EAC women demand gender equality policy

July 6, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 6 – East African gender activists are flexing their muscles in anticipation of a coordinated campaign for the return of a gender agenda within the processes for the establishment of the East African Community (EAC).

A decade has passed since Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania signed the Treaty for the establishment of the EAC  ushering in provisions for a customs union to remove all taxes on goods between the countries of the community and to apply a uniform import tax on all goods from outside East Africa; a common market – guaranteeing the free movement of persons, labour, services, capital and the right to live anywhere in the partner states; a monetary union – with a uniform currency as well as economic policies and political federation – with  common foreign and security policies;

Although the Constitutions of the five EAC partner states provide for a number of safeguards for the protection and promotion of women’s rights and gender equality, there is no legal framework that translates the aspirations and the need for gender equality into a single binding document at the EAC level. 

Initiated by the East African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of women (EASSI), the campaign for an East African Declaration on Gender Equality (EADGE) seeks to transform gender relations as a way of improving women’s rights and gender equality in the regional economic community (REC) of the EAC and to consolidate together into one a legally binding regional instrument incorporating all the commitments to gender equality with the overall goal of contributing towards gender equality, women’s development and sustainable empowerment in the EAC. 

The EAC treaty recognizes gender as one of the principle cornerstones of the EAC integration programme.  Of interest is Article 6 under the Fundamental Principles of the Community which states:

Good governance including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, gender equality, as well as the recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

Other specific references are to be found in Article 121 on the role of women in development and Article 122 on women and business within the treaty for the establishment of the East African Community (EAC). 

According to EASSI’s Executive Director, Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, the specific references notwithstanding, gender is still not a mainstream issue within the EAC processes.

“The EAC budgets do not take these articles into consideration,” she says, “and the treaty lacks the analyses of how the various processes impact on the women, men, boys and girls that make up the citizenry of East Africa.”

Ms Akatsa-Bukachi maintains that each of the five member states have priority issues that should be put back to their citizens by way of a referendum.

Although Rwanda is the undisputed standard for gender equality and women’s rights at the political level with 50 percent women’s representation in elective public office, Kenya still lags behind with only 18 female members of Parliament out of a total of 222 and an affirmative action policy for women not backed by law.

This is despite the fact that Kenya is credited with having the longest history of women’s movement building and activism in the last five decades.

These are some of the contradictions that women and gender activists in the region want addressed with no less than an EAC declaration on gender equality. They also want progressive policies matched with appropriate budgets and commitments to implementation.

The Executive Director of the Women’s Leadership Caucus in Nairobi, Deborah Okumu said:  “Women in Kenya are no longer asking but demanding space for themselves.  Our strength will be defined by building a strong women’s agenda to negotiate with the State for the things we want for ourselves.”

“We want all five countries to be at par, which means action on Kenya’s part for at least 30 percent women’s representation to bring the country closer to the standards set by Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi,” says Ms Akatsa-Bukachi.

In her analysis of the EAC Treaty, the Executive Director of Nairobi-based African Woman and Child Feature Service, Mrs Rosemary Okello-Orlale, noted that the five partner states needed to prioritise the harmonisation of laws in the areas affecting women’s human rights including the ownership of matrimonial property, land, inheritance, violence against women and structural discrimination enhanced by cultural practices.

For instance, under the current Constitution, Kenyan women cannot confer citizenship on their non-Kenyan spouses and children born of such unions.  These are some of the issues being flagged as potential minefields for women living and working within the wider East African context – as physical borders melt away to allow the free movement of goods and people within the region.

Instead, she proposed the application of uniform standards and constitutional protections for the participation of women as well as inclusion of the principals of Affirmative Action to redress past imbalances and create a level playing field for women in politics.

“Although it makes reference to gender mainstreaming and monitoring, the concern is that the EAC makes no provisions for an engagement mechanism,” says Ms Okello-Orlale, “yet our lives as women and citizens of the Community will be profoundly shaped by the on-going integration processes.”

Her bone of contention being that with government and development partner interest focussed on economic and political integration, the women’s movements in the region may have missed out on the development milestones of the EAC Treaty processes, yet their governments will be relying on them to embrace and popularise the Treaty.

She added:  “We ought to be asking ourselves, ‘where do women stand in this equation?’”

On the one hand, government officials are understandably nervous that the EAC integration process is not being ‘felt’ enough by the citizens of the five countries. At an earlier press briefing in Nairobi, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of the East African Community, David Nalo made reference to the human resource constraints within his ministry to manage the technical aspects of integration.  He spoke of a situation where there were too few technical officers doing too much – hence weakening the ministry’s capacity for facilitation and coordination.

On the other hand, the drivers of the EADGE campaign say the regional women’s movements could be the very vehicle needed to employ an effective and people-centred process of harmonisation and integration for the citizens that make up the East African Community to bring about the much needed benefits of trade, wealth creation and development.

(The writer is the Editorial Director, African Woman and child Feature Services)


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