Highs and lows of gender activists in Africa

It was an appealing sunny day in mid November 2005, Sarah Mukasa then of Akina Mama wa Afrika and I were geared for a higher and more important level of gender activism.

It was an appealing sunny day in mid November 2005, Sarah Mukasa then of Akina Mama wa Afrika and I were geared for a higher and more important level of gender activism.

I represented the Eastern African Sub Regional Support Initiative for Women (EASSI), and Sarah Akina Mama both members of the Coalition on Solidarity on African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) and were conducting a workshop in Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala Uganda.

We had co-organized the workshop to unpack the outcome of a previous workshop that was organized by SOAWR in conjunction with the African Union in September 2005 in Addis Ababa. The workshop was called to discuss domestication and implementation strategies of the Protocol. Sarah and I both energized, were eager to share the good news with a large constituency of Uganda civil society.

The Protocol was about to come into force on November 25th following the 15th ratification by Togo. The Protocol’s significance lies in the fact that it is the only regionally generated document specifically on the rights of African women and that relates to the context specific violations of African Women’s Human Rights.
Coincidentally this date would coincide with the beginning of 16th Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. I felt elated. This was prophetic.

To add to the “high,” Uganda was on the verge of ratification. This confidence was buoyed by the revelation by the government representative that the Protocol had passed through all the necessary stages and was only awaiting Cabinet approval. We were assured this would take place speedily before the matter of the General Elections, scheduled to take place in February 2006 would get in the way.

With reenergized spirits, we discussed strategies for domestication and ratification as if we already had won the prize. Little did we know that dark forces were lingering in the shadows.

Even as we spoke, there was a double page spread in the local dailies vilifying the Protocol. The article was sponsored by the Catholic Bishops and was specifically speaking to Article 14 on Health and Reproductive Rights.

The Article states inter alia, that “Protect the rights of reproductive rights of women by authorizing medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus”.
‘The Protocol for Women’s Rights in Africa supports Abortion,” screamed one headline. “Catholic Bishops decry abortion”, shrieked another. It seemed our celebration was turning into battle.

We had already identified the ratification platform as a basis for deeper advocacy for the passing of the stalled Domestic Relations Bill whose content was more or less reinforced by the Articles in the Protocol, when the Bishops came up with their bombshell.

In an election year everyone with power to influence a significant voting constituency becomes a darling and the Bishops had stirred a hornet’s nest. In Uganda where almost 50% of the populations (read voters) are Catholics, this constituency cannot be ignored. The Protocol was placed into cold storage and stayed there to date.

Two years after coming into force, seven more countries have ratified the Protocol, bringing the total to twenty two, twenty four countries have signed but not ratified while seven have not signed at all.

Advocacy by SOAWR
SOAWR can be credited with contributing to the respectable level of achievement of almost 50 percent ratification by the fifty three African Union Member States.
Its strategy of using the African Union Summits of Heads of States as a lobby platform has elicited tremendous levels of success.

Since January 2005 members of the SOAWR Coalition have attended the African Union (AU) Summits to ensure that the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa remains on the agenda of policy makers and to urge all African leaders to safeguard the rights of women through ratification and implementation of the Protocol.

Members have consistently produced policy-briefs, launched books and held press conferences during the Summits to keep the Protocol at the forefront of policy-makers’ concerns. Members have also directly met with at least 10-15 Ministers over the last six Summits. Since January 2005, SOAWR has used the opportunity of the Summits taking place in different countries to press on the host to either ratify or move to implementation.

The latest addition to the countries that have ratified the Protocol is Ghana, host of the last AU Summit that deposited its instruments of ratification in July 2007 almost two weeks after hosting the Summit. This is a testimony to SOAWR’s tenacity and lobbying skills. This brings ratification countries to 22.

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