Literacy and women in South Africa


Sharon Groenmeyer Discusses the state of Literacy and Gender Equality in South Africa

women who are mothers, workers and members of the community. According to author Sindiwe Magona, South Africans experienced centuries of deprivation of the right to read and the idea that everything would change with the end of apartheid is a fallacy. She goes further to note that there was the hope that children in the townships would flock to the libraries, but they didn’t because a reading culture is not possible until youngsters can ‘meet’ books and fall in love. In light of this, it is becoming readily accepted that South Africans do not read books. They read newspapers and magazines (more than two-thirds of South Africans regularly read print media, according to the

South African Book Development Council), but they are not committed readers:

  • only 1% of South Africans regularly buy books and
  • only 14% are regular book readers,
  • Put differently, 8.5 million adults in South Africa are functionally illiterate, with between 2.9 and 4.2 million people never having attended school.

Literacy and gender equality

The gendered vulnerabilities of men and women, based on existing inequalities linked to roles, positions and relations of power, affect access to resources. Women often have access, but far less control over assets than their male counterparts. In other words, cultural practices and the dominance of patriarchal norms influence equal ownership and inheritance rights for men and women. Moreover, women’s time is devoted to the domestic sphere, which is considered nonmarketable and undervalued by the family and society in general. Therefore, women spend more time on caring and supporting their children and extended families. According to Debbie Budlender the free labour of women amounts to 247 minutes, while men contribute 87 minutes on productive activities excluded from GDP calculation.

In spite of free health care for pregnant mothers and children under five years of age, maternal mortality has worsened to an estimated level of 333 per 100 000 live births in 2009. Maternal mortality can be attributed to poor pre-natal care, malnutrition or gender based violence. Literature indicates that poor nutrition could lead to illness and death if access to basic services – safe water, energy and sanitation-is unavailable. While the infant and under five mortality rates have improved, the neo-natal (babies under one month) mortality rate showed no sign of improvement by 2009. Joblessness may be accompanied by poverty and homelessness. The increasing prices of basic foods, like maize and wheat, which are the staple foods of most rural and urban poor, poses a problem, because impoverished households are not buyers of food. In poor households, women become shock absorbers during a food crisis, skipping meals to ensure family members are fed. The increasing levels of inequality amongst the South African population threatens to reverse development gains because it is often the young girl child who drops out of school to care for her siblings while her mother does poorly paid casual work. Many children still cry themselves to sleep because they are hungry and malnutrition is on the increase. Some of the reasons for hunger are linked to SA’s macro-economic choices. This is a result of South Africa’s neoliberal economic policies that facilitated the WTO General Agreement on Tariffs and

Trade (l994) being implemented in a way that cost South Africa tens of thousands of women’s jobs (Govender 2012). This agreement opened the way for the privatization and commodification of basic rights, including water, education and health care.


Globally, women are considered the main caregivers in the family. This role is more important within the South African context because of the legacy of the migrant labour system, which resulted in the majority of households being female headed. Low levels of literacy results in a lack of knowledge of one’s right to equality. Therefore, in the words of Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-present):’’ the education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”

Dr. Sharon Groenmeyer is an independent consultant.

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