Home » General » Africa Day – Reflections On AU Women’s Rights Protocol

As Africa Day on May 25 beckons, the continent has committed to making gender equality and women’s empowerment central to its development Agenda 2063. This will see the AU not addressing gender as a separate issue but integrating it across its various sectors.

Reflections on progress in the AU Women’s Rights Protocol may have prompted this escalation of effort.

Across the continent but particularly in Southern Africa, countries have done well in reviewing constitutions, changing laws and adopting policies in line with Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which “enshrines the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status”.

However, real women’s empowerment is still minimal and gender equality, largely, elusive. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, popularly known as the AU Women’s Rights Protocol, came into force in 2005 after extensive lobbying since the turn of the century.

The Protocol commits states parties to combat all forms of discrimination against women through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures, national constitutions and other legislative instruments, policy and action plans. The adoption of affirmative action to address past discrimination against women and popular education to ensure behaviour change, are some strategies cited.

Article 3 exhorts AU member countries to uphold the dignity of women among other citizens by ensuring that human and legal rights are protected and degrading practices are outlawed.

The protocol stresses the “protection of every woman’s right to respect for her dignity and protection of women from all forms of violence, particularly sexual and verbal violence”.

Reports of rampant and degrading treatment of women across the continent make a mockery of the deterrent efforts made.

All forms of exploitation, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.

The AU committed to ensure the prevention, punishment and eradication of all forms of violence against women.

This also includes preventing and condemning trafficking in women, prosecuting the perpetrators of such trafficking and protecting those women most at risk.

In those countries where the death penalty still exists, the AU Women’s Protocol encourages countries not to carry out death sentences on pregnant or nursing women. It remains to be seen whether states are matching the principles with the necessary resources.

Reports of violations of women’s rights in Darfur, Sudan, among other states in conflict, flies in the face of the continent’s commitment to ensure that women and men enjoy equal rights in terms of access to refugee status, and are accorded the full protection and benefits guaranteed under international refugee law, including their own identity and other documents.

Some parts of the continent still observe harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, which are contrary to recognised international standards. Although States Parties committed to take all necessary legislative and other measures to eliminate such practices, it is important that more efforts be made to ensure that this stops.

In some countries, there have been reports of young girls who are mutilated, then married off under age and die in child birth. On marriage, the Protocol states that women and men should enjoy equal rights and be regarded as equal partners in marriage. There should be no forced marriages and no marriage of women less than 18 years. Across the continent the campaign against early child marriages, some as young as 12 years, shows that success is still a long way off.

While emphasis may be on rights within marriage, the Protocol committed States Parties to enact appropriate legislation to ensure that women and men enjoy the same rights in case of separation, divorce or annulment of marriage. Perhaps controversial but contextual is the Protocol’s statement that monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage and that the rights of women in marriage and family, including in polygamous marital relationships are promoted and protected.

Women can pass on citizenship to their children except where this is contrary to a provision in national legislation. Africa has thus come a long way since human rights activist Unity Dow in Botswana challenged the lack of rights by women to pass on citizenship.

Although the situation on the ground is still tenuous, the Protocol guarantees women and men equality before.

States Parties “shall take all appropriate measures to ensure equal access to justice and reform of existing discriminatory laws and practices in order to promote and protect the rights of women”.

Countries also committed to promote equal participation by women in governance processes, structures and policies. Support for increased and effective representation of and participation of women at all levels of decision-making in the private and public sector was also promised.

While the continent has registered some landmark successes, including having Nkosazana Zuma as Chairperson of the AU Commission, among other examples, there is no room for complacency. Africa committed to increased women’s participation in peace building and conflict prevention, management and resolution at local, national, regional, continental and international levels processes. While some increases have been observed in the representation of women in peace keeping missions, at national levels, no country has done enough to amplify women’s participation in the security sectors.

African leaders that signed the Protocol undertook to respect and ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict situations which affect the population, particularly women.

The case of the Boko Haram kidnapping of more than 276 girls from a school in Nigeria on April 14 comes to mind. That the girls are still missing more than a year later, is an indictment, not only on Nigeria but on the African Union as a bloc.

Equal opportunities and access to education and training, including the pledge to eliminate all stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, in textbooks, syllabuses and the media is another guarantee in the protocol.

The Protocol also commits to act against sexual harassment in schools and other educational institutions and punish perpetrators. Enrolment and retention of girls in schools and other training institutions and the organisation of programmes for women who leave school prematurely is another priority.

The need for laws and other measures to guarantee women equal opportunities in work, career aancement and other economic opportunities is also cited in the protocol. Indicators of success would include equal access to employment, maternity benefits, right to equal pay for jobs of equal value for women and men, transparency in recruitment, promotion and dismissal of women and combat and punish sexual harassment in the workplace, and protection for women in the informal sector. However, the economic recession has led to worsening labour situations not just for women, but for men too. And this has been in both the private and public sectors.

The right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health was noted and this includes: The right to control fertility, the right to choose any method of contraception and the right to safer sex.

Laws against wilful transmission of HIVAIDS, while initially meant to protect both women and men have, however, been seen to discriminate women.

This is because while men may claim to not have known their sero-status, productive women, by virtue of being tested in ante-natal processes, now carry the burden of either revealing their status to partners, or if they do not, being liable for prosecution.

This issue is relevant on the right to be informed on one’s health status and on the health status of one’s partner, particularly if affected with sexually transmitted infections, including HIVAIDS, in accordance with internationally recognised standards and best practices.

Virginia Muwanigwa is a gender activist and chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe which is the focal point to the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance. She is also the director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

The AU Women’s Rights Protocol also guarantees women, among other citizens, the right to: Food security adequate housing nurturing cultural context to a health and sustainable environment. Leaders committed to introduce the gender perspective in the national development planning procedures as a way of ensuring women’s rights to sustainable development.

They also pledged to ensure that the negative effects of globalisation and any aerse effects of the implementation of trade and economic policies and programmes are reduced to the minimum for women.

Widows’ rights are guaranteed by ensuring that they are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment, they are not disinherited and their automatic custodianship of their children is guaranteed unless this is contrary to the interests and the welfare of the children. Women and men shall have the right to inherit, in equitable shares, their parents’ properties.

The Protocol guarantees the right to special protection from socio-economic and political vulnerability for elderly women, women with disabilities and women in distress, for one reason or the other. The right of pregnant or nursing women or women in detention is also urged.

Against the commitment by countries that they “shall ensure the implementation of this Protocol at national level, and in their periodic reports submitted in accordance with Article 62 of the African Charter, indicate the legislative and other measures undertaken for the full realisation of the rights herein recognised” it is notable that such implementation has largely been piece meal.

That countries also undertook “to adopt all necessary measures and in particular . . . provide budgetary and other resources for the full and effective implementation of the rights herein recognised,” the jury is still out on progress.

Virginia Muwanigwa is a gender activist and Chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe which is the focal point to the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance. She is also the Director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

Source : The Herald