Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

In July 2003 African Heads of States adopted the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa at their summit in Maputo (full text of the Protocol is available at A little over a year later only four countries (The Comoros, Libya, Rwanda and Namibia) have ratified it. This is far from the required 15 ratifications for the Protocol to come into force.

One might ask why ratification of the Protocol is so important and what value it brings to African women. The Protocol offers women in Africa not only a bill of rights that addresses issues in the African context, but it also obligates states to take action and allocate resources to ensure that African women enjoy these rights. The Protocol offers a concrete blueprint to go beyond lip service and make states’ undertakings accountable. These rights will however remain fictitious until member states of the African Union ratify and implement the Protocol into their domestic legislation.

Amongst the rights articulated in the Protocol is the right in Article 5 “not to be subjected to harmful traditional practices including female genital mutilation (FGM)”. Female genital mutilation is a harmful traditional practice that afflicts an estimated 130 million girls and women around the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 6,000 girls per day are subjected to FGM around the world but mostly in Africa.

It is a practice that translates into the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), or in its most extreme form the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva (infibulation). The cutting is done generally without anesthetic and those who survive it experience lifelong health consequences including chronic infection, severe pain during menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth, and psychological trauma.

Communities that practice FGM defend it as a rite of passage and a social prerequisite of marriage. But it is also used as a way to control women’s sexuality by safeguarding virginity and suppressing sexual desire. We, at Equality Now (, an international human rights organization that works to promote and protect the human rights of women around the world, consider FGM a human rights violation and an extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls. We welcome the Protocol as a new tool that has potential effectiveness in protecting the human rights of women in Africa.

What the Maputo Protocol offers is a comprehensive set of provisions that create a framework for putting an end to harmful practices. It goes beyond a call to ending harmful traditional practices such as FGM and directs member states to take concrete action by:

- criminalizing the practice and bringing to justice those who perpetrate it,
- providing counseling support and treatment to victims of FGM,
- initiating public awareness-raising campaigns to end the practice, and
- intervening to prevent FGM cases thereby saving girls before it happens to them.

African states must indeed urgently take responsibility to follow through with these obligations. Burkina Faso offers a good case in point, and is leading the way in the fight against FGM. Burkina Faso criminalized FGM in 1996 and followed that with national campaigns to inform its people about the law and why FGM must be ended. It also offered help-lines for potential victims and concerned citizens to reach the authorities in good time to prevent the crime, and has put in place harsh punishment to de-motivate those still persistent to carry on with it. Furthermore, arrests and prosecutions of those responsible for subjecting girls to FGM were and continue to be publicized through the media to discourage potential perpetrators. As a result, Burkina Faso has seen the prevalence rate of FGM fall considerably over the years.

In some other African countries, even though they have adopted legislation to ban FGM, they have not followed through with the full program of rights set out in the Protocol and so have not produced similar results as those in Burkina Faso.

To save the thousands of girls affected each day by this harmful practice (and 6,000 girls is an enormous number with which to contend), African governments have an affirmative duty not to delay any further the ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women.

During September 16 to 18, Kenya is hosting an international conference on FGM titled "Developing a Political, Legal and Social Environment to implement the Maputo Protocol”. Hon. Linah Kilimo, Kenyan Minister for Home Affairs, and a long time activist against FGM is leading the meeting and has secured President Kibaki's support for it. At the end of the conference, it is anticipated that the President or his Foreign Minister would officially hand over Kenya's instrument of ratification to the Chair of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, who is invited. If this plan succeeds, Kenya would be the fifth country to ratify the Protocol following Namibia, which ratified it last month, and thereby laying out a legal framework to fight the practice and preserve the human rights of Kenyan women and girls.

Kenya appears to be on track and other African states also need to follow the example of the Comoros, Libya, Rwanda and Namibia in formally expressing their commitment to the human rights of women in Africa. As the continent next month gathers at the Seventh Conference on Women’s Rights in Addis Ababa to review progress made in honoring commitments undertaken in Beijing and Dakar 10 years ago, ratifying the Protocol on the Rights of Women could well serve as an achievement to bring to the table.

* Faiza Jama Mohamed is the Africa Regional Director of Equality Now

* Please send comments to [email protected]