As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month in August, it is worth reflecting on the issues that continue to dominate and affect young women’s lives in one of the continent’s wealthiest countries. In this month, South Africans pay homage to the thousands of women who, in an inspiring depiction of political strength and courage, marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 to protest against having to carry passes and permits.

But does this picture of political strength still ring true for young South African women today? With this year marking two decades of democracy – and an election year to boot – it is important to ask whether young South African women still attach the same significance to the right to participate in a democratic process such as the elections. Do they grasp the rights that were fought for and won for them?

In May 1930, a momentous feat was achieved when, under the Women’s Enfranchisement Act, 1930, white South African women gained the right to vote and run for office. While this political right represented a huge achievement, the victory was diluted: it highlighted the selfish interests of white South African women, as very few of them expressed solidarity with the plight of non-white women.

In 1994, with South Africa’s first fully democratic election, non-white women were finally granted the right to vote. South African women have since come a long way, and in the face of many challenges, to be recognised as equal. Following years of inequality, women have fought to dispel the notion that they are politically inept and that their place in society is to be at home, taking care of the family.

According to the 2009 Independent Electoral Commissions Elections Report, approximately 12,722,622 (55 per cent) of registered voters were female. Of these figures, and among the 18- to 25-year-old age group, 1,693,888 women were registered to vote, as compared to a lower registration level of 1,460,887 among their male counterparts. These figures could, to some extent, indicate that young South African women understand the rights that were won for them, and appreciate the right to participate in a democratic process such as the elections.

On 9 August 1956, roughly 20,000 women marched on Union Buildings in Pretoria (official seat of the South African government) to protest against the apartheid pass laws, which required Africans to carry a “pass”, curtailing their freedom of movement. Since 1994, 9 August has been known as Women's Day
On 9 August 1956, roughly 20,000 women marched on Union Buildings in Pretoria (official seat of the South African government) to protest against the apartheid pass laws, which required Africans to carry a “pass”, curtailing their freedom of movement. Since 1994, 9 August has been known as Women’s Day

In a study aimed at understanding the voting behaviour of young South Africans (18 to 24 years old), the Institute for Security Studies has been speaking to young South Africans across all nine provinces to find out why they choose to participate democratically, or why they choose to refrain from such participation. A few preliminary findings indicate that even though young South African women continue to dominate the number of registered and active voters, they still face many challenges, particularly around issues of gender inequality, gender-based violence and discrimination.

According to a 20-year-old Eastern Cape student, the need for gender equality is still evident, saying, ‘There is a lot of inequality in South Africa. I would like to see women being put in leadership roles and participating in [as] many organisations as the males in this country.’

According to an 18-year-old student in KwaZulu-Natal, the issue of safety and security, particularly for women, remains a concern. ‘In other countries, children go cycling from school to their house and they play on the street – they do not have to worry about getting raped on the sides of the street…’ A 21-year-old student in Limpopo also raised this issue, saying, ‘I think the most important issue that must be addressed in these elections [2014] is safety and security for women and children, because women these days are afraid to leave their children with their fathers at home. They are afraid that they might rape them, so in this election they must address the issue of safety and security’

But while some young South African students continue to battle the challenges mentioned above, for others it is clear that these challenges, along with the political rights that were fought for and won for them, only highlight the importance of political participation and voting in the elections.

According to a 23-year-old student from KwaZulu-Natal, ‘It is important to vote, for us as South Africans to be free today – to have equal votes: women and men being the same, doing the same jobs. It is important to me. ’Another 22-year-old student, also from KwaZulu-Natal, said: ‘Yes, I registered to vote, I want better education in South Africa and I do not want to see young girls raped by old men. I voted.’

A 19-year-old student in the Western Cape explains that her mom was her ‘first motivation’ to vote, adding: ‘Secondly – it is a platform; it is my first step in engaging in the happening of my country, so I am voicing my opinion and feelings. I have been given this opportunity, it was fought for me: you have that power to make a change, so why not register?’

These quotes illustrate how young South African women continue to battle with the challenges of gender inequality, the fear of gender-based violence and discrimination. They also however, illustrate how young South African women refuse to allow such challenges to hinder their political participation, and choose to turn the challenges they face into a powerful right: the right to vote!

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies, and is republished here with their permission.