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cc Surveying the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) campaign around the Protocol on Women’s Rights to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Karoline Kemp discusses the role of ICTs (information and communication technologies) in engaging civil society and facilitating the campaign. Highlighting SOAWR's ability to nurture productive relationships with African Union (AU) departments in promoting the protocol, Kemp stresses that despite the success of communication tools like Pambazuka News, the real challenge will be to promote the protocol at the grassroots level through more traditional media.

According to the Overseas Development Institute (2006), the past 15 years have seen significant changes in the contexts affecting the relationships between civil society organisations and governmental policymakers. This shift in relationships has resulted in opportunities in the policy arena for an increasing number of actors. Civil society organisations constitute some of these players, and are embracing a range of methods to assist in their new roles in order to instigate networking, information-sharing and capacity-building. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are playing a large function in this new environment, and their role in international development is growing.

In the arena of women’s rights, a coalition of civil society organisations from across the African continent has capitalised on this policy-making space in an attempt to promote the Protocol on Women’s Rights to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. The Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) group has been working at the level of the African Union (AU), with member state governments and in local communities in order to ratify, popularise and implement the protocol. Their work as a coalition of different organisations engaging with governments has an explicit strategy of using ICTs, namely Pambazuka News, the electronic newsletter for social justice in Africa. SOAWR thus provides the basis of a case study for this research due to the fact they have claimed success around the ratification and popularisation of the protocol. Their use of ICTs is a significant aspect of this success.

As of November 2005, the protocol has been ratified by the African Union. However, governments have been slow to ratify it, and those which have done so have not generally taken the initiative on their own to begin popularising or implementing this new tool. African civil society organisations – all of whom are non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who campaigned for many years around the protocol – worked alongside the African Union from the 1990s to draft and promote the adoption of the protocol. It was adopted in 2003. Civil society from across the continent came together in 2004 to form the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights coalition in order to work towards the ratification, popularisation and implementation of the protocol.

SOAWR, requiring a broader strategy in order to influence not only the AU but also its member states, has needed a completely new approach in order to encourage the protocol's ratification, and also to popularise it and begin the work of its implementation. Existing in an age of information and communication technologies, where the internet dominates offices around the globe, SOAWR has had an explicit strategy of capitalising on this means of sharing information and communicating with various players.

Generally referred to as the 'Maputo Protocol', or simply 'the protocol', the African Union adopted the Protocol on Women’s Rights to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in 2003. It is the only women’s rights instrument originating in Africa and represents many 'firsts' in terms of legal protection for women, including the right to abortion in the case of rape, as well as a required principle of equality between men and women in national constitutions and other legislation. In order to take force, the protocol required signatures and ratifications by 15 African governments. This occurred in November of 2005, breaking historical records with regard to the speed with which it was ratified (most continental and regional human rights instruments in Africa have taken from eight to 10 years to obtain the ratifications needed for them to enter into force, according to SOAWR).

A concerted push for the protocol’s ratification, popularisation and implementation was taken up by a coalition of civil society organisations in 2004, at which point only one country (The Comoros) had signed and ratified the protocol. The SOAWR coalition was established by a small group of African civil society members and now has 29 members, which range in size from local organisations to pan-African as well as international organisations. Their goal was the universal ratification of the protocol and the subsequent popularisation and implementation necessary to make this legislation truly effective. To this end, the strategies that SOAWR lists to meet these goals include influencing public opinion in favour of the ratification, expanding its relationship with the African Union, actively engaging with mass media, making use of the internet to popularise the protocol and strengthening the leadership capability of women’s organisations. The coalition's strategies have been broad, and to meet these goals, its members have produced advocacy material which has been received at both the level of national governments as well as the African Union. A key approach has involved participation in AU summits and engaging with its various departments, as well as with member state governments.

When SOAWR was first created at a meeting in Nairobi, Fahamu, as a member of the coalition, offered the use of Pambazuka News to the group. This has resulted in the creation of advocacy material, much of it used at African Union summits. These advocacy materials have included special issues of Pambazuka News dedicated specifically to information about the protocol, as well as space within Pambazuka News’s African Union Monitor, which provides up-to-date information for civil society about the AU, including events, issues and debates. This, according to SOAWR members, has been especially useful at the African Union summits themselves.

This case study offers interesting findings about the relationship between participatory and political spaces. SOAWR, as a coalition, has worked to a large extent with the African Union. At this level, SOAWR was able to participate in some political processes and events, exploiting opportunities in different ways to access a variety of spaces, which were to various degrees more or less open, closed or created. SOAWR did this in a variety of different ways, and also utilised public spaces, where communication has the potential to move decision-making from a political realm to a more public one. Of course, while theoretically it may be easy to maintain divisions between closed, invited and created spaces, in reality those are less prominent. In the case of SOAWR’s advocacy work at the level of the African Union, there is much overlap.

In the instance of closed spaces, where there is little space for participation, SOAWR members found that despite policies laying out regulations for civil society engagement with the African Union, the roles and responsibilities of the various bodies, institutions and even individuals themselves were difficult to understand. Dealing with the AU as a structure was in some ways then a closed space for SOAWR. To counter this, in what is perhaps a sister publication to Pambazuka News, the African Union Monitor was created in order for civil society to understand better an institution of such influence over the continent. In this way, civil society is better able to understand the institutional policy channels that impact their work, and can also add to the political discourse around the AU by publicising that it is being watched or 'monitored'. Further, even member state governments are made more aware of the institution. This is an example of a closed space being transformed into a created space by way of communication. By putting information into a public space, SOAWR is able to interact with the African Union in a manner which not only monitors but also allows for interaction between governments and civil society.

Published online, but handed out in print copy at the summits, the AU Monitor plays a complementary role to Pambazuka News, which is also distributed in hard copy at summits. Special editions of Pambazuka News profile issues related to women’s rights and the protocol, and through linking current events, political situations or themes to this issue keep the protocol relevant and pertinent so that officials can be convinced to support it. This links to invited spaces, where opportunities for civil society to participate are offered by decision-makers.

To this end, at AU summits, which SOAWR has decided to strategically target as a means of accessing decision-makers, SOAWR has used their good working relationships with the AU Directorate for Women, Gender and Development as well as other key officials to use that space more effectively. They do this by engaging in joint campaigns and activities, and this has enabled SOAWR to have more access to other AU departments as well as state officials. The process of getting accreditation to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies of these summits has also been facilitated by these relationships, which SOAWR has nurtured and exploited in order to further the cause of the protocol. Further, SOAWR members have used their own reputations to be invited to participate in various African Union functions and even committees. This works at the level of institutional policy channels, which has to do with the first stage of SOAWR’s work, an elite strategy to target political figures. But this also serves a function in terms of political discourses. By engaging with civil society in such an official manner, a clear signal is sent with regards to the fact that they are in fact a part of the process of decision-making and that their input is valued, allowing civil society to hold some sort of legitimacy in terms of their work. With regard to the way in which this work affects social practices, I would argue that its purpose is more political, and that the second and third phases of the SOAWR strategy address this issue more concretely. Another way in which SOAWR has been able to access invited spaces is perhaps with regard to funding and trends in development. Some argue that women’s rights are a popular issue, and further, that it had been quite easy for SOAWR as a coalition to attain funding due to this trend, as well as an increased commitment to good governance, which included supporting a wider variety of actors engaging in political issues.

Created spaces for participation are those opportunities that have been initiated by civil society. In this sense, again, there is much overlap, especially in terms of countering the closed political space of the African Union, but the usage of Pambazuka News is an area in which most closely fits the bill. Taking advantage of characteristics of the internet that promote what Tettey lists as interactivity between many different voices, a global network, uncensored speech and the ability to challenge and cross check official views, Pambazuka News publishes articles that often cannot be found in other places and is a uniquely African voice around issues faced by communities across the continent.

An example of 'what Africans are doing with ICTs' (van Binsbergen, cited in Njamnjoh 2005: 9), Pambazuka News provides a space for debate and analysis, thus providing discourses about Africa by Africans, which promote communication between various communities, linking them in a way that fosters a collective movement. By providing lessons learned and best practices, civil society talks with one another, and in using Pambazuka News as a platform to share these stories, SOAWR members cited that this collective effort provided support, encouragement, motivation and momentum for their work that they would not otherwise feel. This in a sense has created a community for SOAWR members, where they can update one another about their activities and share experiences. In speaking with a staff member from KEWOPA (Kenya Women Parliamentary Association), an intergovernmental organisation charged with promoting women’s participation and representation in the Kenyan parliament, I was told that Pambazuka News was crucial in keeping her up-to-date with what was going on in order for her to do her job effectively. Civil society members outside of SOAWR were familiar with Pambazuka News and most subscribed to receive it weekly. SOAWR members claimed that Pambazuka News helped with visibility in terms of the SOAWR campaign, and that having space in a reputable publication like Pambazuka News also meant that a certain legitimacy was acquired for their work.

This serves also to add to the public spaces defined by Castells; by putting this information into a domain where it can be accessed by a diverse group of people, SOAWR has raised its profile and built a reputation that lends political credibility. In addition to these created spaces, SOAWR has built in a further aspect of capacity-building to their work through training journalists at African Union summits and, in promoting women bloggers, not only is the potential visibility about women’s rights in Africa increased with an online presence, but more importantly the capacity of individual women is targeted, creating not only women who are more aware of their rights, but also engaging these women in a discourse they may not have previously been conscious of. On the level of created participatory spaces, Fahamu and FEMNET (The African Women's Development and Communication Network) have also recently created a series of radio programmes for SOAWR’s use. These are aimed towards the third stage of SOAWR’s work, which is to popularise the protocol and create a constituency aware of their rights and knows how to claim those rights. This is done on a much more local level; country-level focal points spearhead these initiatives, and disseminate, for example, the radio programme, which can be used as is, or as part of a toolkit, for grassroots organisations and communities. Thus relationships between communities and SOAWR are mediated through awareness-building.

The above analysis demonstrates a number of interesting points which examine spaces for participation. What remains to be evaluated are some of the challenges and opportunities that exist for SOAWR in terms of both the usage of ICTs in its work as a coalition and for policy advocacy.

The use of information and communication technologies across the African continent presents numerous potentials. However, the facilities for and culture of email, obtaining online news and utilising electronic information and research databases are not embedded in Africa in any significant way for those opportunities to reach their full potential. Internet users remain within certain elite circles. From my limited interviews, it appeared as though Pambazuka News, as it exists online, did not reach official or political figures, though I imagine that there are many exceptions to this. The intergovernmental organisation KEWOPA, which works with parliamentarians, described having to physically go and speak with those officials because they did not check their emails. At the level of government, advocacy print materials seemed to be the most effective means of projecting ideas and recommendations. Pambazuka News remains more as a tool for those active in civil society, which is in fact its target in any case, and these civil society members do in fact see Pambazuka News as strengthening their work as a movement. Providing an online community, lending credibility and exchanging news and information which strengthens their work are some of the characteristics that were cited. At the same time, Pambazuka News does not reach those people who are the targets of civil society’s work; awareness-raising at the grassroots level is still most effectively carried out via radio. Thus in terms of using ICTs to promote the protocol, besides for SOAWR and a small group of civil society members, their usage is limited. However, providing a platform for these civil society members to voice their opinions and debate and analyse social, political and economic issues and policies does serve to create a community that has the potential to result in widening the discourses around these issues, which can then move into a more political realm.

With regard to policy advocacy around the protocol, SOAWR has faced numerous challenges, most of which have revolved around governmental structures and resistance. At the level of the African Union this has been characterised by a lack of understanding of structures, but it appears that for the most part, partly due to the fact that the African Union itself had already adopted the protocol and was urging member states to ratify it quickly, there was less resistance at this level. SOAWR members cited that most resistance was in fact felt at the level of member states, much of it owing to conservatism, strong religious ties and internal politics. However, SOAWR used some creative campaigning techniques, including an SMS (short message service, or text messaging) campaign and a Colour Card Campaign, which not only raised attention outside of the usual actors, but also served to name and shame governments into responding to the protocol.

These creative techniques were carried out by SOAWR members for the first time on the continent; they had never been used before, and therefore brought interest from other civil society organisations, funders and governments. Further, that SOAWR members had strong relationships with a number of African Union figures has allowed some degree of support for its work. Further challenges with regard to policy advocacy exist around bringing the policies back to the people which they affect. In the case of SOAWR, their initial strategy has been at an elite political level, and in fact the organisations participating in the campaign are, in some cases, quite removed from constituents, existing in a realm of international donors, other global civil society actors and the like. While this has also been a strength of the coalition, because being able to speak the language of politics has indeed been necessary, any real change will need to be carried out at a more grassroots level, which is a real challenge for the organisations involved in SOAWR. The process of implementing the protocol, for example, will require genuine partnerships between more local actors – governments, service providers, community-based organisations – and will need to take place across the whole of the continent. This relates to Merry’s theory of translating (2006) whereby civil society acts as an intermediary between local and international ideas, institutions and meanings. SOAWR has indeed done this at the level of the African Union, but in some ways has been aligned more closely at that level than at the grassroots. Thus local organisations, and the networks they belong to, will become increasingly important.

While the above analysis has shown that Pambazuka News has indeed played a role in pushing women’s rights and the protocol into a wider arena of discourse, it has also demonstrated that a number of factors have resulted in SOAWR’s success. Perhaps most significant among these has been the relationships that individual SOAWR members have been able to take advantage of in gaining access to political spaces not normally open to civil society. This has proven to be the most effective means with regard to the political lobbying that SOAWR has carried out. But, as SOAWR members recognise, the ratification of the protocol by member states will in fact be the easiest part of their work. Making the protocol known, respected and used practically means a completely different kind of approach, and requires an even wider range of actors. It also necessitates women knowing about the protocol and the rights afforded them under it. This will not come from online debates and emails, but will rather require a more realistic approach of using radio and print media. The potential for utilising mobile phones also exists, but as has been demonstrated by the 'Text Now 4 Women’s Rights' campaign, must be carefully implemented.

This is not to say that the usage of ICTs is misplaced; for African non-governmental organisations to be effective and integrated into an inevitably globalised civil society, they must have access to this important means of communication and network-building. Working across wide physical spaces and in varying contexts means that the potential that exists in creating an online community that can provide support and a sense of cooperation is invaluable.

* Karoline Kemp recently graduated from the Institute of Social Studies with an MA in Development Studies and a specialisation in Public Policy and Management.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at


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