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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > June 2011 > Gender Mainstreaming in the South African Public Service

Gender Mainstreaming in the South African Public Service

Wednesday 1 June 2011, by Nitasha Moothoo-Padayachie

In 1995, the mainstreaming of gender was identified as a key process for instituting change to the new South African democracy. South Africa ratified the Beijing Platform for Action, an agenda towards female empowerment, and made a firm commitment to the mainstreaming of gender within the Public Service by creating the National Gender Machinery. However, appreciation for the diversity between men and women still remains limited in most government departments, and the processes currently in place are not making much of a difference.

The process of gender mainstreaming is especially important in a participatory democracy, as it enables international agreements in the area of gender to have clout. Gender is widely recognised as a marginalised issue, and the UN defines gender mainstreaming

“as the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated”. (UN/DAW 1998:4)

South Africa further attempted to pledge its commitment to the fight for gender equality through the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Southern African Development Community Declaration on Gender and Development, the African Union Protocol on the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and the Constitution of South Africa which clearly stipulates the rights of equality. The latter came into effect in 1996. Following the Beijing Platform for Action, countries around the world set up institutions that would be responsible for the achievement of the aims of the agenda.

South Africa’s National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality of 2002, also known as the Gender Policy Framework, reflects South Africa’s vision for gender equality and how it intends to realize this ideal. The policy stipulates the overarching principles, practices and programs which will be integrated by all sectors of the South African government into their policies. This gender policy also details a strategy for gender mainstreaming and provides guiding principles for its implementation. Most importantly the policy details the long and short term mechanisms for determining the extent of gender justice and equality. This however, was undertaken in a very limited manner with many departments using the Employment Equity Act as a compliance measure for gender equality.

The National Gender Machinery (NGM), led by what was then called the Office on the Status of Women, was tasked with monitoring and assisting with gender mainstreaming initiatives in the South African Public Service. The NGM was composed of the Commission for Gender Equality (with members from the private sector and universities), non-governmental institutions, Gender Focal Points, and the Office on the Status of Women. The Joint Monitoring Committee for Improving the Quality of Life and Status of Women (JMC) was also set up to monitor the implementation of mainstreaming initiatives. In May 2009 a Ministry of Women, Children, Youth and the Disabled was established.

Even though the above measures were in place to monitor the process of gender mainstreaming, a report by the Public Service Commission (PSC) of 2006, “Gender Mainstreaming Initiatives in the Public Service,” revealed there are many challenges facing the Public Service.

There is a lack of knowledge about gender mainstreaming in most departments and across all levels. Senior management does not know how to move from vision (policy) to strategy and action. The main reason for this is because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of what it is that needs to be changed, why it needs to be changed, how to go about the change process, and what results should be produced. (Public Service Commission report, 2006:14)

A way forward was proposed by the Public Service Commission. The national government training arm was tasked with developing the Gender Mainstreaming Training program that would provide Public Service officials at the local, provincial and national level with the necessary skills to mainstream gender effectively. What has emerged from the rollout of the training program practiced since 2008, however, is that training is only one piece of what needs to be in place in order for gender to be mainstreamed effectively within government departments. Key institutional mechanisms are needed to support the mainstreaming of gender such as buy-in from senior management, allocation of resources (both personnel and financial), and political will. Policy must be accompanied by implementation that is monitored and evaluated; the Public Service must create a culture that recognizes gender as a marginalized issue. Gender must further not be recognized as a “women’s issue,” and there must be a clear reporting strategy on the status of gender issues at local, provincial and national level, since South Africa’s government model is a three tiered system.

Currently, the suggestion of a skills program is insufficient to elicit change. The South African Public Service needs to take up the baton to institute change in a holistic manner in order to honour its obligations to already ratified international agreements on gender, and for South African citizens to benefit from the mainstreaming initiatives of a Public Service that recognizes gender as a marginalized issue.

Johannesburg, South Africa


South African Public service Commission Report, 2006
Rai, S.M. (2008) (ed.), International Perspectives on Gender and Democratization, Basingstoke: Macmillan
Gender Mainstreaming a Definition, available at