International Women’s Day

Create opportunities for women to reach their full potential

International Women’s Day

Create opportunities for women to reach their full potential

Interview with B.J. Memela-Khambula, Chief Executive Officer, South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), in connection with International Women's Day on 8 March 2024.

B.J. Memela-Khambula

What are in your view the most important barriers to gender equality today?

South Africa as a developing country with high poverty, high unemployment and high inequality, faces major challenges with some of the most important barriers to gender equality today. There is limited access to employment and funding opportunities, especially for women. Some of us who are fortunate to be employed deal with gender stereotypes and biases, and the gender pay gap remains a major hurdle.

Approximately 3.4 million 15–24-year-olds are unemployed and not in education and training, the majority are women. As such, the majority of our Child Support Grants and Special Relief of Distress Grants recipients are mothers between the ages of 18 and 35. Low access to training and development opportunities for women limits the impact of the transformation journey that we have travelled as a country. We have high school dropout rate for girls, particularly due to pregnancy, which results in higher illiteracy rates for women.

Sexual harassment and violence impacts women and gender minorities who face frequent harassment, discrimination and abuse. Our crime statistics on gender-based violence requires us to do more to change societal behaviour and culture to tackle this intolerable scourge.

When you hear the theme of this year “Investing in women”, what possible measures come to your mind to accelerate progress?

Gender inequality is a significant barrier to more sustainable and inclusive development. In my view “Investing in women” is about creating opportunities for women to reach their full potential. Therefore, advancement of women’s development and growth is fundamental.

I want to make sure that women employed in SASSA, especially young women, are highly skilled and trained, and enabled to take the leadership space. I have already introduced the team women legacy leadership programme and I have gone to source funding and mentorship, and academic development with Duke University, where 13 young women have received support.

I have devoted energy in building a collaborative leadership mind-set and approach that ensures partnerships, distributed decision making, joint accountability and impactful services to our beneficiaries, communities, and the country. This is anchored in the Ethics, Compliance and Corrupt Free ecosystem that embraces technology to ensure efficient delivery of social assistance services to our communities.

Women must develop support networks. I truly believe that mentoring and coaching of women will provide the guidance and support that women require in the workplace, and I therefore dedicate my focus and energy on the women.

How can the social security system of your country strengthen its enabling role for gender equality?

For social assistance programme beneficiaries, our services are already biased towards women in the sense that 97 per cent of children’s grants beneficiaries are women caregivers, 54 per cent of COVID-19 SRD Grants for the unemployed go to women, 49 per cent of disability benefits go to women, and 64 per cent of older persons benefits are for women.

The best social security system that any country can provide to its working age population is the ability to provide for themselves and their dependents. Women take the lead in providing for their families. In this regard, my vision is to partner with institutions for education and development. The current partnership with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NFSAS) provides financial support to matriculants from poor families who get accepted at institutions of higher learning. Our beneficiaries get automatic qualification. Going forward we need to popularize this partnership so that more of our beneficiaries are fully aware of this benefit long before they even matriculate.

We need to invest in financial literacy to get women to embrace the cashless and mobile money as part of the policy shift and to demystify the society’s attitude towards this because it reduces transaction costs travel costs, and increases security.

What is your message to all ISSA members on International Women’s Day?

In order to make the lives of girls and women better we are called upon to invest in them, and for me the starting point of this task is to encourage development of the mental strength and agility of women and girls. Being aware of distractions, insecurities and false belief planted in one’s mind and how to overcome them.

I would like women to always prioritize self-care and well-being. It is also important for us as women to create emotionally safe environments for our families and co-workers to develop and thrive.

Build and nurture your support networks. It is crucial for women to build relationships and networks that will guide, develop and nurture one another personally and professionally.

Aim for financial independence by embarking on financial literacy and empowerment development opportunities for women and the youth.