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The Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) was unveiled some 15 years ago, leading Norah Matovu Winyi to ask what has really changed for Africa's women since the platform's inception. Over the last 15 years progress in women's position has on the whole been regrettably slow the author notes, with a wide gap between commitments and actual action still persistent. But with the unveiling of a new resolution to 'establish [a] new gender-equality entity in the United Nations', there is fresh hope that the international organisation will be able to work with governments and Africa's citizens to revitalise the drive for equality, peace and development.

In September 1995 the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. At this conference – which focused on action for equality, development and peace – the 189 governments represented adopted the Beijing Declaration (BD) and Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) aimed at accelerating the implementation of the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies in order to achieve greater equality and opportunity for women to realise their full potential and human rights. This conference was attended by more than 5,000 women and men representing many non-state actors, who also endorsed the outcomes of Beijing. So Beijing gave voice to the African woman. That was the first step.

The principal themes at the Fourth World Conference on Women were the advancement and empowerment of women in relation to twelve critical areas: women’s human rights; women’s economic empowerment; women, leadership and decision-making; education and the training of women; women and health; the girl child, women’s dignity and bodily integrity in order to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women; women and the economy; women and the media; women and the environment; and the institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women. The BPFA defined the agenda for the next 20 years for the advancement and empowerment of women.

It was noted in the BPFA that deeply entrenched attitudes and practices perpetrate inequality and discrimination against women in public and private life in all parts of the world. The platform therefore emphasised that the full implementation of the BPFA can only be realised if the values, attitudes, practices and priorities that inform development programmes and initiatives also change (are transformed). The conference signalled a clear commitment to achieving the norms and standards of equality between men and women as they are articulated in international instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There was a strong call for actions and measures undertaken by governments and other actors at the international, regional, national and local levels to be underlined by the urgent need to protect and promote the rights of women and the girl child. The BPFA underscored the urgency for re-orienting the way institutions work (in terms of their values and cultures – both formal and informal – as well as the practices) in order to expedite implementation at all levels. The BPFA provided tools for women in Africa to work with to change their situation.

In 2000 and 2005 the first and second reviews of progress were undertaken (the Beijing +5 review and the Beijing +10 review) to assess the level of implementation and identify any emerging issues and obstacles that may hinder the full implementation of the BPFA. The 2000 review process took place at a very opportune moment as gender and women’s rights advocates were able to influence the millennium development agenda adopted then in form of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the Millennium Declaration the 189 member states of the UN undertook to advance a global vision for improving the conditions of humanity in the areas of development and poverty eradication, peace and security, protection of the environment, and human rights and democracy. The absolute necessity of advancing the human rights of all people in order to achieve this vision was underscored. In particular, the advancement of gender equality was recognised as critically necessary if any significant progress was to be realised. Member states explicitly pledged to combat all forms of violence against women and to implement CEDAW.

What was most profound was the recognition that the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to all efforts aiming to combat poverty, hunger and disease and stimulating truly sustainable development, and thus the member states reaffirmed their commitment to implement the outcomes of the 1990s UN conferences including the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women.

Though progress was slow in many African counties in the first five-year period (1996–2000), in the process of implementing the BPFA the adoption of the MDGs brought renewed focus and impetus to its implementation. The fact that the need to address gender inequality was emphasised and an explicit goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women was included in the MDGs was a valuable opportunity for the advancement of CEDAW and the Beijing commitments. Gender equality was also identified as a cross-cutting issue in the implementation of all the other seven MDGs. Since then women’s rights advocates in Africa have worked hard to develop and include a broader range of gender-sensitive targets and indicators, in addition to those articulated in the MDGs, in order to facilitate national-level comprehensive reviews on the delivery of these commitments as part of the MDGs process.

By the year 2000 it was evident that CEDAW and the Beijing commitments were being fulfilled in the form of adopted gender-sensitive laws and constitutional provisions in several African countries like Uganda and South Africa. There were judicial decisions that invoked the provisions of CEDAW at the national level in countries like Botswana for example. Many governments in Africa developed national gender policies and action plans like in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana. Programmes were initiated to improve access to healthcare and basic education. Government structures in form of gender ministries, commissions or departments mandated to spearhead the implementation of governments’ commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment were set up. Many governments in Africa were commemorating the women’s international day (8 March) as a symbol of their commitment to implementing CEDAW and the BPFA. In many ways the women’s day celebrations were used as a platform by governments to account for actions and measures undertaken to implement international, regional and national level commitments to women in their respective countries. This is also the period when many civil society organisations were established and they mobilised women to engage in more strategic interventions for women’s advancement and empowerment. Tree planting was a key mobilising activity at that time for many women’s groups, both for income generation, educational purposes and for improved agricultural production. In a nutshell there was hope and expectation in the year 2000 for substantive changes to happen in the lives of women in Africa.

In 2005, the Beijing +10 review showed that although many countries in Africa were experiencing rapid economic growth and were more politically stable, the situation and status of women was not necessarily improving at an accelerated pace. By then many more effective strategies had been developed for achieving gender equality. There were significant gains under each of the critical areas of concern in terms of increased numbers of women in leadership and decision-making, and through gender mainstreaming in development planning (under the PRSP (poverty reduction strategy papers) processes) and gender budgeting. In most African countries affirmative action measures were adopted to increase the number of children accessing primary education. In some countries like South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, adult education was prioritised. During this period there were increased commitment and resources to address the problem of child mortality and maternal health through the provision of comprehensive primary health packages; a lot of resources were harnessed to address the problem of HIV/AIDS, its effects and impacts on society generally and on women and children in particular; efforts to address gender issues in environmental protection programmes and initiatives and the management of natural resources were likewise prioritised through government policies and programmes.

At the continental level this was an exciting period for the African woman. The Organisation of African Unity was transformed into the African Union (AU) at the July 2001 summit held in Lusaka, Zambia. One of the AU’s grounding principles articulated in its Constitutive Act is the achievement of gender equality. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which was adopted at the same summit as the new framework for Africa’s development, represented a perfect illustration of the new will on the part of Africans to change the future of their continent. NEPAD placed gender equality and the empowerment of women at the centre of its implementation.

The Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Plan (CAADP), a programme of NEPAD, was adopted in 2003. It recognises that over 60 to 80 per cent of agricultural labour is provided by women in Africa, and under its pillars of intervention it highlights that if agriculture is to be a vehicle for sustainable development in Africa, strategies that deal with deeply ingrained gender inequalities at the household level must be seriously addressed in its implementation. The CAADP further recommends that inequalities that manifest themselves at the community level hindering women’s access and control over productive resources and the benefits from their labour require not only a supportive legal and policy framework, but more importantly the political will of leaders at all levels to implement programmes that protect and fulfil women’s right to development.

One of the milestones of this period was the adoption by the African Union of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. The protocol was the first African instrument to explicitly articulate the rights of women in Africa. It strengthened the legal framework for the protection and fulfilment of the rights of women in Africa. The protocol came into force in 2005 after 15 countries had deposited their instruments of ratification with the African Union. It was a moment of great celebration and expectation. The contents of the protocol were informed by CEDAW as well as the gender analysis done during the period leading up to the 5th Regional Women’s Conference held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1994, which was a precursor to Beijing.

Other developments at the international level were of significant relevance to the promotion of the gender equality agenda in Africa. In 2005 donors under the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and recipient countries of bilateral and development aid adopted the Paris Declaration (PD) in which they committed themselves to make aid more effective so that it could meet the development goals and aspirations of recipient countries. The donors committed themselves to increasing the amount of aid to Africa, especially to countries in sub-Saharan Africa in order to accelerate the implementation of their poverty eradication strategic plans. Aid to Africa increased, especially through budget support and conditional arrangements to support more strategies for the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Monitoring mechanisms in countries like South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana were strengthened in order to evaluate the impact of aid provision, particularly on the achievement of gender targets.

Despite all these commendable efforts and achievements in this period (2000–05) large gaps still persisted, particularly between policy/laws and implementation/practice. There was still a low representation of women in decision-making processes, as the set minimum of at least 30 per cent representation was not realised by many African countries and the quality of representation was a major concern. Inequality in employment and economic opportunities was still a big problem as women workers in Africa still formed the majority in the informal sector, where profits are low, conditions of work are very poor and there are no provisions for social security. In addition, unequal access to education and healthcare for the most poor and vulnerable groups in sub- Saharan Africa remained a major concern. North African countries made significant improvements on this front though, with the governments in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt supporting girls’ education to attain higher and university education. Their health systems also are more responsive to the special needs of women when compared to those in sub-Saharan African countries.

The persistence of violence against women reached unacceptable levels as trafficking of women and girls increased and the proliferation of small arms in parts of the continent (conflict-infested areas) increased. Worse still, the feminisation of poverty and the HIV/AIDS scourge were more in focus during this period, albeit with minimal results to reverse this trend.

What is happening? What is the missing part in the puzzle? How come changes in the quality of life and daily realities of most women in Africa seem to be evasive? What more can be done to translate commitments into desired results? For how long do the women of Africa have to wait for what rightly belongs to them? These were some of the disturbing questions raised during the Beijing +10 review process.

Is the situation different and more promising today as we review the progress since Beijing, 15 years down the road?

To say the least, the situation is more disturbing. Though the review is taking place against the backdrop of the September 2009 landmark UN resolution that approved the establishment of a new gender-equality entity in the UN which will be stronger, better-resourced and with a voice and presence within the decision-making structures of this main global governance institution, the efforts made in line with the Beijing commitments in the last 15 years have not transformed the lives of women in Africa. The gap between commitments and action still exists. More actions and measures have been taken by governments, mainly in the form of legislation, national vision documents, policy formulation and the development of frameworks for implementation. However, the translation of these good intentions and aspirations into concrete actions that are indicative of the political will to sustain the transformation of women’s lives is still very minimal.

In terms of achievements in this period (2005–10), we celebrate that by August 2009, 27 countries in Africa were signatories to the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which is a record achievement compared to other protocols and human rights instruments adopted by the AU. However, 26 countries are still lagging behind, with five member states – namely Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Botswana and Angola – having not even signed up to the protocol despite the fact that member states committed themselves in 2004 to the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) to achieve the universal ratification of the protocol within one year and to report annually on its implementation.

The Protocol has influenced changes in laws in several countries and judicial decisions have been made to hold governments accountable as the primary duty bearer in the protection and fulfilment of women’s rights. In 2008 a landmark judgment was delivered by a court in Zambia in favour of a school-going girl child who was defiled by her teacher. The government of Zambia was held accountable for the failure to protect the girl child against sexual abuse while in its care at school. In this case the judge recognised that Zambia is a signatory to the protocol and it has an obligation to guarantee the rights of the girl children under its care against all forms of abuse, especially from those that are charged with the responsibility to protect them.

By the time of the Beijing +15 review, 45 countries in Africa had ratified CEDAW and there was more consistent reporting to the CEDAW committee by both governments and NGOs producing shadow reports.

At the Africa level, the AU adopted the Africa Gender Policy in 2009 to guide the process of gender mainstreaming at the regional and sub-regional levels. The policy also has provisions on how the AU committee can provide technical support to member states for mainstreaming gender in their policies and programmes. The AU also adopted a 'Land policy in Africa: A framework of action' and guidelines to 'Secure land rights, enhance productivity and secure livelihoods' in 2009. The policy is intended to facilitate the achievement of the goals of poverty reduction, peace and security and the sustainable management of natural resources. Through intensive lobbying and the provision of expertise by different gender activists, the land policy was made more gender responsive. The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) was a key player together with ActionAid International in these processes over the last three years. Of course, the challenge is to see the full implementation of the policies and their capacity to influence actions at the national level so as to facilitate development and the advancement of the African woman as envisioned therein.

There have also been more efforts in this period to ensure that women are well informed and capable of engaging in the national planning and budgetary processes at the national- and local-government levels. In addition to government efforts to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the processes of development and reviewing their poverty eradication strategy programmes (as the overarching national development frameworks in most African countries), women’s rights groups at the national and regional levels have taken the lead in mobilising, educating and building expertise among women's organisations to engage in the PRSP lobbies, promote gender analysis and gender-responsive planning and the implementation of development programmes. For example, FEMNET secured support from Oxfam Novib and implemented a three-year project, which has so far covered 18 African countries. Initially it undertook research in five countries – Egypt, Mali, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia – to assess the extent of women’s involvement and the factors that hinder their effective participation, this being a highly specialised and complex area. Using the findings FEMNET developed training and advocacy materials to facilitate women’s participation in mainstreaming gender in macroeconomic processes in the context of new aid modalities. As part of this project it organised sub-regional training of trainers’ workshops, bringing together key stakeholders from ministries of finance, gender machineries, civil society organisations and the media to enhance their knowledge and skills in mainstreaming gender in PRSP processes and in national and local government budgeting. The impact of such interventions have led governments in Africa to prioritise gender, improve the collection of gender-disaggregated data and to strengthen monitoring mechanisms in order to assess the impact of such interventions on the lives of women, men and children.

The analysis of the various national NGO Beijing +15 review shadow reports received clearly indicate that countries are at different levels of progress. Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria seem to be taking the lead in making substantive progress as they have implemented a range of strategies and actions at the national and local levels under the 12 critical areas of actions in the BPFA to promote gender equality and women’s rights. However, it is also clear that with Africa being a continent structurally characterised by longstanding conflicts that have claimed many lives, occasioned untold suffering and the destabilisation of states and societies, many countries like Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea and Eritrea have not sufficiently prioritised gender and women’s empowerment. The state of insecurity, combined with other factors like the food and energy crisis and the global economic and financial crisis, are all working against the pace of progress. Though there is progress in that gender equality and women’s empowerment can no longer be ignored by political leaders and development practitioners, generally it is not sufficient to change the realities of women’s lives in Africa in a sustainable way.

A 2008 UN report indicated that little progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, which we know disproportionately impacts women and children. Even as we celebrate the decline in the level of parent-to-child transmissions of HIV, about 60 per cent of adults living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. New challenges have emerged as women in heterosexual marriages are being affected and more at risk, for example in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Despite the setting-up of many more health centres as part of the increased support to the health sector, maternal and child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa are still very high: the UN in 2008 reported that the lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy and childbirth in Africa is 1 in 22, while it is 1 in 120 in Asia and 1 in 7,300 in other, more developed countries.

Additionally, African women have not yet achieved the 30 per cent women representation as the minimum target in leadership and decision-making positions endorsed in the BPFA. As of June 2009 the percentage of women in parliament in sub-Saharan Africa was 18.6 per cent and less than 10 per cent in northern Africa.[1] In countries where this target has been achieved – such as in Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and others which have surpassed it like Rwanda – the quality of the representation and their capacity to influence major decisions has come more into focus in the last five years. It is clearer now more than ever that though numerical targets are very important and necessary, it is even more critical to enhance the quality of representation and the capacity of leaders to engage and influence decisions. Women’s participation in political parties is still minimal and the numbers are fewer in the leadership of the parties. There is generally a lack of any shift in the culture and practices of political parties which are generally still male-dominated and this hinders women’s effective participation.

Africa is also seeing increased instances of violence against women in conflict situations, such as in Kenya during the country's post-election crisis and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the number of cases of sexual violence against women and those against men reached alarming levels in 2008–09. The conflict and insecure situation in Darfur in Sudan has persisted throughout the review period, leaving many people (the majority of whom are women and children) displaced and living in squalid conditions with no clear end to their suffering in sight. Such populations are not necessarily benefiting from the gains made as a result of the implementation of Beijing at the regional or national levels.

We have witnessed a regression in the democratic space as certain countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan have adopted legislation in 2008 and 2009 respectively that limits the freedom of their citizens to choice, expression and to engage effectively in the public affairs of their country. These judicial and legal insecurities have continued to derail the basic principles of a state of law and render precarious the legal protection of citizens, particularly the poor, the majority of whom are women.

New conflicts have emerged in Madagascar, Mauritania and Guinea in 2008, the latter becoming even more violent as protesters demanded their democratic rights. On 28 September 2009 the army in Guinea turned against people staging a peaceful demonstration, and this resulted in the death of more the 150 people and raping and sodomising of women in broad daylight. It is so sad that such impunity still exists on our continent 15 years after Beijing.

The global economic and financial crisis – which started in 2007 and has worsened in 2009 – has finally reached Africa as commitments to aid are not being fulfilled. Donor countries have reviewed their priorities to focus more on bailing out their own financial institutions and leading economic giants through financial stimulus packages. The first people to lose jobs in the formal sector in Africa have been those at the lower levels, and the majority of these are women. Many more workers are joining the informal sector, both men and women. As more men join the informal sector, many more small businesses managed by women are now under threat and may not survive the crisis.

The coping strategies adopted by most African countries to respond to the global financial and economic crisis seem not to be responding to the needs of women, who are already overburdened by the care economy. Most African countries cannot even afford to provide stimulus packages to sustain the provision of basic social services. In addition, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue to prescribe cutbacks on government spending for essential social services like education and the provision of healthcare as a condition for accessing concessional loans during these difficult times. What does this mean? The development agenda that is people-centred is thrown out of the window and is taking backstage priority. Where do all these challenges leave the African woman and the Beijing commitments? Sadly, real, sustainable change is yet to be realised.

It is therefore with renewed expectation and enthusiasm that the women of Africa welcome the UN resolution to establish the new gender-equality entity in the United Nations. Here is hope that this entity will work closely with governments and citizens of Africa, particularly women, to centralise the Beijing agenda for equality, peace and development. There is also excitement for the heads of states and government around the AU summit resolution adopted in January 2009, in which they declared the period 2010–20 as the 'decade for women in Africa'. The process of establishing the UN entity and the African women’s decade are new opportunities to keep the commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment – as articulated in the Beijing Platform for Action – in the spotlight at the international and regional levels as well as the national level. The journey for change continues.


* Norah Matovu Winyi is the executive director of FEMNET.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] International Parliamentary Union (IPU), fact sheet.