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How a South African Woman’s Fight for Marital Rights Changed Her Country

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Agnes Sithole and Sharita Samuel standing at the Legal Resources Centre's office in Durban, South Africa. Photo credit: Elna Schutz
Agnes Sithole and Sharita Samuel standing at the Legal Resources Centre's office in Durban, South Africa. Photo credit: Elna Schutz
Agnes Sithole and Sharita Samuel standing at the Legal Resources Centre's office in Durban, South Africa. Photo credit: Elna Schutz

What Agnes Sithole’s case shows about South Africa’s progress and peril since apartheid ended.

On this week’s episode of the Hidden Economics of Remarkable Women, we look at how reforming marital rights could be the biggest first step toward gender equality. We found the idea for this show from the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law (WBL) project, which ranks 190 economies every year for how well their policies are for gender equality. According to the WBL, South Africa has made the third-most progress regarding gender equality of any country in the world over the last 50 years, largely due to the women’s movement being interconnected with the fight to end apartheid. During the late 1980s and early ’90s, many reforms passed in South Africa propelled women’s rights, particularly in expanding married women’s ability to sign legally binding contracts, register businesses, and open bank accounts without their husband’s consent.

But decades after apartheid ended, one law remained on the books that continued to plague Black women, particularly ones seeking a divorce. We talk to Agnes Sithole, whose divorce case shook her country’s legal system. We also speak to Sharita Samuel, the lawyer who brought Sithole’s case before the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court.

Special thanks this week to Nisha Arekapudi and Natalia Mazoni Silva Martins from the WBL, who wrote the case study about South Africa’s gender equality gains and spotlighted Sithole’s legal fight. And big thanks to producer Elna Schutz, who flew out from Johannesburg to Durban just to record the interview with Sithole and Samuel.

About The Hidden Economics of Remarkable Women (HERO):  Could empowering women in the workplace be the simplest way to boost the global economy moving? Host Reena Ninan talks to women around the world changing the status quo in surprising ways to improve their lives, their families, and ultimately, the world. The Hidden Economics of Remarkable Women (HER♀) is a Foreign Policy podcast supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. HER listeners can learn more about these topics by signing up for special access to an FP Analytics policy brief on gender equality. Sign up by clicking here.  See All Episodes

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