South Africa: New Bill to Impair Rights of 12 Million Rural Women
Thursday, May 31, 2012 10:40 AM

South Africa’s parliament is discussing the implementation of the “Traditional Courts Bill,” which many civil rights groups say will undermine the basic human rights of 12 million women living in remote rural communities across the country. The bill originally sparked outcry in 2008 and is now expected to become law in 2012.  

The bill allows traditional leaders in remote areas the unilateral power to create and enforce customary law. Custom in most areas forbids women from appearing in courts. The bill also forbids defendants from having an attorney. According to Jennifer Williams, director of the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, the bill would "place all power in the hands of a single individual – in almost all cases a man – and effectively make him judge, jury and implementer."

Williams said the bill is rooted in a patriarchal system and “will take us back to a position where men will make and interpret custom in courts in a way that may not be consistent, clear or certain. Women and children (and other men) will be compelled to submit to the jurisdiction of these courts, regardless of choice. This will in effect create a second class of citizens."

The South African Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) rejects the bill and says that many provisions are unconstitutional. Leaders will be faced with determining how custom and the constitution are best reconciled in the new South Africa, which is expected to be debated before the bill becomes law.  If the bill becomes law, Williams says the Women’s Legal Centre will challenge its constitutionality in court.

Compiled from: Sabine Clappaert, South Africa’s ‘Traditional Courts Bill’ Impairs Rights of 12 Million Rural Women, IPS (28 May 2012).