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For South Africa's Women, Hopes Still Remain Thwarted

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Cheryl Carolus, one of South Africa's most prominent female politicians, says she has no complaints about her acceptance as an "honorary man" by her male comrades.

But the way her colleagues treat their wives stokes the ire of this deputy secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC).

She says she sometimes has to force them to introduce their wives, who are carrying food in and out of the kitchen while Ms. Carolus and the men talk politics in the lounge.

"I become quite rude and say, 'Excuse me, who is this person?' They often then say dismissively 'That is my wife,' as though they would say, 'This my dog.' "

Perhaps nothing better sums up the mixed picture for women since Nelson Mandela's ANC formed the first black majority government in 1994.

During its decades as a liberation movement, the ANC championed equal rights, and women like Carolus held high-level positions. But the story told by many of the country's females since then is of second-class citizenship.

Expectations were widespread that this ANC government would prove more enlightened than those in other countries, partly because of what was seen as a genuine commitment by President Mandela to better the lot of women. However, most analysts, including Carolus, feel these things take time and that other men in the government lack the president's vision.

Women's-rights activists concede that the government may be well-meaning. The new post-apartheid Constitution, for example, enshrines equal rights. But no gender antidiscrimination laws are on the books, and sexist traditions - particularly among the rural poor - mean policy is often not translated into action.

The problem facing women in South Africa is universal across Africa, where there has only been one female president in recent history (in Liberia). But South Africa was seen as an exceptional case, both because of its superior economic development and the political maturity of its leaders.

"The government's commitment is often just rhetoric," says Cathi Abertyn, head of the Gender Studies Program at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg.

To the government's credit, women can finally open their own bank accounts without their husbands' permission. Pregnancy is no longer grounds for job dismissal, and pregnant women enjoy free health care. Abortion was legalized earlier this year. Women head four ministries. The Speaker of Parliament is a woman. Women hold about a quarter of Parliament's 490 seats.


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