As Nelson Mandela studied in law schools and protested on the streets of Johannesburg, wrote letters in solitary confinement cells and brokered peace in presidential palaces, he was focused on ending South Africa’s notorious apartheid system.
He eventually succeeded in dismantling the tenacious institutional and legal structure that funnelled most wealth, land, and opportunity in the country to a small minority of white Afrikaners, while disenfranchising the vast majority of indigenous black people.
But Mandela knew that this victory didn’t fully emancipate the people of South Africa. He also knew that all forms of oppression are linked and reinforce one another, so he didn’t stop at overthrowing apartheid — he dedicated the rest of his life to ending oppression wherever it existed.
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In particular, Mandela worked to end the global oppression of women through his policies as president and his advocacy as a human rights icon.
“As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance,” he famously said in a speech on World Women’s Day in 1996.
“As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow,” he added.
In honor of the centennial of Mandela’s birth, here are four ways he championed women’s rights.
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1/ Recognizing Women
In many of the major civil rights movements throughout history, the contributions of women have been forgotten or overlooked. The US civil rights movement of the 1960s, for instance, was often led by women on the local level, but their efforts are often blotted out by the forceful mystique of figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and others. As women’s rights are advanced in Saudi Arabia, nearly all of the credit is flowing to the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whereas women activists are getting little recognition for their courageous work.
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During his life, Nelson Mandela was determined to give credit where credit was due.
After he became president in 1994, he established Women’s Day on Aug. 9 to celebrate the women who fought to end apartheid.
“Forty years ago, a legion of brave and determined women dared to throw down the gauntlet at the seat of apartheid power,” he said in the Women’s Day speech. ”We honour these veterans.”
There was Albertina Sisulu, a nurse who was one of the leaders of the African National Congress Women’s League and spent years in prison for all of her organizing, protesting, and theorizing. During the apartheid years, she resisted by helping to develop an alternative curriculum for students. In 1994, she moved from the opposition ranks and began serving in parliament.
Then there was Helen Joseph, a white activist who became one of the leading opponents of apartheid more than four decades before it was dismantled.
Lilian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi was a seamstress who ascended the ranks of the ANC, becoming the first female member of the group’s executive committee, and was instrumental in advancing the rights of black women. In 1956, she led a women’s march in Pretoria to challenge the apartheid government’s discriminatory laws against women.
"The women were courageous, persistent, enthusiastic, indefatigable and their protest against passes set a standard for anti-government protest that was never equalled," Mandela wrote in his biography.
2/ Getting Women Into Office
In 1990, women accounted for 10% of legislative positions in the world, according to the UN, and in South Africa, women held a mere 2.7% of posts.
When Mandela was swept into power in 1994 on the surging tide of civil rights, the number of women in government rapidly rose in 27%, thanks in part to his advocacy work and his empowerment of women in the African National Congress.
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Frene Ginwala, meanwhile, rose to the highest position in the parliament — speaker of the house. These elections helped to usher in greater gender equality throughout the country and stronger enforcement of laws.
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3/ Advancing Global Women’s Rights
In 1979, the UN ratified the United Nations Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but it wasn’t until Mandela was in office in 1995 that the treaty became the rule of law in South Africa.
Among other things, the groundbreaking document states that it “affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. It affirms women's rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality and the nationality of their children. States parties also agree to take appropriate measures against all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of women.”
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4/ Passing Laws
Mandela understood that solidarity wasn’t enough to achieve gender equality. That’s why he immediately fought for laws that could protect and open up opportunities for women once he came into power.
Mandela also expanded women’s access to social services by introducing free prenatal and postnatal care to mothers in the public health system as well as free healthcare to children up to the age of six.
Perhaps most importantly, he enshrined women’s rights in the country’s constitution in 1996, according to CNN, which criminalized discrimination against women.
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The civil rights leader also frequently denounced sexual assault, according to Jezebel, in ways that would square him with the current #MeToo movement sweeping across the globe.