If women’s rights in Africa were to be measured by the number of laws and policies so far initiated towards that specific goal, then African women would be the most liberated human beings walking the face of the earth!
The reality, however, is far from this. Africa policy makers at high levels continue to put women’s rights into the agenda but with negligible or hardly any positive impact for the African woman.
Africa prides itself on having strong and progressive policy frameworks on women’s rights. The list reads like the fantasy of many women’s rights enthusiasts across the globe.
Africa has the gender equality principle in the AU’s Constitutive Act of 2002, the AU Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa of 2003 (Maputo Protocol), the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa of 2004 and the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
Africa Union member states are also signatories or party to almost all the international frameworks on women’s rights including the extremely progressive Commission on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the annual global International Conference on Population Development ICPD declarations and plan of action.
Africa’s presumed resolve to uphold the status of women in Africa does not end here. This year, the African Union has dedicated the year to “Human Rights, with Special Focus on Rights of Women”, following the 2015 AU focus on “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. This deliberate focus by the African Union will be exactly half-way through this July when the AU summit convenes in Kigali.
There is only six more months to go before the regional theme shifts from African women – six more months within which the continent must surely amplify the call for the full implementation of all these wonderful policy frameworks.
There is no doubt that having progressive legislation and national policies are a move in the right direction towards realisation of women and girls’ human rights. But merely having the policies on paper without breathing life into them and actualizing their implementation is inadequate.
Ms Yasmeen Hassan, the global Executive Director, EQUALITY NOW summarizes the importance of having and practicing the right laws and policies thus;
“The law is a statement of your worth by your government. Laws that treat men and women, girls and boys unequally relegate women and girls to a lower status in society. Failure to outlaw practices that harm women and girls leaves them with no recourse for violations against them. The law is the way to hold your government accountable for your protection.”
As a women’s rights activist particularly interested in ensuring that the right laws and policies actually work for African women, I have realised, albeit disappointedly, that it is not always a guarantee that these policy frameworks lead to the actual realisation of their human rights.
Take, for instance, women’s rights to bodily autonomy and integrity, focusing on the abortion issue. According to a fact-sheet by international organisation Guttmacher.org, it is estimated that 56 million induced abortions occurred each year worldwide during 2010–2014.
The overall abortion rate in Africa was 34 per 1,000 women in 2010–2014. Sub-regional rates ranged from 31 in Western Africa to 38 in Northern Africa. There has been little, if any change, in abortion rates in these sub-regions since 1990–1994. Research also shows that almost all abortion-related deaths occurred in developing countries, with the highest number occurring in Africa.
There are specific international and regional women’s rights instruments that specifically call for medically necessary safe abortions. These include the ICPD Program of Action in 1994, Beijing Women’s Conference Platform for Action 1995, our own home-grown instrument: the Maputo Protocol of 2005.
Article 14 of the Maputo Protocol is clear on the rights to safe abortions on cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and when the pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.
The Maputo Protocol has so far been signed by about 34 African countries with very few that have started its ratification process in full.
This is in itself a classical case of having good laws and policies but which are, however, almost “useless” when it comes to actually guaranteeing this right to the woman.
In January 2016, during the AU Summit, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) called for the decriminalization of abortion across Africa.
This shows the extent to which unsafe abortion is globally, regionally and nationally recognised as a serious public health problem as well as a human rights violation.
However, due to stigma, even countries that have adopted national laws to legalise abortion are still faced by cases of unsafely procured and botched abortions by a concerning number of women.
Because of cultural and religious stigma across the continent, sexual and reproductive health rights for women continue to take a beating as women continue to suffer the consequences of this stigma.
On an encouraging note though, and largely because of ambitious policy frameworks that are becoming entrenched into the systems of various governments, infant and maternal mortality rates have decreased for women and children in the region, falling by 37% and 42%, respectively ,since 1990, according to the United Nations Development Program, UNDP.
However, this does not mean that African countries may now relax on delivering rights and protection to women. In fact, with the glaring gender gaps in economic, political and social platforms much more still needs to be done.
Women and girls in Africa are unaware, disempowered or denied opportunity to access economic, political, social and cultural rights. Women are exposed to gender based violence (GBV), harmful traditional and religious practices, denied the right to employment in a favourable and just condition, right to food, housing and quality healthcare as well as social security and employment benefits.
Women further lack access to and ownership and equitable benefit of resources such as land and other means of production that is necessary for sustainable development. This is despite the fact all this is provided for and stipulated within all the policy frameworks as mentioned above.
It is, therefore, time for African governments to put their actions where their promises are and fulfill the urgent need for respect and total human rights for women in Africa.
The writer is the Executive director for the African Women & Communications Network, FEMNET.