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On this year's International Women's Day, Dinah Musindarwezo, Executive Director of FEMNET, calls on us to continue fighting for women's rights and to do so with the clarity and tenacity that will finally end all forms of discrimination against women and girls and sustainably instigate gender equality across all spheres.

Indeed, let us keep pressing for progress as the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day demands. However, let us do so with the clarity and tenacity that will finally end all forms of discrimination against women and girls and sustainably instigate gender equality across all spheres.

This year’s theme echoes the priority theme of the upcoming 62nd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women whose focus is on “Challenges and opportunities for advancing gender equality and empowerment of rural women and girls”. This draws attention to rural women both as a group that faces multiple and intersecting forms of gender discriminations, but also as a category that is a backbone of our economies and development.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also speak of “leaving no” one behind, further putting a spotlight on those often left out as others progress.  This then means that it is no longer enough to only focus on women and youth as marginalised groups; we must look further at different intersections and ensure that their voices and different experiences inform policies, programmes and resource allocation.

Keep pressing for progress

We have come a long way as far as women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality are concerned.  The biggest achievement is in the policy and legal framework. We have progressive policies in almost all aspects of women’s rights and gender equality both at the international, regional and national levels. Our governments have signed on to international policy frameworks including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms o Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Beijing Platform for Action, the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) and several others.

We have developed and adopted our own home grown instruments such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) that takes into account issues that are specific to African women such as widows’ rights, child marriages and female genital mutilation and it recognises that women have a right to safe abortion under specific circumstances of sexual assault, rape, incest and when the pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the woman or the life of the woman or the foetus. We have reviewed our own constitutions at the national level to view men and women as equal citizens. We have continuously agitated for equal representation in numerous spaces that were initially taboo zones for women.

The list of these tireless efforts is long. It continues to grow everyday as women’s rights organisations continue the struggle for gender equality. But then, one might ask, so what?  So what if we have all these policies and women are still beaten, harassed and intimidated and continue to be threatened everywhere? What if despite all that we have put in place women still face violation even as they walk on the streets, at their work places and in their homes? What if we are still dodged by the patriarchal reality that   women’s decisions over their bodies, resources and voice are still being made by their husbands, brothers, and fathers or men in governments?

My answer is clear-cut; despite all the prevailing challenges, we must still celebrate the policy environment that women’s rights activists including those in rural areas have worked so hard to achieve. We must acknowledge just how much they have transformed the lives and status of women. As a region, we have made so much progress in the area of maternal health, women’s political leadership and women’s access to education and employment opportunities.  The backbone of this progress is the support and work done by women and girls living in rural areas that fuels food sovereignty and carry the burden of unpaid-care work of caring for the sick, children, elderly and adult men. They do so within limiting and unsafe environments and a system that refuses to recognise, value or rightfully reward their contributions.

The struggle continues!

Yes, Aluta Continua! Despite all the challenges, we must never relent on the struggle for gender equality.  Statistics of shame and discrimination are still heart-breaking.   According to World Economic Report, it will take us 217 years to cover the economic gender gap and this is just one aspect of gender inequality.

The share of women working in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is at 60 percent and yet less than 13 percent of agricultural landowners are women according to UN-Women data of 2017. Some countries like Kenya fall much below this average data at only five percent as reported by FIDA-Kenya.  A rural woman is 38 percent less likely to give birth with a health care worker than an urban woman.  And a rural girl is two times more likely to be married as a child than her urban counterpart according to UN-Women data.

Women activists in rural and urban areas have pushed for too long to transform systems and structures of oppression, not only to achieve women’s rights but for development of their families, communities and countries.   Today on International Women’s Day, I celebrate these selfless women—those working in rural and urban areas, young and old especially those whose work is most invisible and unrecognised despite its massive impact on our economies and our lives.

The African Women’s Development and Communication Network, FEMNET – a pan African and feminist membership network of over 600 members in 46 countries across Africa has existed for almost 30 years and tirelessly expands platforms for all women and girls including those living in rural areas to actively and effectively inform policies and decisions affecting them.  FEMNET continues to be at the forefront of policy change and connecting women’s local and national activism and advocacy to regional and global level advocacy platforms.

We have experienced first-hand what women can do and the power they have to bring about transformation. If they can achieve so much albeit with multiple challenges and discrimination, one wonders what they can do if they had a favourable and safe environment where their rights were protected, guaranteed and fulfilled.

FEMNET was at the forefront of mobilising African women and girls in all their diversities to advocate for a gender equality standalone goal and specific gender targets in the 2030 agenda and SDGs. We have learnt from various researches that, we cannot achieve development if we do not achieve gender equality; we cannot achieve any of the SDG aspirations unless we achieve gender equality; we cannot end poverty, hunger or unemployment without achieving gender equality. It is simply impossible because all aspects of development have a gendered impact.

We must take action!

My call today on International Women’s Day is simple- for aeons, women have worked hard enough for the economy and they are not about to stop doing so. It is therefore paramount that we co-create an economy that works for women and girls and which addresses their specific interests and needs. What we currently have is largely an unequal economy that works for half of humanity, or actually one percent as Oxfam puts it in their report titled, “An Economy For the 1%: How privilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped”.

It is possible to change this if we all act together to address structural inequalities and systems of oppression that continue to define women and girls as second class citizens. Unless we significantly achieve this, then women and girls world over will keep pressing...pressing for progress!

* Dinah Musindarwezo is the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development an Communications Network, FEMNET.