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Achievements and Challenges 20 Years after Beijing: An African Perspective

2 Mar 2015

Achievements and Challenges 20 Years after Beijing: An African Perspective
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Twenty years have passed since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), a comprehensive roadmap to advance women's rights and achieve gender equality. This piece will reflect upon achievements made but also persisting challenges to the successful implementation of the BPfA within the African context, ahead of the review process in March 2015. Discussed in detail are the issues of sexual violence, women's political participation, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), education and maternal health. Additionally, this piece discusses the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and successful regional strategies pursued by the Solidarity for African Women's Rights Coalition that have helped to push for particular achievements pertaining to women's rights, especially at the African Union level.

Faiza Jama Mohamed is Director of Equality Now’s Nairobi Office and has more than 20 years experience working with international organizations.

Achievements and Challenges 20 Years after Beijing: An African Perspective

In March 2015, UN member states—including African states— and a range of other stakeholders gather in New York to review progress made in the 20 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). In this piece I reflect on the achievements made thus far and ask what challenges persist as obstacles to the successful implementation of the BPfA in Africa.

Most African countries have been successful in setting up gender apparatuses, including gender focal points in various government ministries with the mandate to oversee gender mainstreaming in the country, which includes implementing commitments made under the BPfA. However with meager resources at their disposal, their overall impact has been less significant than initially envisioned.

Meager advances, major challenges

The World Health Organization (WHO) has indicated that 45.6 per cent of African women are affected by sexual violence. With strong support from UN agencies in support of the BPfA campaign, there has been a great deal of investment in breaking the silence on violence against women. This campaign, which began in the late 1990s, led to many women and girls openly sharing their experience of violence committed against them, and has subsequently attracted funding for programmes to support survivors such as shelters, legal aid and counselling support. Such initiatives have also supported campaigns to push for legislation to better protect women and girls. As a result, several African countries have enacted new laws and policies to address domestic violence and sexual violence including prohibiting female genital mutilation. However, despite the robust legal and policy frameworks being put in place, impunity prevails and perpetrators mostly go unpunished, resulting in the continued high prevalence of violence against women that persists in most countries in Africa.

Other areas of progress are education and women’s political participation, though the progress is not widely experienced in countries where major obstacles continue to hinder girls from completing their education and women from securing policy and decision-making positions. These challenges have their roots in the patriarchal structures and the de facto and de jure discriminatory practices that have largely remained unaddressed over the past 20 years. Hence, only a handful of countries—Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Algeria, South Africa—would appear to have made progress while the vast majority of African countries remain below the level of 30 per cent female representation in office that they committed to in the BPfA.

Child, early and forced marriages (CEFM), sexual violence in schools, and the preference of families and communities to educate men and boys are the major contributing factors that force many girls to drop out of school or stop them from continuing into higher education. 30 of the 41 countries worldwide with a child marriage prevalence rate above 30 per cent are located in Africa, and the situation regarding CEFM is extremely dire in West and Central Africa where two out of five girls risk being married before they are 18 years old. The interlinkages between CEFM and the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) also hinder girls from continuing their education, and an estimated three million girls in Africa continue to be at risk of FGM annually. Education for All (EFA) programmes are futile unless these major obstacles are addressed definitively, and until special attention and support is given to advancing girls’ enrolment at higher learning institutions. Zambia has made great progress, raising the average length of schooling to nearly 13.5 years, 45 per cent higher than the regional average.

While statistics relating to maternal health have improved globally, progress in sub-Saharan Africa has been the slowest, with the 24 of the 28 worst ranked countries in the bottom 10 of Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers Report from 2000 to 2014. For example, in West and Central Africa, one woman in 32 is likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, while the situation worsens in Somalia to one in 16 mothers.

Policy frameworks at national and regional levels

At the continental level the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa has been hailed as a great instrument with a lot of potential to pin down state parties and make them honour their commitments to advance and protect the human rights of women and girls. 36 out of 54 member states of the African Union have ratified this treaty and are thus obliged to address violence and discrimination against women and girls in both public and private spaces. Unlike the BPfA, the Protocol is binding on state parties and any state failure can be challenged in national courts and, if needed, at the level of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and/or the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The African Union has prioritized maternal health, ending child marriage, female genital mutilation, the impact of conflicts on women, and increasing female representation in office. For the first time in the African Union’s history, a Special Envoy is in place to advise the African Union Commission Chairperson on women, peace and security matters. Furthermore, the Constitutive Act of the African Union requires gender parity in the allocation of posts and that has become the standard for African states to meet. The African Union Commission is a good example where of the 10 Commissioners, 50 per cent are women. Additionally the Chairperson of the African Union Commission is a woman. These are achievements that other similar continental bodies and the United Nations have failed to match. Additionally, the AU Assembly adopted a Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) in July 2004, which is annually reviewed to track progress being made by member states.

While the efforts being made by many countries and the African Union are noble and could contribute to realizing commitments made under the BPfA, they lack the necessary supportive political will to accelerate positive change in favour of women and girls. For many countries, the BPfA seems to have been shelved and the commitments made are revisited only during the scheduled progress review sessions. Equally, countries have made attempts at every session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to backtrack on commitments made instead of using the space as an opportunity to share achievements or best practices, or to collectively find ways to deal with challenges that others might have overcome.

Lack of political will

The lack of political will has translated into inaction at the country level. For example, both Liberia and Mali are state parties to the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and hence are obliged under Article 5 to enact a law protecting women and girls from female genital mutilation. It is 11 years since the Protocol entered into force and neither country has legislated against this harmful practice that has been declared a human rights violation. Tanzania has had a law prohibiting female genital mutilation since 1998 and yet every two years in Tarime hundreds of girls are subjected to the practice in defiance of the law and the government turns a blind eye on every occasion. In another example, a Zambian teacher who raped his female student in 2007 remains at large despite the country’s High Court instructing the Director of Public Prosecution Office to institute criminal charges against him. Lack of action by states is most evident when it comes to controversial issues including reproductive health, female genital mutilation, land inheritance and women’s political participation.

When the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa was adopted in 2003, African groups were worried that the rights enshrined therein would exist only on paper. For this reason the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) Coalition, a network of 44 African and international organizations based in 24 African countries, was established in 2004 to push for the instrument to enter into force in the shortest time possible, popularize it throughout the continent and advocate for its application at national and regional levels. In other words, breathe life into the Protocol, to paraphrase the title of a major report encouraging implementation of the Protocol.

Equality Now, a founding member of SOAWR and currently serving as its Secretariat, has been working alongside other members to realize this vision. The key lesson emerging from 10 years’ experience is that governments should be held to account more frequently. The SOAWR Coalition has been working with several countries to try out a multi-sectoral framework approach to help them fulfill their obligations under the Protocol. This model brings together the various sectors of government which are responsible for different areas of the Protocol under the leadership of a high profile official to work together. For example, ensuring schools are safe for girls (that is, that sexual violence is prevented) is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, which will be expected to deliver on that obligation, and so on. Countries will make headway if government ministries and key stakeholders join forces and work together to honour their commitments and obligations.

A long way yet to go

In conclusion, the past 20 years have not been completely lost in terms of advancing gender equality and promoting the human rights of women and girls in Africa, but the progress made has not been evenly distributed across the region. Certain issues deemed controversial have received less attention, which has compounded the suffering of affected girls and women. Lack of political will remains the major obstacle to overcoming the challenges women and girls face in improving their lives and enjoying rights enshrined in local and international laws that their countries are party to. Impunity is also another major impediment that fuels perpetuation of violence and discrimination against women and girls. Both these factors are influenced largely by the patriarchal systems that have been shaping women’s lives since time immemorial. The key to progressive development and realizing gender equality involves dismantling the patriarchal norms while advancing best practices across the region. While this may take a long time to achieve, it is critical that on this journey we continue to work with governments in overcoming some of the challenges they face, while also recognizing the importance of holding them accountable on a regular basis to the commitments they have made to achieve gender equality.

    Faiza Jama Mohamed is a Somali national who holds a Masters in Business Administration from the California State University at Fresno and has a human rights certificate from the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at The Hague, The Netherlands. She has been Director of Equality Now’s Nairobi Office since 2000 and has more than 20 years experience working with international organizations. Prior to joining Equality Now she was an active member of the women’s movement in Somalia for many years and was instrumental in coalition building among women’s organizations promoting peace, gender equality and advocacy for women’s rights. She has received numerous awards in recognition of her work including the Hunger Project's Africa prize which she was awarded in 2008. She serves in various committees and Boards and closely supports the work of the African Union Commission.


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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.