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cc In the five years since the adoption of the Protocol to the Africa Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, some 26 countries have ratified Africa's first regional human rights instrument. But with 27 countries yet to do so, the challenge remains to see each African nation commit to fully upholding women's rights. Moral arguments aside, implementing women's rights offers clear social and developmental benefits for all, argues Norah Matovu Winyi, benefits which will only be realised through sustained political will.

It is more than five years since the Protocol to the Africa Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (hereinafter referred to as the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol) was adopted. For the last five years members of the Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) coalition have lobbied the leaders of states and governments at African Union summits to sign and ratify and then implement in full the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. Combined with those of many other actors, these efforts resulted in the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol being the first regional human rights instrument in Africa to come into force only two years after its adoption in 2003 at the 2nd Ordinary Session African Union Summit held in Maputo, Mozambique. Since then 26 countries have ratified the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol, and they are now expected to domesticate the protocol (to pass a law in parliament where it is required to make the protocol applicable in the national context) as well as taking appropriate policy, administrative and practical measures and actions to facilitate its full implementation.

There are still 27 African countries yet to ratify the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. It is however important to note that 20 African countries have taken the first step of signing onto the protocol, which in legal terms means that the countries essentially agree with the provisions of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol and they only need to complete the legal process of ratification in order to make it applicable in their respective countries. Therefore, only five countries have neither signed nor ratified the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. These are Botswana, Egypt, Eritrea, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Tunisia. The aim of the initiators of this home-grown human rights instrument was to ensure that it has universal application in Africa within the shortest time possible as a means to secure gender equality and the rights of women and girls in all aspects of their lives.

The adoption of the African Women’s Rights Protocol was considered a significant achievement during the Beijing + 10 review process held in 2004–05. The five-year review of progress made in the implementation of the millennium development goals (MDGs) also noted the adoption of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol as a groundbreaking achievement. The Beijing Declaration and PfA and the MDGs specifically recognise gender equality and women’s empowerment as development goals in themselves. They also state that they are key to the achievement of sustainable development, and this is particularly true in the context of Africa.

For Africa to realise its development aspirations and goals it has to achieve economic growth. Higher economic growth is dependent on the successful promotion of human rights for all and the implementation of programmes and interventions intended to achieve gender equality and social, economic and political empowerment for women and men. Therefore, the adoption of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol is a very positive step in the right direction. It provides a legal framework for the recognition of women’s rights and creates obligations for states and governments to take measures to ensure that every woman and girl in Africa enjoys these rights. Ensuring that women enjoy their rights to dignity, to freedom from violence, to education, to health (including sexual and reproductive health rights), to employment, to own property and to have access to development resources like land and credit facilities is one critical way of achieving urgently needed economic growth (not less than a 7 per cent growth rate for every country in Africa) required to realise the MDGs in Africa by 2015.

The big question therefore remains: How is it that some countries have not ratified the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol if implementation of its provisions would result in significant benefits for these countries and Africa as a whole? Why has a country like Uganda, which has taken the lead in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment on the continent and has enjoyed tremendous benefits in terms of economic growth, not ratified the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol?

SOAWR coalition members had the opportunity to meet and discuss with several permanent representatives (ambassadors) resident in Addis Ababa and ministers of foreign affairs from different countries during the pre-AU summit meetings in January 2009. Some of the reasons advanced by these leaders for the non-ratification thus far included 'mistakes in translation of the text of the Protocol from English to Arabic', and 'the Protocol having contentious provisions especially those related to the right to health including sexual and reproductive health rights'. These are very simple reasons that have quick solutions if African leaders could exercise the political will to achieve gender equality and protect, promote and respect the rights stipulated in the protocol.

Arabic is one of the five official languages used by the African Union. Therefore countries that prefer to receive their documentation in Arabic have a right to demand and receive a quality service from the African Union Commission (AUC). Secondly and as we all know, where there is a right there is always a responsibility. Therefore, where a state party finds discrepancies in the legal texts of such a key instrument due to translation, they have the responsibility to bring it to the attention of the chairperson and the legal department of the AUC. This matter should not be a cause for delay for a country to sign and ratify the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol.

For those countries which have expressed reservations on Article 14 – which provides for women's right to health, including sexual and reproductive health – it is important to remind our leaders that African countries have adopted several sector-focused declarations on HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and rights, education, peace and security in line with the provisions articulated in the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. These sector-specific declarations fully acknowledge the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment in achieving progress in development.

Gender inequalities give rise to inequalities between men and women in health status and access to quality healthcare services. There are biological differences and there also differences between men and women that arise due to social factors. The social dimension of gender inequality in relation to health in Africa includes unequal power in decision-making at the family level and the level of choice on matters that affect women and men’s lives. It has already been scientifically proven through numerous studies by the World Bank that gender inequalities hinder development. It is on this premise that the drafters of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol included provisions that can address most of these gender inequalities.

A woman must have the right to decide when to get married and the choice of her partner. Parents, religious and community leaders can provide guidance on how to make the choice, but under no circumstance should they negate the right of a woman to make her choice of partner. A woman should also have a right to have or not to have children. She should be able to decide how many children to have and how best to space them. Where women and girls lack the power, ability, information and sufficient education to make such informed decisions they end up being subjected to early marriages, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and having large families which keep them and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty, hunger and disease. There is no doubt that denying women’s health rights hinders development. Women’s lack of access to resources and decision-making within the household – particularly in relation to their bodies and sexuality – denies them the right to live in dignity, to live free of violence, the right to development and to realise their full potential, as well as having a negative impact on their health and that of their families, communities and the nation at large. Poor health results in low levels of productivity.

One of the most contentious provisions in the protocol is the right for a woman to make a choice for a medical abortion in exceptional circumstances, particularly where the continuation of the pregnancy is a risk to her own health or life. For example, it provides for the right to make a choice where the pregnancy is the result of rape (such as gang rape in a conflict situation) or defilement (in case of a girl below the age of 18 years of age) or incest. Most importantly, the provision on medical abortion does not in any way disregard the sanctity of life. The life of the pregnant woman is as important as the life of the unborn child. Therefore, women and men, boys and girls have the right of access to vital information and proper health services in order to make appropriate decisions about their health. This would definitely minimise unwanted pregnancies and the risks associated with unsafe abortions.

It is imperative that all countries that have not ratified the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol do so to secure its universal application across the whole of Africa. This will increase its impact as a practical advocacy tool for women's and girls’ rights. Secondly, countries that have ratified the protocol must take action to implement it in full. They should focus more on addressing the large unmet need for universal education, access to higher education for both boys and girls, the provision of family planning and other reproductive health services, creating employment opportunities and eliminating gender imbalances at the family level. This is the purpose of the protocol, to focus everyone’s attention on these rights.

If these rights are consistently promoted and programmes and interventions implemented to ensure that every women and girl enjoys them, then this human rights approach to development will go a long way to reducing the high rates of teenage and unwanted pregnancies and the many cases of violence against women and girls. In the present circumstances the lack of recognition and respect for women’s rights results in many cases of violence and illegal and unsafe abortions, among many other social problems. If men and women come to recognise and respect each other's human rights, we will reduce cases of women requiring abortions.

The delay around ratifying the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol – which brings numerous political, social and economic benefits to women and girls in every country in Africa, and to the continent as a whole in terms of its development goals and aspirations – is similar to the situation of a desperate man searching for a haven, who instead of taking off in the opposite direction decides to take the route where his enemies are coming from. If African leaders exercise the political will to rid this continent of poverty, hunger and disease, they cannot simply continue business as usual. Gender equality and women’s empowerment must be goals in themselves. The commitment to the full implementation of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol is a political choice that will ensure Africa faces the direction of the safe haven.

The SOAWR coalition is a group of organisations and regional networks that came together to work towards the universal ratification and full implementation of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. Since its formation in 2004, the 31-strong member coalition has produced advocacy materials to popularise the provisions of the protocol, organised coordinated lobbies around African Union summits, supported national-level advocacy initiatives for the ratification and implementation of the protocol, and established working relations with relevant AU departments to track the progress of ratification. The members have met with presidents, ambassadors and ministers to remind them of their obligations to meet commitments made on behalf of their citizens to achieve the goals of gender equality and women's empowerment.

* Norah Matovu Winyi is the executive director of FEMNET – The African women's development and communication network.
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