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Before African governments can win the confidence of African women that they will deliver on huge projects like a continental government, they must first come up with a plan for the implementation of the articles of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, argues Faiza Mohamed. African leaders should get rid of all the customary practices that continue to limit women’s potentials as a necessary step for continental government.

Barely two weeks from the time of writing, African heads of state and government will be meeting for their 10th ordinary summit in Accra for a grand debate on the prospects of creating a government of African states. In the build up to this historic debate, civil society organisations have been vigorously consulting and busy in awakening public interest in the matter with a view to maximising the African public’s participation in the discussion about the added value of having one government for Africa. Sadly, time has been short, and African leaders are moving ahead with their debate without greater input from the African peoples that they represent. This brief article is an attempt to bring some of the concerns African women would like their African leaders to consider in their striving for a United African States (UAS).

One of the advantages of a UAS that has been highlighted a lot is the free movement of peoples and goods throughout the continent. While the dismantling of artificial boundaries created by colonial powers long ago would be a great welcome to the peoples of Africa, and especially those who were hindered from freely connecting with their relatives living on the other side of the border, women in the Upper Volta region of Ghana who are held bondage under the traditional practice of Trokosi share no joy in this potential euphoria over free movement in the continent.

For those who do not know of this practice, trokosi in the Ewe language means 'slaves of the gods'. What this tradition entails is that families who have commited crimes have to give away their virgin daughters to priests, so that the gods will be pleased and forgive them of their crimes. There are two categories of trokosi – those who can be released after serving a specified number of years (usually three to five years) and those who are committed for life. If a girl dies or if the priest tires of her, her family has to replace her. For serious crimes, families give up generations of girls in perpetual atonement. In accordance with the tradition, a trokosi who is released can never be married because she is married for life to the god.

Many released trokosi hence remain in concubinage to the priest for the rest of their lives and when he dies his trokosi are passed on to his successor. Women and girls who are victims of this practice know of no freedom of their minds and bodies, let alone freedom to travel in their villages. For them, free movement in Africa, as championed in the continental government proposal, will bring no comfort.

Though Ghana has passed a law in 1998 criminalising the trokosi practice, hundreds of girls and women are believed to be still held in several shrines. It is ironic that discussion on African unity is being discussed in Ghana where women and girls are being held as slaves for life. The African leaders should include seriously looking into and abolishing practices such as trokosi that enslave women and girls and infringe on their dignity and well-being.

Another advantageous point highlighted in the continental proposal is how Africa will be in a stronger position in trade agreements with non-Africans; and how this will bring greater benefits to the peoples of Africa. By and large, women remain the majority of those tilling Africa’s productive lands, and thus are responsible for produces that feed Africa and beyond. Alas they remain the poorest with no control over the lands they till and the crops they harvest.

For the African peoples to prosper, it is necessary that African leaders take the logical action to get rid of all the customary practices that continue to limit women’s potentials to inherit and own land. As they deliberate on serious discussion on ways to realise the United African States, they also need to recognise the need to have a roadmap for placing women’s economic empowerment in the front for actualisation of Africa’s growth and development.

In July 2003, our African leaders adopted the protocol on the rights of women which aims to address the many injustices that African women suffer from, including those discussed here, and which reduce their potentials to effectively contribute to the development and wellbeing of the African population. Four years later, only 21 countries (39 per cent) out of the 53 member states of the African Union have ratified it.

The majority of the member states are lagging behind in their commitment to women to enjoy the rights recognised in the protocol, which stands for the minimum standard of rights that African women would accept and so in their Accra deliberations the African leaders need not only to reaffirm their commitment to uphold the rights provided in the protocol but to also declare that it will be the premise from which African women’s rights will be advanced. For them to win the confidence of African women that they can undertake and deliver on huge projects like a continental government, they must first come out with a plan for the implementation of the articles of the protocol throughout the continent within a one year period. A United African States will be possible ifAfrica’s women are with you!

* Faiza Jama Mohamed is the Africa Regional Director of Equality Now and convener of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) coalition.

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