Remembering Mandela the Feminist

I feel a strange sense of connection to South Africa. In high school, I was part of a community theater run by a South African emigree who fled after being persecuted for protesting apartheid. In college, I studied South African theater and was introduced playwrights like Athol Fugard and Ian Frasier. I finally visited South Africa on my honeymoon in 2011, and fell in love with the country and people. I was on vacation in Mexico when I heard Nelson Mandela died, and cried the only tears in an otherwise joyful week.

Obviously Mandela is a controversial and iconic political figure who leaves behind a legendary legacy. An oft forgotten part of that legacy is his work toward equality and justice for women in South Africa. A few examples:

  • Under apartheid, only 2.7% of the country’s federal representatives were female. After the first democratic elections in 1994, that number jumped to 27%, followed by Mandela appointing women to 1/3 of the positions in his cabinet. Today, women make up 44% of South Africa’s federal government (vs. 18.5% in the United States.)
  • He was instrumental in getting the following language included in South Africa’s Constitution; “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”The Constitution also explicitly protects the right “to make decisions concerning reproduction.”
  • Mandela established the Commission for Gender Equality, whose mission is “A society free from gender oppression and inequality,” and led South Africa to ratify the U.N Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often referred to as an ‘international bill of rights for women.’ (The US has not signed.)
  • As President, he introduced free prenatal and postnatal through the public health system, and free health care to children under 6.

As the world remembers and celebrates him, I hope you’ll talk about this part of his legacy,  so he is remembered rightly as someone who fought not just for racial equality, but for human equality.

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