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Should Women Fear a Zuma Presidency? Maybe Not

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Jacob Zuma was inaugurated as the new president of South Africa on 9 May, with his party, the African National Congress, having achieved a resounding victory in the recent elections. In what has been described as the most competitive election yet to take place in a post-apartheid South Africa, the ANC and Mr. Zuma clearly retain the support and trust of the vast majority of voters, men and women.

I'm no fan of Mr. Zuma's, having been part of a coalition of women's rights organizations that brought an unsuccessful legal application to intervene in his rape trial in 2007. Although Mr. Zuma was acquitted of rape, I, along with many other gender activists, firmly believe that the case did a great disservice to rape survivors in South Africa, reinforcing stereotypes of women and undermining ongoing efforts to improve access to justice and services for women who have been sexually assaulted.

Mr. Zuma's comments about women during and after the trial, including about how women should dress, clearly indicate that he holds very problematic views about the roles of women and men in society. And his contention that showering after having unprotected sex with a woman he knew to have HIV helped to protect him from infection, damaged efforts to prevent HIV infection in a country with the highest numbers of people living with HIV in the world.

That said, I don't share the pessimistic view expressed by feminists and women's rights activists inside and out of South Africa about what this man might do to the cause of women's rights. Fears are that he might set back the struggle for women's equality by years.

Gender equality is both a basic value and a substantive right in the highly lauded South African Constitution. Women are shielded from unfair discrimination, including on the basis of age and pregnancy, and their rights to reproductive automony and freedom from violence are protected.

A range of progressive laws and policies have been enacted since 1994 that promote women's rights in the workplace and access to reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortions, and that respond to the high levels of sexual and domestic violence. In a marked departure from other African countries, South Africa protects the rights of lesbians in both the Constitution and national legislation. The Constitutional Court, the apex court in South Africa, has consistently asserted and affirmed the central importance of women's equality in a democratic South Africa.

South Africa has a long tradition of women's political leadership. Women were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid and racial inequality. The country has had two female deputy presidents, and under the last government, 40 percent of ministerial posts were held by women, including posts not traditionally held by women.

South Africa also has a vibrant and energetic civil society that provides services, undertakes pioneering research and advocates for equality of women.

Despite these advances, South African women still have a long way to go before achieving full equality. The levels of violence against women remain unimaginably and unacceptably high, and with some 15,000 rapes reported every year, rape is an ever-present fear for many women. Despite gay rights being protected, there have been a number of brutal rapes recently of lesbian women. Women continue to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic, with too many women unable to negotiate safer sex and protect themselves from infection and unwanted pregnancies. The majority of the poor are women living in shacks and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. There is still a long walk to freedom and democracy for the women of South Africa.

I am, however, optimistic about progress, with the help of -- or even in spite of -- a Zuma presidency. His appointment of a large number of women ministers, including in the so-called non-traditional ministries of defense, home affairs, foreign affairs and agriculture, bodes well and suggests that Mr. Zuma will continue to strive for gender equality within the leadership of his government. Even if he were to try to reverse the gains that we have made, I suspect it will take more than Mr. Zuma to dismantle the structures, repeal the legislation and amend the Constitution. I doubt that even he would be able to silence the voices of women who will continue to demand equality and a country where they can live lives free from violence.