ISS: 26th AU Summit – Women’s rights beyond promises and paper tigers


The African Union’s (AU) theme for 2016 is ‘Human rights, with a particular focus on the rights of women’.

Halfway through the AU’s African women’s decade, the continent has yet to see the progress needed. The central question remains unchanged: what will the AU do to make good on its promises regarding women’s rights?

There are various protocols and policies in place to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of women in Africa.

The AU Constitutive Act promotes women’s empowerment and gender equality. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1986) ensures the promotion and protection of human rights on the continent, while the Maputo Protocol (2005) contains the legal framework for women’s rights on the continent. The AU’s Gender Policy provides a roadmap for implementing the AU’s responsibilities on women’s rights. Despite these paper commitments, the AU does not have the authority to enforce its protocols and ensure that member states domesticate the contents of these documents. As a result, the record for protecting women and promoting women’s rights in Africa has been far from stellar.

Women and girls continue to face many challenges to enjoying equal rights and opportunities. Furthermore, women are disproportionately affected by conflict; and many countries in Africa are currently embroiled in some form of conflict.

The ongoing crisis in South Sudan is one example where protracted conflict has led to numerous violations of women’s rights. For many women, rape has become an everyday occurrence, perpetrated by government and non-state forces alike. Similarly, decades of conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have contributed one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. In South Africa, despite relative peace, gender-based violence has become normalised. Rates of femicide, domestic and sexual violence are unduly high for a country not in conflict.

In Zimbabwe, the Constitutional Court banned child marriage earlier this month on 20 January; a promising development given that one in three young women were married before the age of 18. In Malawi this figure is as high as 50%, while in Mozambique, 14% of young girls are married before 15 years of age. The constitutions of the DRC, Lesotho, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia do not set the legal age limit for marriage at 18 years of age for both boys and girls. This deprives young girls of their childhood and the opportunity to complete their education. Even though the enrolment of young girls in school in Africa has increased by 56% since 1970, 28 million girls between the ages of six and 15 do not attend school.

Inequality is not only felt in the schoolyard. In many sub-Saharan Africa countries, traditional laws exclude women from owning or controlling land, even though women in Africa provide almost 70% of agricultural labour and produce 90% of the food.

In Ethiopia, due to unequal access to essential resources such as land, credit and fertilisers, women farmers produce 26% less than male farmers. In some countries, women comprise up to 70% of employees and operate the majority of businesses in the informal sector. Despite this involvement in the economy, women’s contributions are often undervalued and their work unrecognised, with devastating consequences for economic growth and development.

A lack of understanding and respect for women’s sexual and reproductive rights continues to underpin many lost opportunities for African women. The maternal mortality ratio in Nigeria stands between 704 and 1 500 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births. The intersection of HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence also accentuates inadequate access to quality, affordable healthcare for many women. Abortion is prohibited altogether – or subject to strict limitations – in all but three African countries.

The same shortcomings can be seen in legal frameworks across the continent. Many countries in Africa have dual legal systems – the formal legislative framework, and customary law. In many states, the legitimacy of the latter is enshrined in the country’s constitution. While customary law is often easier to access and many population groups find it a more comfortable system to engage with, it is also often used to subordinate women and to reinforce gender inequality.

These issues are numerous and widespread, and to deal with them the AU must urgently reinvigorate its commitment to women’s rights. How can the AU achieve this beyond the paper tigers that already exist, but which are largely ineffective? What practical steps can the AU take when faced with entrenched patriarchal attitudes?

The AU needs to pursue a sustained, multi-pronged campaign on women’s rights and empowerment at various levels. The existing framework – the Declaration of the African Women’s Decade and the Fund for African Women – provides a sound platform from which to develop this work.

The AU itself needs to streamline, reorganise and update its various organs dealing with women’s rights, and clearly articulate their respective mandates as well as the symbiosis between them. The relevant mechanisms must be adequately financed and capacitated. Methods for ensuring adherence to paper commitments – including reporting, fact-finding missions, monitoring and policy advice – must also be increased and strengthened. Lastly, the progress of member states needs to be tracked and the results made public.

In response to the lack of any dedicated political support for women’s empowerment, the AU should intensify its advocacy efforts at the highest levels. Briefings should be held with heads of states and relevant ministries to encourage their buy-in. Member states need to understand the need for gender-responsive budgeting – for example by ring-fencing money for up-skilling women, equipping women peacekeepers, or providing education for girls.

Cooperation with civil society organisations (CSOs) is a largely untapped resource, and the AU should extend its network of CSOs. These organisations can bridge the gap between the continental, regional, state and local levels, and provide a broader platform to work towards solutions that will truly bring about change for women.

The AU could also become more adventurous and imaginative by, for example, targeting, funding and supporting local champions who can take their initiatives to the grassroots. This would facilitate dialogue for women in different contexts to set priorities according to their own challenges.

African leaders and decision-makers should use 2016 to go beyond paying lip service to women’s rights. Not only does this make good human rights sense, it would also accelerate the development of peaceful African countries.

Written by Romi Sigsworth, Gender Specialist; and Liezelle Kumalo, Junior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.