 70 percent of all murdered women are killed by their intimate partner.[37] Rape is also a very serious problem in South Africa. According to South Africa’s 2008 Report to the CEDAW, rape affects 99 or more women per 100,000 inhabitants in eight of nine provinces, the highest recorded incidence in the world.[38] Sexual harassment is understood to be widespread in South African schools.[39] 

Freedom House notes that in June 2009, a survey by the South African Medical Research Council found that two-fifths of male respondents admitted to being physically violent with a sexual partner, and one-quarter admitted to committing rape.[40] According to work by the NGO Sonke Gender Justice, rigid ideas about what it means to be a ‘real man’ are one of the factors contributing to high levels of gender-based violence against women in South Africa.[41] The NGO has organised the successful ‘One Man Can’ campaign, encouraging men to reconsider their attitudes to women and to gender-based violence. 

There is no legislation in place criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM).[42] FGM  is not reported to be a common practice in South Africa. There is evidence, however, of other harmful traditional practices in South Africa, including virginity testing (which has ominous implications in the context of beliefs widespread in some areas that HIV can be ‘cured’ by sex with a virgin), and abduction for forced marriage.[43]

Abortion is available on request in South Africa.[44] Women in South Africa have the legal right use and access information about contraception, and to decide whether or not to have children.[45] They do not appear to face barriers to their reproductive freedom. The most recent data on contraceptive usage comes from the 2003 DHS, but even then contraceptive prevalence rates were comparatively high among married women for the region. As of 2003, nearly 60 percent of married women aged 15-49 were currently using a modern method of contraception as a form of family planning.[46] Ever use rates are even higher; 82.4 percent of married women had used contraception at some point in the past.[47] 

[25] US Department of State (2011) [26] UN Women (2011) [27] ECA (2009) p.67 [28] Domestic Violence Act, 1998 (Act 116 of 1998) in CEDAW (2010) p.147 [29] Section 3 of the The Domestic Violence Act of 1998, (Act No. 116 of 1998) [30] CEDAW (2010) p.147 [31] CEDAW (2010) p.147 [32] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) pp. 150-151 [33] Labour Relations Act, 1995 (Act 66 of 1995), Employment of Educators Act, 1998 (Act 53 of 1998) in CEDAW (2010) pp.30, 38 [34] CEDAW (2010) p.61 [35] US Department of State (2011) [36] CEDAW (2010) p.153 [37] Abrahams N, Jewkes R, Martin LJ, Mathews S, Lombard C, Vetten L (2009) in World Health Organization (WHO) (2009) p. 56 [38] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p. 160 [39] CEDAW (2010) p.163 [40] Freedom House (2010) [41] CEDAW (2010) p.155 [42] IPU (n.d.) [43] CEDAW (2010) pp.164-164 [44] United Nations (2011) [45] CEDAW (2010) p.147 [46] DHS 2003, Table 4.3[47] DHS 2003, Table 4.2

Son Bias: 

According to the 2003 DHS, vaccination rates were slightly higher for girls than for boys, with 55.3% of girls under two considered to be fully vaccinated, compared to 54% of boys.[48] Under-five mortality rates were higher for boys than girls, as were rates of malnutrition.[49]

Gender-disaggregated data regarding child domestic and paid labour was not available.

Data from the 2003 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found that 2.3% of women aged 20-24 had no education at all, compared to 1.4% of men. In the same age bracket, rates for secondary school completion only differed by 0.4% (34% for men, 34.4% for women).[50] According to the 2009 ECA report, boys are more likely to drop out of secondary school than girls in South Africa. The report concludes that this reflects social and economic changes in South African society, where African women are now more often in a position of being the sole breadwinner in their family, meaning that parents have come to see the value in investing in their education, and ensuring that their daughters complete school.[51]

The male/female sex ratio for the total population in 2012 is 0.99.[52] 

There is no evidence to suggest that South Africa is a country of concern in relation to missing women.

[48] DHS (2003), Table 7.9 [49] DHS 2003, Tables 6.3 and 8.6 [50] DHS (2003), table 2.5 [51] ECA (2009) p.91 [52] Central Intelligence Agency (2012)

Restricted Resources and Entitlements: 

South African women are entitled to the same legal ownership rights as men and the law guarantees them equality in the purchase, sale and management of property. According to the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998, men and women have equal legal status in regard to ownership of land and property other than land, with joint common ownership assumed unless a contract has been drawn up specifying an alternative arrangement.[53] The government is taking steps to ensure that women are active participants and beneficiaries of ongoing land reform and restitution initiatives.[54] However, according to a 2011 report by the Commission on Gender Equality, women’s access to land is very limited.[55]  The Commission found that the land restitution programme has benefited about 91% males and 9% females during the 2005/6 to 2008/9 financial years.[56]

Women comprise a majority of small business owners in South Africa, but make up a minority of workers in the formal sector. This limits women’s total access to productive resources that could be used as collateral. Thus, they lag behind men in the ability to obtain credit and bank loans.[57] Since the end of Apartheid, numerous financial institutions have been established to help Africans obtain access to bank loans. Some financial institutions specifically target women, but these initiatives have rarely been successful for various reasons: rural areas have been overlooked; the procedures are too bureaucratic; and women sometimes need their husbands’ consent to obtain financing.[58]

[53] Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, No. 120 of 1998 in The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p. 141; CEDAW (2010) p.148 [55] Commission for Gender Equality (2011) [56] Commission for Gender Equality (2011) [57] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p. 129 [58] CEDAW 1998, p. 93; The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) pp. 129-130

Restricted Civil Liberties: 

Since Apartheid was abolished, all citizens of South Africa have been granted equal rights in regard to freedom of movement, including choice of residence.[59] However, high levels of violence and insecurity as noted in the Restricted Physical Integrity section impact on women’s access to public space. The Law, Race and Gender Unit at the University of Cape Town has raised concerns about the current Traditional Courts Bill as it seeks to continue customary practices in relation to court representation. Most customary laws and practices provide that women are represented by male relatives and as such the proposed bill perpetuates restrictions on women’s access these courts. Widows are particularly disadvantaged because women in mourning face particular restrictions in relation to entering court spaces.[60]

Freedom of speech, assembly and association are legally protected and are respected in South Africa.[61] In 1999 the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, 1993 (Act 153 of 1993) was amended to include a specific Code of Practice that addresses gender concerns such as identification of rape victims and the prohibition of material that stereotypes women, fosters sexism and undermines women’s dignity.[62] Women’s rights NGOs are numerous, active and outspoken in South Africa, working on a wide range of issues including gender-based violence, challenging gender stereotypes, sexual and reproductive rights, and the rights of women from minority groups (including lesbian, bisexual and transgender women).[63] There was also a high degree of civil society involvement in the development of the National Gender Policy, adopted in 2000.[64]

Women hold a substantial number of seats in South African legislature, including a few top positions, and also hold a number of ministerial positions. As a result of the 2009 elections there are 178 women in the 400-seat National Assembly and 16 women in the 54-seat upper house of the legislature, the National Council of Provinces.[65] In addition, women hold two of the four parliamentary presiding officer positions and 14 of 34 ministerial positions, including that of foreign minister.[66] Women also comprise 40 percent of officeholders at the level of local government.[67] Public opinion is broadly supportive of women politicians and believes them equal to men. A 2007 World Values Survey asking whether men made better political leaders than women found that 50.6 percent of respondents agreed while 49.4 disagreed.[68] Similarly, a 2007 Pew survey found that 61 percent of those asked thought that men and women were equally capable, a choice the World Values Survey did not offer.[69]

South Africa has an extensive legal framework protecting women’s maternity leave privileges. All employed women in the public and private sector are entitled to four months of paid maternity leave at up to sixty percent of her salary, paid for via the national Unemployment Insurance Fund. In addition there are a number of laws in place that allow women to take additional time off in case of illness, prohibit dangerous work, and protect her from unlawful or discriminatory termination.[70]

[59] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p. 141 [60] University of Cape Town (2012) [61] Freedom House (2010) [62] Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, 1993 (Act 153 of 1993) in CEDAW (2010) p.62 [63] CEDAW (2010) p.39-40, 46 [64] CEDAW (2010) p.43 [65] Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) (2010) [66] US Department of State (2010) [67] The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008) p.7 [68] World Values Survey (WVS) (2007), Question V61 [69] Pew Research Center (2007), Question Q.43 [70] ILO (2009)



South Africa is a very diverse country, with a large number of different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.[1] According to 2011 data from Statistics South Africa, 79% of the population is categorized as African, 9% Coloured, 2.5 as Indian/Asian and 9% as White.[2] It should be noted that these official categories and classifications have been critiqued as problematic.  Until 1994, the country was ruled by white minority government who enforced apartheid, a system of racial segregation in virtually all areas of life that severely restricted the civil, political and economic rights of the non-White population.[3] Nelson Mandela became the country’s first Black president in 1994, and since then, successful democratic elections have been held four times.[4] Despite being the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa, many South Africans continue to live in poverty and social and economic inequality is marked.[5] South Africa is classed as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank.[6] The analysis that follows mainly concentrates on the situation of African women.

The end of Apartheid (in 1994) and the African majority’s rise to power have led to the introduction of legislation that supports African women. The Constitution protects women’s right to equality and prohibits discrimination.[7] Yet while traditional institutions are subject to principles of the Constitution, civil law is often ineffective in replacing the prevailing customary law, particularly in rural areas.[8] Discriminatory practices, social norms and persistent gender stereotypes continue to determine women’s and men’s opportunities and interactions. In particular, the 2010 report to the Committee on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) notes that aggressive forms of masculinity and “macho-ism” ‘continue to present a barrier to the effective implementation of [the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women] CEDAW and the general pursuit of women’s rights and gender equality’.[9]

South Africa ratified CEDAW in 1995, and the Optional Protocol in 2005.[10] South Africa ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2005.[11]

[1] CEDAW (2010) p.5 [2] Statistics South Africa (2011) [3] South African Democracy Trust’s Road to Democracy series (1960-1990) [4]  South African Democracy Trust’s Road to Democracy series (1960-1990) [5] BBC (n.d.) [6] World Bank (n.d.) [7] Section 9 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 in Knox, A. et al. (2007) p. 9 [8] World Bank et al. (2009) p. 149 [9] CEDAW (2010) p.6 [10] United Nations Treaty Collection (2011) [11] African Union (2010)


Abrahams N, Jewkes R, Martin LJ, Mathews S, Lombard C, Vetten L (2009) Mortality of women from intimate partner violence in South Africa: a national epidemiological study. Journal of Violence and Victims 2009. 24(4)

African Union (2010) ‘List of countries which have signed, ratified/acceded to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa’ (as of 27 August 2010).

BBC (n.d.) ‘South Africa profile’, BBC News., accessed 11 November 2011

Central Intelligence Agency (2012) The World Factbook: Sex Ratio, available at, accessed 9 March 2012.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1998), Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: South African Republic, Initial Report on States Parties, Cedaw/c/ zaf/1, CEDAW, New York, NY.

CEDAW (2010) ‘Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Combined second, third and fourth periodic report of States parties South Africa’, CEDAW/C/ZAF/2-4, CEDAW, New York

Commission for Gender Equality (2011), Women, Land and Customary Law, available at, accessed 19 March 2012

Department of Health, Medical Research Council  (DOH), ORC Macro (2007), South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2003, DOH: Pretoria, South Africa.

Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) (2009) African Women’s Report 2009: Measuring Gender Inequality in Africa: Experiences and Lessons from the African Gender and Development Index, Addis Ababa: ECA.

Freedom House (2010) ‘Freedom in the World Country Reports: South Africa’,, accessed 11 November 2011

International Labour Organization (ILO) (2009), Database of Conditions of Work and Employment Laws, ILO, Geneva, Switzerland, accessed 26 March 2010

Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) (n.d.) ‘Parliamentary Campaign ‘Stop Violence Against Women!’: Female Genital Mutilation, Legislation and other National Provisions’, Geneva: IPU,, accessed 11 November 2011

IPU (2010), Women in Parliament: All Countries on National Parliaments, IPU: Geneva,

Knox, A., N. Duvvury, and N. Milici (2007), Connecting Rights to Reality: A Progressive Framework of Core Legal Protections for Women’s Property Rights, ICRW (International Center for Research on Women): Washington, DC.

Meer and Severe (2004), Gender and Citizenship. available at, accessed 19 March 2012

Pew Research Center (2007), Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007 Survey, Pew Research Center: Washington, DC.

The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2008), South African CEDAW Report: Progress Made of the Implementation of the Convention for the Period 1998 to 2008, The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa: Pretoria, South Africa.

South African Democracy Trust’s Road to Democracy series (1960-1990), available at, accessed 19 March 2012

Statistics South Africa (2007), Community Survey 2007, Statistics South Africa: Pretoria, South Africa.

Statistics South Africa (2011), Census data, Statistics South Africa: Pretoria, South Africa.

United Nations Development Programme (2011) Human Development Report 2011, available at, accessed 29 February 2012

UN (2011) ‘World Abortion Policies 2011’, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, New York.

United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC) (2010): Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, countries ratified. 

-          CEDAW:

-          Optional Protocol:

University of Cape Town (2012) Submission on the Traditional Courts Bill to the Select Committee on Security and Constitutional Development, available at, accessed 30 March 2012

USAID (2003) Demographic and Health Survey South Africa, available at, accessed 6 April 2012

US Department of State (2010), 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: South Africa, US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Washington, DC.

US Department of State (2011), 2010 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: South Africa, US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Washington, DC., accessed 11 November 2011

Women’s Legal Centre (2010) A simplified guide to inheriting property, available at, accessed 19 March 2012.

World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and International Fund for Agricultural Development (2009), Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, The World bank, Washington, DC.

World Economic Forum (2010) ‘The Global Gender Gap Index 2010 rankings’,

World Economic Forum (2011) The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, available at, accessed 2 March 2012

World Values Survey (WVS) (2007), Selected Country/Sample: South Africa, World Values Survey, available, accessed 27 March 2010

World Health Organization (WHO) (2009), Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda, WHO: Geneva, Switzerland.


Discrim. Fam. Code Rank 2012: 
Discrim. Fam. Code Value 2012: 
Legal Age of Marriage: 
Early Marriage: 
Parental Authority: 
Rest. Phys. Integrity Rank 2012: 
Rest. Phys. Integrity Value 2012: 
Violence Against Women (laws): 
Female Genital Mutilation: 
Reproductive Integrity: 
Prevalance Of Domestic Violence: 
Son Bias Rank 2012: 
Son Bias Value 2012: 
Missing Women: 
Fertility Preferences: 
Rest. Resources & Ent. Rank 2012: 
Rest. Resources & Ent. Value 2012: 
Access To Land: 
Access To Property Other Than Land: 
Access To Bank Loans And Credit: 
Rest. Civil Liberties Rank 2012: 
Rest. Civil Liberties Value 2012: 
Access To Public Space: 
Political Participation: 
Political Quotas: