The ‘long walk’ to equality for African women

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Africa’s political independence was accompanied by a common clarion call to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and disease. Fifty years after the end of colonial, the question is: To what extent has the promise of that call has been realized for African women? There is no doubt that African women’s “long walk to freedom” has yielded some results, however painfully and slowly.

The African Union (AU) now has a legally binding Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. The protocol spells out clearly women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination in a number of areas. It has been ratified by a growing number of African states, can be used in civil law proceedings and is being codified into domestic common law. The AU has also issued a Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, under which member states are supposed to regularly report on progress.

The protocol and declaration both reflect and reinforce developments at the national level. Many African states have moved to enhance constitutional protections for African women — particularly on women’s rights to citizenship and equality. And the last two decades have seen the emergence of legislation to address violence against women, including sexual violence.

Political representation

These normative developments have been accompanied by improvements in African women’s political representation. The AU adopted, from its inception, a 50 per cent standard for women’s representation, reflected in the composition of its Commission.

Again, this standard drew from and reinforces efforts to enhance women’s representation at the national level. South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have reached the 30 per cent benchmark for their legislatures. Rwanda has gone further — with 50 per cent representation, one of the best in the world. A few countries, including Nigeria, have seen women assume non-traditional ministerial portfolios, in defence and finance, for example. And Liberia has made history (“herstory”) by becoming the first African country to elect into office a female head of state, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson.

Progress is evident, particularly in countries that have electoral systems based on or incorporating proportional representation. However, enhanced women’s representation has been harder to achieve in first-past-the-post electoral systems.

But even where there has been progress, the question is whether increased representation of women is catalyzing action by the executives and legislatures in favour of gender equality.

Education, poverty, health

Gains are most evident in African women’s education. Girls and boys are now at par with respect to primary level education. Efforts to get girls into school were accompanied by efforts to keep them in school and to promote role models by developing gender-responsive curricula. Gender gaps are also narrowing in secondary education. The real challenge now lies at the university level, both in the enrolment figures and in the areas of focus to benefit young African women.

Gains for women are harder to see in that call’s “poverty” element, however. It is true that since independence investments in micro-credit and micro-enterprises for women have improved women’s individual livelihoods — and therefore that of their families as well.

Yet there was a critique of such investments, especially in the decade of the 1980s when governments withdrew from social service delivery as a result of structural adjustment programmes. In that context, such investments essentially enabled redistribution among the impoverished, rather than at a macro-level, from the enriched to the impoverished.

The end of that era thus saw a new focus on gender budgeting: looking at where national budget allocations and expenditures could enhance women’s status in the economy. Unsurprisingly, this approach has led African governments back towards public investments in social services.

It is now agreed, for example, the benchmark for public investments in health in Africa is 15 per cent. The African women’s movement has called in particular for this to be directed towards reproductive and sexual health and rights. That is of critical concern to women given the impact of HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality and violence against women, particularly in conflict areas. It is also of concern since African women’s continued lack autonomy and choice over reproduction and sexuality lie at the heart of all pandemics.

Where next?

Where to over the next 50 years then? In light of the experience so far, politically the African women’s movement will be focusing not just on political representation, but the meaning of that representation for advancing gender equality and women’s human rights. And given recent retreats in Africa (such as the rise of the constitutional “coup” and “negotiated democracy”), it will also be focusing on democracy, peace and security more broadly, that is, the nature of the political system itself and not just getting into that system.

Economically, women will continue to focus on the macro-level, but in a deeper sense. What has emerged from gender budgeting efforts is the need to actually track budgetary expenditures, not just being informed about allocations. The aim must be to ensure that Africa’s growth will have real meaning for enhancing African women’s economic livelihoods.

Finally, the women’s movement will be focusing on reproductive and sexual health and rights. The battle over choice (including over gender identity and sexual orientation) is now an open one in many African countries. It is no longer couched politely in demographic or health terms.

African women’s “long walk to freedom” has only just begun.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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