In the last 20-30 years, African governments and a number of organisations have made substantial commitments towards creating gender equality and have put in place laws and policies in support of this. Most recent, the African Union (AU) in January declared 2016 as the African Year of Human Rights, with particular focus on the rights of women. It signifies a chance for women to unite, network and mobilise for meaningful change.
On various occasions, African leaders agreed to adopt strong instruments such as the Maputo Protocol, the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, the African Women Decade, the Fund for African Women that mainly focuses on human and peoples’ rights, particularly on the rights of women. Such actions have emboldened the women’s movement to urge Africa to gear up and step up action.
These commitments and policies are connected with this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD). The 2016 theme for the occasion is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. The UN and other organisations’ observance of the event reflect on how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). It is worthy to note that the fifth goal of the SDGs envisions that gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls will be achieved by 2030.
This year’s IWD also focuses on new commitments under UN Women’s Step It Up initiative, and other existing commitments on gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights. Step It Up initiative urges governments to make national commitments on laws, policies and investment, aimed at closing the gender equality gap.
This year marks important milestones in the continental and global women’s agenda for gender equality and women empowerment. In Africa, it is the 30th anniversary of the coming into force of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In addition, it is the commencement of the second phase of the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020. The African Women’s Decade is the AU’s implementation framework which aims to advance gender equality through the acceleration of the implementation of global and regional decisions on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The big and pertinent issue is whether the commitments have been translated into tangible action, and resultantly made the life of the majority of African women better.
Despite some of the gains made, such as bridging the gender gap in primary education, improving maternal health and fighting HIV/AIDS, Africa is still struggling in gender parity and women empowerment. Women are facing economic exclusion; where financial systems perpetuate their discrimination; limited participation in political and public life; lack of access to education and poor retention of girls in schools; gender-based violence; and harmful cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). For example in Kenya, according to the government, 21 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 underwent then female cut in 2014. In essence, almost a quarter of the women in this age bracket undergo this demeaning cultural rite.
According to the UN, about 70 percent of the crops in Africa are produced by women, yet they still own a meagre two percent of the land, and have limited access to resources. There are cases where women do the farm work – tilling, planting and harvesting of crops, but men do the selling and take the money.
In another strand of women agony, the UN says that nearly half of the 42 ongoing conflicts globally are in Africa, and women face the brunt of these wars. Violence against women has reached startling levels, with one in every three women in Africa experiencing some form of violence in her lifetime. For instance, women in war-torn areas are sexually abused and since majority of households are headed by women, they are compelled to seek food and shelter for their children, under difficult circumstances.
But it is not late to solve the imbalance on gender equality and empowerment that entangle African women. Rwanda has made impressive progress; it has made great strides on gender equality, 22 years after it suffered a devastating genocide. African countries ought to pick a number of lessons from this landlocked country, of about 12 million people. For example, the country has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians globally – at 64 percent.
There is need to create and strengthen laws and institutions that will guarantee more central and involving role for women in spheres such as in agriculture, politics and economics. These will create wholesome mechanisms for African societies’ development.
African governments and concerned agencies ought to join hands to enormously energise the efforts of women in the continent. They need to guarantee full support for women’s agenda in every undertaking.
Africa must gear up and take firm action in gender equality efforts. The actions should go beyond making declarations, and involve taking firm steps. There is urgent need for acceleration on commitments made in the last 20-30 years. However, the womenfolk need to amplify their efforts, make their voices louder, in order to catapult governments into action.
(Dr Kisia is the Executive Director, Action Africa Help International (AAH-I) – [email protected])