Celebrating Nelson Mandela, champion of women’s rights | Mandela Day

Nelson Mandela
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Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist, who served as President of South Africa for five years from 1994 to 1999.

Mandela famously spent 27 years in prison for trying to overthrow the pro-apartheid government. Under the apartheid, white people and BAME people were segregated, through housing, public transport, education, restaurants, amongst other ways.

During his years in prison, Mandela refused to give up the fight. Despite his confinement, he remained the face of the anti-apartheid movement. He smuggled out political statements and a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, which was eventually published five years after his release. He also earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of London.

When Mandela was finally released, he spent his latter years working for human rights and anti-apartheid campaigns. In 1994, Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black President. Mandela not only fought against the oppression of black Africans but also the rights of women and human rights in general.

Over his lifetime, Mandela was awarded over 250 accolades, prizes, honorary degrees and citizenships in recognition of his political achievement. In 1993, he was also awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela sadly died in 2013 following a lung illness.

Today marks Mandela Day commemorate the lifetime service that Nelson Mandela gave to South Africa and the world. The day was launched on Mandela’s birthday in 2009 after a unanimous decision by the UN General Assembly.

To commemorate Mandela Day, WeAreTheCity take a look into how he championed women’s rights.

Gender policies

Mandela fought hard throughout his presidency for the rights of women and gender equality.

Women’s representation in parliament also made great advancements during his time in power. During apartheid, female representation stood at 2.7 per cent. However, this increased to 27 per cent after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Mandela also appointed over a third of women to his cabinet – one of the most prominent being Frene Ginwala as the Speaker of the House.

“Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated.”

Women’s rights

Mandela signed the final draft of South Africa’s constitution on International Human Rights Day in December 1996. The constitution set in stone a list of rights for women, including that the state could not unfairly discriminate against people due to their gender or race, amongst others.


During his time in power, Mandela introduced free pre and postnatal care to mothers and free healthcare to children up to the age of six.

He also spoke regularly out against the sexual abuse and rape of women in South Africa. In 1996, he used his speech on Women’s Day to call for an end to sexual violence as well as full gender equality.

National Holidays

In 1994, Mandela declared 9 August, Women’s Day – a national holiday.

The day was to honour the women who played a role in the anti-apartheid movement – in particular the 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The women were protesting against laws that required black women to carry passes in urban areas.

Describing the protests in his book, Mandela said, “The women were courageous, persistent, enthusiastic, indefatigable and their protest against passes set a standard for anti-government protest that was never equalled.”

United Nations Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

The United Nations Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It aims to establish equality in marriage, politics, education and employment and focuses on eradicating female stereotypes.

Although South Africa signed the UN’s Convention in 1993, Mandela ensured that the convention was ratified by parliament – something that the US has not done.

“As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance.”

About the author

Alison is the Digital Content Editor for WeAreTheCity. She has a BA Honours degree in Journalism and History from the University of Portsmouth. She has previously worked in the marketing sector and in a copywriting role. Alison’s other passions and hobbies include writing, blogging and travelling.

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