“If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”. This Fanti proverb, found in the DNA of Ghana, has somewhat become of a cliché. For many, these clichés are quoted simply to sound politically correct and therefore it probably is good of me to open an article during women’s month using this cliché.

Yet the point about proverbs, whether clichéd or not, is that they hold fundamental truths. These truths speak to the very existence of the nation, as a people, as a community and as a family. Women’s month gives us an opportunity to reflect on the need for us to improve the plight of women, especially within our country.

In four years’ time, our country will be due for another round of census. A census gives a state the opportunity to assess where things are at and what interventions, especially through national budgets, must be made. We looked at some of the figures that Census 2011 told us about women and families and it would be good to measure how far we have come.

One of the opening startling figures of the Census was that nearly thirty-percent of African children were living with neither of their parents. Forty percent of African children were living with their mothers only while this number is at nearly a third for Coloured children. Only just over a quarter of African children live with both parents whereas only half of Coloured children live with both parents. The majority of White and Indian children live with both parents; the figures being seventy-three percent and eighty-three percent for Indians respectively. Women, the Census said, are more likely to live in the same household as their own children.

As far as education is concerned, a third of White women obtained a qualification higher than Grade 12 whereas less than ten percent of African women have achieved some qualification after basic schooling. Coloured women fair even less than their African counterparts with only seven percent achieving a qualification after basic schooling, the figure being twenty-one percent for Indian women. Only twenty-two percent of African and Coloured women have obtained Grade 12 whereas the figure is thirty-five percent and forty percent for Indians and Whites respectively.

In 2011, the majority of women who have not obtained a matric in South Africa are Coloured, with nearly two-thirds of Coloured women having not obtained a matric. Fifty-three percent of African women have not obtained matric, forty percent of Indian women and only twenty-three percent of White women. Half of women in South Africa do not possess a Grade 12 qualification, whereas the figure is the same for men. In general, the numbers are not very different between the sexes. However, literacy rates, being able to read in at least one language, is higher for men than it is for women, in rural and urban areas. It is safe to suggest that these figures have not changed much.

As far as the workplace is concerned, the Census went on to indicate that the majority of those not economically active, who will probably never get a job in their lifetimes, are women. Half of Indian women and nearly half of African women are not economically active (NEA) while forty percent of Coloured women are NEA. The figure is at thirty-eight percent for White women. While African females top the chart for unemployment they hold thirty percent of the jobs in the workforce, the least among the races.

Other interesting figures that the Census showed us was that while thirty-sex percent of women employed in 2001 had no schooling, the figure by half by 2011 with only fourteen percent of women employed having had no schooling. In other words, the first to be targeted for retrenchment would be women without schooling. The pattern is similar for men. However, what is most concerning is the regression made by women in the workplace, who have a Grade 12 qualification or more. What the figures show is that women are less likely to be employed even a decade later. Nationally, women remain more unemployed than men, with African women remaining the majority of those who cannot find employment.

Yet what is to be done? Those who have studied developmental state theory know that it is the role of the state to understand which industries or sectors are doing well and then invest more into these. While mining, for example, remains one of the industries, it simply is not labour absorptive. The industries that are providing jobs are the ones that should be invested in and developed. Yet what are these and what are these for women in particular.

Census 2011 showed that industries are most absorptive for creating jobs for women particularly, services. The next is trade followed by private households and finance. Fifth only is manufacturing. Many of us familiar with the textile and clothing industry in the Western Cape would know the devastating effect cheap imports had on this industry and in particular women factory workers. Whilst it is ideal that we invest in manufacturing we have to ensure that we know what our domestic and global competitive advantage is. It would seem, at least for women, manufacturing is not that competitive advantage. As an aside, the statistics indicate that manufacturing does lie in the top three industries for jobs for men. Therefore, it would not be correct to dismiss manufacturing completely.

As a result, we see from these figures women beating men in industries such as services by almost double, trade and private households. While trade registers as a high indicator for women in the economy, the figures go on to show that nearly sixty-percent of this trade is done informally. At the same time, it is important though to question the level of skills needed in this industry and whether these industries will be affected by STEM jobs and how so. While it is estimated that the vast majority of jobs in the future will be linked to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we must ask whether industries such as community and social services, private households and trade will become obsolete.

Yet we must be careful in our investment not to trap women into these low skilled industries. When looking at occupation, the participation of women in these industries makes sense. The majority of women are either in an elementary role, clerks, sales and services or are domestic workers. While we must never downplay the dignity provided by work, we must ensure that if someone is a domestic worker they have the requisite skills to be able to change jobs, if needs be, and therefore in that way become sustainable. Domestic worker must therefore be a site for skills development of first-aid, early childhood development, culinary expertise, among others.

In other words, while we may want to take the developmental approach in ensuring that we invest more in those industries that are working for women, it is also important that we recognise that these industries yield these results often based on past inequalities. The type of investment into these industries must ensure that we rectify the structural injustices of the past and that continue to plague our economy today.

Here the role of our sector education and training authorities (SETA’s) becomes key. At the moment, R31 billion is ring-fenced for skills development through the SETA’s annually. Yet it would make interesting reading to find out how much skills development has taken place and how many women, in particular, have benefited from these SETA’s especially from the health and welfare, services, culture, arts, tourism, hospitality and sports SETA’s. In other words, are we up skilling women who are currently employed in order for them to have more sustainable livelihoods and futures?

We must continue the outcry against femicide and the ongoing abuse daily of women in our country. However, unless we act and make the necessary interventions to ensure radical economic transformation for our women particularly, we will not be breaking the chains that men hold them trapped in.

Nomvula Mokonyane is Minister of Water & Sanitation. A member of the ANC NEC