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What gains and what challenges do we have two years after the entry into force of the protocol? This is the overall question that the various articles presented in this special issue of Pambazuka aim at addressing. And what is clearly coming out is that the challenges outweigh the gains made so far, says Faiza Mohamed.

What gains and what challenges do we have two years after the entry into force of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa?

This is the overall question that the various articles presented in this special issue of Pambazuka aim at addressing. And what is clearly coming out is that the challenges outweigh the gains made so far. The articles which are mostly written by members of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) coalition, for the occasion of the second anniversary of the Protocol’s entry into force, bring out descriptive country situations with emphasis on the extent to which the Protocol is embraced or not embraced by the governments of Kenya, South Africa, the Sudan and Uganda; but there are also mention of regional/continental level perspectives looking at how far the Protocol has gained momentum as a recognized tools for action to protect the human rights of women.

The authors raise several key issues that beg closer attention if this Protocol is at all to make a meaningful difference in the lives of many African women.

1. Universal ratification of the Protocol – i.e. ratification by all the member states – is critical for all African women to equally have the benefit of its implementation. The majority of the countries (30) have not ratified and clearly this is a problem. If you consider women as representing 50% of the total population [1] (in some countries they are more than 50% but let us stick to 50% for now) of these 30 countries, then this would approximately translate to 260.7 million women and girls being denied the chance to claim their rights as provided in the Protocol. This is more than 50% of Africa’s female population and surely this should be of great concern to all of us!

2. Various stakeholders in any given country need to take ownership of the Protocol, chief among them being the state itself. Obviously, it has been left up to the civil society organizations and in particular women’s organizations to be the flag bearers and its nurturers. Where are the states that have adopted it and pledged to carry it through? Where are the Presidents who made a solemn declaration to deliver it to the women of Africa? What about mainstream human rights organizations? Should they too leave it to the women or should they also take responsibility to advocate for it and live up to it? What will it take to have these important stakeholders embrace the Protocol as their own? Ownership by all, and not just the women, is a critical factor for the success of the African women’s rights Protocol.

3. Reservations entered against any article of the Protocol are obstacles aimed at defeating the objectives for which it was created. Of the 23 countries that ratified the Protocol only two (The Gambia and South Africa) had put up some reservations. Recently Gambia removed its reservations leaving South Africa as the only country with reservations. On a closer look one could argue that South Africa’s reservations are not harmful ones. But the notion of a leading African state, whose standards are looked up to as a model in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, setting such a negative precedence (as reservations obviously carry that notion) is indeed worrying. Others would also argue that if a country, such as Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, want to ratify with reservations then let them do so because then their women will not be totally denied to benefit from the rest of the rights provided in the Protocol. And who knows, after some further advocacy work, they could come around as Gambia did to lift such reservations. These are important points to reflect on.

4. What is the added value of the African women’s rights Protocol? Clearly there is no doubt that it complements other international human rights instruments, such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), and many people would add that it also further provides rights that are well situated within the realities and needs of African women; but as the authors point out in their articles its value has not been exploited yet to reap the benefits it offers African women. As Delphine Serumaga states in her article on the situation in South Africa, “Women and the girl-child remain marginalized with regards to access to basic human rights such as justice, safety and security, housing and health.” If the situation is as such in one of the most developed countries in Africa what can we imagine would the case be in the less advantaged countries? For African women to reap the value of the women’s rights Protocol, countries must domesticate it, must invest resources into mass education, as obligated under article 26 (2) of the Protocol (on implementation and monitoring), must encourage women to seek help at designated places when their rights are violated, and must ensure that the justice system delivers free from its, often alleged, patriarchy’s biases. Many states can learn from countries like Djibouti which has, not long ago, set up a help Center for women whose rights are abused and equipped it with a hotline service for women to immediately report violations; and then it follows through their cases in the courts. In a short while the Center managed several hundred cases which had a good impact on the attitudes of the public in appreciating the rights of women. This is one example of how member states could turn the Protocol into real value for women.

These and more issues are deliberated in the several articles that follow; and the critiques and ideas that are discussed to re-energize the campaign could serve as food for thought. SOAWR members are definitely going to deliberate on them, during their upcoming meeting in January 2008, so that the African women’s rights Protocol is translated into, to borrow Pamela Mhlanga’s words, “substantive rights” and not allowed to remain as “paper rights”!

Keep on reading……….

1 Source of population data: US Census Bureau

* 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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