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With the African Union declaring the period 2010–20 to be the African Women’s Decade (AWD), Monica Ighorodje considers what the decade means for women’s rights activists and civil society organisations across Africa.

The African Women’s Decade 2010–20 (AWD) is a remarkable event for African women and a commendation to the African Union for the recognition of the needs, concerns and agency of women in Africa. The goal of the AWD is to ensure greater attention to the implementation of all commitments towards gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa.[1] With the declaration of 2010–20 as the African Women’s Decade, women’s human rights organisations have to key into the strategies for the implementation of commitments related to gender equity and women’s empowerment. The existence of the African Women’s Decade is a clear indication that women’s issues are now placed on board worldwide and that we have started reaping the benefits of our liberation struggles. It will be inappropriate to dissect the global context of women’s human rights from the context of the AWD when determining opportunities for African women.


The concept of the women’s decade was born in 1975 by the United Nations at the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City.[2] From then on women have continued to be involved and participated in consultations on women’s rights and gender equality.[3] Globally, women’s human rights are traceable to the International Bill of Rights upon which the UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW or the Women’s Convention) is hinged. Aside from the existence of the Women’s Convention, in the dawn of a new millennium the United Nations developed a 15-year anti-poverty strategic plan focusing on eight development goals for member states known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Included in these goals are the concerns for women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Within the African Union, the adoption and subsequent entry into force of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2005 was a step in a purposeful direction for women’s rights in Africa. It is instructive to note that both the Women’s Convention and the African women’s protocol provide the legal framework for women’s human rights globally and on the African continent. The emergence of the African Women’s Decade only consolidates and sustains the recognition given to women’s demand for inclusion and accountability from African leaders.


A critical examination of the AWD in the context of the thematic areas[4] reveals that women’s rights organisations on the continent are already working on these concerns. The replication of the themes is an indication of the need for reinforcing our collective efforts to push for political will on the part of African leaders in ensuring these concerns are addressed. In the light of these developments, what opportunities exist for African women to effectively engage and feed into the AWD?

Existing international and regional normative framework on the rights and development of women

The international human rights instrument in its entirety adequately provided a platform for the promotion and protection of women’s human rights. Starting from the International Bill of Rights to ‘The Women’s Convention’, the Beijing Platform of Action, the Dakar Declaration and the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies, women have continually engaged on these platforms to demand for gender equality and freedom from discrimination and violence. Alongside these instruments are the AU Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA), while Article 4 (l) of the Constitutive Act affirms the ‘promotion of gender equality’ as one of the AU guiding principles[5] and the African women’s protocol specifically developed for Africans by Africans. The above instruments provided the normative framework for women to demand commitments such as ratification, domestication and implementation from their leaders, especially in light of the goals of the AWD.

Emergence of United Nations women

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.[6] This is another feat for the women’s movement towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Remarkably the coincidental mandate for both the AWD and the UN Women only reinforces the opportunities that can be capitalised on for Africa. In addition, the presence of 10 Africans constituting the 41-member executive board[7] provides a platform for African women’s engagement on both the international and regional levels, hence the need for a back-and-forth strategy from global to local, and vice versa.

UN Millennium Development Goals

A critical examination of the goal of the AWD hinges on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, specifically MDG 3 on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is the overarching concept describing the work constituted by women’s organising, and as a result becomes hydra-headed social, economic, political and cultural issues cutting across the thematic areas of focus of the AWD. The MDGs have marked their 10th anniversary and only have until 2015 to achieve their global vision. Observing that the AWD revolves around the MDGs and the first review of the AWD will occur simultaneously in 2015 with the first review on the gains of the decade, women must feed into the actualising of the MDGs. The attainment of one is tantamount to the global vision being actualised.

Increasing women’s political participation and leadership

All across the globe, electorates in different countries are beginning to recognise the possible role of women in politics and as a result, 2010 marks another remarkable increase in the number of female presidents in the world. With the emergence of the first female president in Brazil,[8] women in Africa must recognise the gradual paradigm shift and continue in advocacy and in support of the increase in the political role of women in politics and decision-making. The existence of the first female African president in Liberia and the dominance of women in the Rwandan political sphere is a springboard for women.

Gender-responsive African Union

The composition of the AU, as opposed to the former OAU (Organisation of African Unity), is a remarkable reflection of the continent’s commitment to gender parity and respect for women’s rights. Presently, five of the 10 AU commissioners are women, including seven of 15 directors in the AU Commission. No other regional or international organisation has achieved this level of gender balance within the top echelons of leadership.[9]

African year of peace

The African Union (AU) has declared the year 2010 the African year of peace, reiterating its commitment to further push the peace process in Africa, where millions of people are killed and displaced due to civil strife.[10] Women bear the brunt of civil strife and are subjected to gender-based violence, especially through the use of rape as a weapon of war in most of the crisis-torn African regions. Relying on the commitment of the AU and the appeal to all stakeholders to intensify efforts in the area of peace and security, women must take advantage of the year of peace and security. Women will continue organising and advocating for more involvement of women in the post-conflict reconstruction and peace process all aimed at nation rebuilding.

African feminist movement

The emergence of the African feminist movement in 2006 is another strategic point of engagement. African feminists are also part of a global feminist movement against patriarchal oppression in all its manifestations. The African feminist experiences are linked to those of women all over Africa and have shared solidarity and support over the years. In the course of movement building over the years, and the attempt at institutionalising the movement, feminists have been able to network and build strategic alliances across the continent. In addition, the feminist movement work towards closing intergenerational gaps and mentoring young feminists to consolidate and sustain the struggle is commendable. The already existing platform for young women engaging serves as a means to an end and covers the AWD thematic concern over young women’s movement building.


The present decade provides an opportunity for civil society organisations and the SOAWR Coalition to pilot the affairs of women’s empowerment and gender equality. How far we will go is determined by our strategic direction and positioning as partners and stakeholders.


Popularising and demystifying the AWD

Civil society organisations well-informed about the AWD have a responsibility of sensitising the continent on the importance of the decade and its significance in causing a paradigm shift in the societal perception on women. Most importantly, the 10 thematic areas should be simplified in an abridged form for grassroots engagement.

Aligning our programmes to AWD’s vision

The thematic focus of the AWD presently revolves around the concerns of women and as a result, civil society should align its programmes, projects and organising to reflect any of the 10 themes of the AWD based on its areas of expertise and in solidarity for the celebration of the decade.

Pressurising the political will of African leaders

Advocacy on a renewed commitment to all women’s human rights and gender policies and laws must continue. African leaders are quick to sign international instruments and adopt gender policies for the progress of the continent. However, trado-cultural obstacles influence the ratification or domestication of such international or regional instruments. Domestication is key to strategising and ensuring the implementation of governments’ commitment to women’s human rights. We only fail to hold the government accountable in the absence of a domestic law against women’s discrimination and oppression. The actualising of the AWD will not build a foundation on anything in the absence of a legal framework for the implementation process.

Organising via thematic clusters

The formation of thematic clusters by interested individuals and organisations having expertise on each thematic area of focus is necessary to enable a simultaneous engagement of issues on the side of the CSOs (civil society organisations) rather than the mere celebration of a thematic focus yearly till the end of the decade.

Role of SOAWR Coalition

Coordinating the AWD civil society network

The coalition should organise and coordinate a common front of all interested African networkers – both individuals and organisations – for the AWD to liaise with the AU and other stakeholders like the relevant UN systems and the working committees at the regional, national and local levels. This will provide a platform where the voice of other non-visible organisations or interested women’s activists will feed into the process.

Documenting and sharing best practices in Africa

The coalition can act as a resource base in documenting successful strategies from across Africa, which it can disseminate to AWD networkers. This will provide a clearinghouse of strategies for replication or a scaling-up in different thematic areas for engagement.

AWD peer review mechanism

The coalition can undertake to organise a peer review mechanism once every two years to monitor the progress of the AU on a continental basis. Such a mechanism in place will fill in the gaps caused by the absence of any African commission on the status of women to embark on a periodic report on the rights of women in Africa.


This article has briefly examined the importance of the African Women’s Decade 2010–20 for women’s human rights and empowerment. The analysis of the decade provides a platform for a more critical engagement from both the global to the national levels and as a result this is a life opportunity for women to speak with one voice and be united in their struggles. The identified strategies only provide an in-road into how the best women’s collective can engage and reap a remarkable outcome and impact from the decade. Finally, a matrix is clearly established connecting international human rights, developmental efforts and Africa’s attempt to integrate women’s concerns into Africa’s politics. As a result it will not serve in the continental interest to dissect African women’s interest from the global outlook due to the interrelatedness of women’s concerns and agencies.


* Monica Ighorodje is a programme officer at BAOBAB.
* BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights is a not-for-profit, non-governmental women's human rights organisation which focuses on women's legal rights issues under the three systems of law – customary, statutory and religious – in Nigeria. BAOBAB works and advocates to promote women's human rights, principally via improving knowledge and the exercise and development of rights.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1], last visited on November 10th 2010
[2], last visited on November 10th 2010
[3] Concept Note on the Planning Meeting on the African Women’s Decade (AWD) at the margin of the 54th Session of the CSW, 2010, AU Office New York, USA
[4] The 10 themes of the AWD includes: Fighting Poverty and Economic empowerment of women and Entrepreneurship, Agriculture and Food security, Health, HIV/AIDS and Maternal Mortality, Education, Science and Technology, Environment and Sustainable development, Peace and Security, Governance and Legal Protection, Finance Gender and Budgeting, Women in Decision making Position and Energizing African Women’s movement and mentoring young women movement
[5], Gender equity policies in the AU by Adams, Melinda, last visited on November 10th 2010
[6] last visited on November 10th 2010
[7] - UN Women Executive Board Elected: On 10 November 2010, Member States took the next step in enabling UN Women, the UN Entity on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, to begin its work by electing countries to serve on its Executive Board. The 41 board members were selected on the following basis: 10 from Africa, 10 from Asia, 4 from Eastern Europe, 6 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 5 from Western Europe and 6 from contributing countries., last visited on November 10th 2010
[8] Brazil President – Elect Roussef Dilma pledges gender equality, Daily Trust newspaper, Tuesday November 2nd, 2010
[9], Gender equity policies in the AU by Adams, Melinda, last visited on November 10th 2010