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Making Women’s Rights a Reality in Africa

2 Feb 2016

Making Women’s Rights a Reality in Africa
Over the last 10 days, men and women leaders came together at the 26th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa to discuss, among other topics, how African countries can realize human rights, especially women’s rights. From the pre-summit meetings to the final press conferences, top African leaders like H.E. Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the AU Commission’s Chairperson, and Ms. Mahawa Kaba Wheeler, AUC Director for Women, Gender and Development, sent strong messages declaring the AU’s commitment to help women in Africa live dignified, equal lives.

Paola Cagna is Research Analyst at UNRISD. Her main research interest is gender and development with a focus on labour, social protection and women's movements.

Four ways to achieve women's rights in Africa

The African Union in fact declared 2016 the African Year of Human Rights with Particular Focus on the Rights of Women.

But where are we with the realization of women’s rights in Africa?

According to Faiza Jama Mohamed from Equality Now in a recent UNRISD piece, some progress has been made in areas like eradication of violence against women, education, and women’s political participation, compared to 20 years ago. In 2003, African countries approved the Maputo Protocol, explicitly adding women’s rights to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In recent years a number of countries have passed laws against sexual violence and female genital mutilation. But a lot remains to be done: progress is very unequal across countries, and existing structures and practices, which tend to put power in the hands of men, still keep women and girls out of schools and away from decision-making processes at all levels. Too many African women still run the risk of dying during pregnancy or being victims of sexual violence.

So, how can we improve this situation? Fortunately, there is no lack of ideas, and evidence supporting those ideas, on how to make women’s rights a reality in Africa and elsewhere. Here are four to get going with:

1. Strengthen women’s movements

    Time and again, and as UNRISD research has shown, it has proved crucial to have a strong women’s movement advocating for women’s rights. To strengthen women’s movements, support their political mobilization (including providing funding) and build their capacities as leaders and activists.

2. Know your rights

    States can be held accountable to international human rights law, but only if activists are well informed and know how to use this law. So spreading knowledge and awareness of international normative frameworks and their review mechanisms, such as CEDAW, is vital. Professionals like scholars and lawyers have a key role to play here.

3. Embed human rights into policies

4. Where there’s a political will, there’s a way

    Many arguments are used to oppose progress towards gender equality—not enough resources, bad timing, controversial issue. But in fact, if there is enough political will, most of these can be swept aside, or at least worked around. So persuading those in power of the need for equality between women and men has to be part of the fight for women’s rights.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.