In 1954, long before the
United States and the rest of the world had ever heard the term
"women's liberation" or recognized that women could make a
serious impact on politics, South African women documented a number of
goals that, if put into effect, would trailblaze a
path for equality, justice, and freedom.
Adopted at the Founding Conference of the Federation of South African Women
Johannesburg, 17 April 1954 1
Preamble: We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women and housewives, African,
Indians, European and Coloured, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations,
conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our
inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the
A Single Society: We women do not form a society separate from the men. There is only one society, and it
is made up of both women and men. As women we share the problems and anxieties of our men, and join
hands with them to remove social evils and obstacles to progress.
Test of Civilisation: The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree
of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilisation. Measured by that standard,
South Africa must be considered low in the scale of civilised nations.
Women's Lot: We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils.
As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of
our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for the homes that are too
broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands
are away in the mines, on the farms, and in the towns earning our daily bread.
We know what it is to keep family life going in pondokkies and shanties, or in overcrowded one-room
apartments. We know the bitterness of children taken to lawless ways, of daughters becoming unmarried
mothers whilst still at school, of boys and girls growing up without education, training or jobs at a living wage.
Poor and Rich: These are evils that need not exist. They exist because the society in which we live is divided
into poor and rich, into non-European and European. They exist because there are privileges for the few,
discrimination and harsh treatment for the many. We women have stood and will stand shoulder to shoulder
with our menfolk in a common struggle against poverty, race and class discrimination, and the evils of the
National Liberation: As members of the National Liberatory movements and Trade Unions, in and through
our various organisations, we march forward with our men in the struggle for liberation and the defence of the
working people. We pledge ourselves to keep high the banner of equality, fraternity and liberty. As women
there rests upon us also the burden of removing from our society all the social differences developed in past
times between men and women, which have the effect of keeping our sex in a position of inferiority and
Equality for Women: We resolve to struggle for the removal of laws and customs that deny African women
the right to own, inherit or alienate property. We resolve to work for a change in the laws of marriage such as
are found amongst our African, Malay and Indian people, which have the effect of placing wives in the position
of legal subjection to husbands, and giving husbands the power to dispose of wives' property and earnings,
and dictate to them in all matters affecting them and their children.
We recognise that the women are treated as minors by these marriage and property laws because of ancient
and revered traditions and customs which had their origin in the antiquity of the people and no doubt served
purposes of great value in bygone times.
There was a time in the African society when every woman reaching marriageable stage was assured of a
husband, home, land and security.
Then husbands and wives with their children belonged to families and clans that supplied most of their own
material needs and were largely self-sufficient. Men and women were partners in a compact and closely
integrated family unit.
Women who Labour: Those conditions have gone. The tribal and kinship society to which they belonged
has been destroyed as a result of the loss of tribal land, migration of men away from the tribal home, the
growth of towns and industries, and the rise of a great body of wage-earners on the farms and in the urban
areas, who depend wholly or mainly on wages for a livelihood.
Thousands of African women, like Indians, Coloured and European women, are employed today in factories,
homes, offices, shops, on farms, in professions as nurses, teachers and the like. As unmarried women,
widows or divorcees they have to fend for themselves, often without the assistance of a male relative. Many of
them are responsible not only for their own livelihood but also that of their children.
Large numbers of women today are in fact the sole breadwinners and heads of their families.
Forever Minors: Nevertheless, the laws and practices derived from an earlier and different state of society
are still applied to them. They are responsible for their own person and their children. Yet the law seeks to
enforce upon them the status of a minor.
Not only are African, Coloured and Indian women denied political rights, but they are also in many parts of the
Union denied the same status as men in such matters as the right to enter into contracts, to own and dispose
of property, and to exercise guardianship over their children.
Obstacle to Progress: The law has lagged behind the development of society; it no longer corresponds to
the actual social and economic position of women. The law has become an obstacle to progress of the
women, and therefore a brake on the whole of society.
This intolerable condition would not be allowed to continue were it not for the refusal of a large section of our
menfolk to concede to us women the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves.
We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of discrimination and
prejudice as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and in practice.
Need for Education: We also recognise that large numbers of our womenfolk continue to be bound by
traditional practices and conventions, and fail to realise that these have become obsolete and a brake on
progress. It is our duty and privilege to enlist all women in our struggle for emancipation and to bring to them
all realisation of the intimate relationship that exists between their status of inferiority as women and the
inferior status to which their people are subjected by discriminatory laws and colour prejudices.
It is our intention to carry out a nation-wide programme of education that will bring home to the men and
women of all national groups the realisation that freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people
as a whole as long as we women are kept in bondage.
An Appeal: We women appeal to all progressive organisations, to members of the great National Liberatory
movements, to the trade unions and working class organisations, to the churches, educational and welfare
organisations, to all progressive men and women who have the interests of the people at heart, to join with us
in this great and noble endeavour.
We declare the following aims:
This organisation is formed for the purpose of uniting women in common action for the removal of all political,
legal, economic and social disabilities. We shall strive for women to obtain:
1. The right to vote and to be elected to all State bodies, without restriction or discrimination.
2. The right to full opportunities for employment with equal pay and possibilities of promotion in all spheres
3. Equal rights with men in relation to property, marriage and children, and for the removal of all laws and
customs that deny women such equal rights.
4. For the development of every child through free compulsory education for all; for the protection of mother
and child through maternity homes, welfare clinics, creches and nursery schools, in countryside and
towns; through proper homes for all, and through the provision of water, light, transport, sanitation, and
other amenities of modern civilisation.
5. For the removal of all laws that restrict free movement, that prevent or hinder the right of free association
and activity in democratic organisations, and the right to participate in the work of these
6. To build and strengthen women's sections in the National Liberatory movements, the organisation of
women in trade unions, and through the peoples' varied organisation.
7. To cooperate with all other organisations that have similar aims in South Africa as well as throughout the
8. To strive for permanent peace throughout the world.
1. The Charter expressed the philosophy and aims of the newly established Federation of South African Women (FSAW). It was
adopted at the inaugural conference and included in the final report of the conference.
This article reprinted
from the Africa
Policy Information Center
comments and letters to email@example.com