African Women Battle For Equality

Decades ago, African women had reason to expect change following a much-heralded global conference that set ambitious targets to transform the lives of women across the world. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that milestone event, the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995. Like their counterparts elsewhere, African women are taking stock of progress and asking to what extent promised reforms have been implemented. They are also examining why progress has been limited in many countries and are seeking ways to overcome the obstacles.

During the last 30 years there have been a number of signs of improvement, UN Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women Rachel Mayanja told the 10-year review of the Beijing conference, in New York in March. There have been moves to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a UN protocol, as well as the development of new policies and guidelines and creation of networks of gender experts, she said, citing just a few examples.

However, over the same 30 years since the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City, “men have gone to the moon and back, yet women are still at the same place they were — that is, trying to sensitize the world to the unwarranted and unacceptable marginalization of women, which deprives them of their human rights,” Ms. Mayanja told the delegates, who came from 165 countries.

In Africa specifically, women have made significant strides in the political arena over the past few years. The continental political body, the African Union (AU), took a major step by promoting gender parity in its top decision-making positions. In 2003 five women and five men were elected as AU commissioners. The following year, Ms. Gertrude Mongella was chosen to head the AU’s Pan-African Parliament, where women make up 25 per cent of members. Another AU body, the African Peer Review Mechanism, which oversees standards for good governance, is led by Ms. Marie-Angélique Savané.

African women have also successfully promoted agreements that advance their rights. By the end of last year, 51 of the 53 AU member countries had ratified CEDAW, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and often described as the international bill of rights for women. And in 2003 activists succeeded in persuading their heads of state to adopt a protocol on the rights of women.

Obstacles persist

“We are all aware that despite achievements and progress made, African women face major challenges and obstacles,” says Dr. Farkhonda Hassan, chair of the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Committee on Women and Development. For example, she says, the primary development policies in many countries, known as poverty reduction strategies, still do not take into account differences in income and power between men and women, hampering efforts to finance programmes that reduce inequality. In addition, she says, the majority of African women are still denied education and employment, and have limited opportunities in trade, industry and government.

Out of the 1995 conference emerged a plan, the Beijing Platform of Action, which laid out areas that needed improvement if the position of women was to be improved. The areas include reducing poverty among women, stopping violence, providing access to education and health care and reducing economic and political inequality. Barring some notable exceptions, progress in these areas has been slow.

The Beijing platform should no longer be viewed as a set of simple goals and aspirations, says Ms. Hassan, but must be used as a tool to push for the adoption of gender-sensitive policies. “The objective now is not to renegotiate our dreams, but to emphasize the accountability of all actors through detailed discussions of goals, targets, achievements and failures,” she says. “We are no longer seeking promises, but are demanding action.”

Poverty has a woman’s face

For many African women, the Beijing platform and the various international instruments their governments have signed have yet to translate into positive changes in their daily lives. They remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with poor access to land, credit, health and education. While some of the agreements that African governments have ratified enshrine property and inheritance rights, in most countries women are denied those very rights.

Compounding the situation are setbacks such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is destroying the health of more women than men in Africa, eroding some of the development gains women had attained. As a result, poverty in Africa continues to wear a woman’s face, notes Ms. Gladys Mutukwa of the Zimbabwe-based non-governmental organization Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF). She finds it disturbing that 10 years after Beijing, African women are much poorer.

With Agency Report