The Protocol guarantees comprehensive rights to women and provides a formidable legal framework to address the violence and discrimination against them. It was informed by African realities and negotiated by Africans for Africans.
It calls for the elimination of discrimination against women through a raft of prescribed interventions. It prohibits all forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) as well as other harmful practices. It recognizes the particular vulnerability of certain groups of women including elderly women and women with disabilities. The right of women to peace and their participation in the promotion and maintenance of peace is upheld. It also promotes the rights of women to live in a positive cultural context.
By ratifying the Protocol, Sierra Leone has made a progressive move towards legal protection that will complement national laws relating to women and girls. According to the Human Development Report (2014), Sierra Leone’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) value of 0.643 ranks it at 139 out of 149 countries.
Only 12.4% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and 9.5% of adult women have reached at least a secondary level of education, compared to 20.4% of their male counterparts. Mismanagement of the country’s vast natural resources has contributed to a civil war that broke out in 1991, leaving the country devastated. More than 50,000 people lost their lives, over two million were displaced and the country’s infrastructure destroyed. On the course of recovery, the Ebola outbreak has led the country into a humanitarian crisis and further weakened the economy.
Other African states have made significant inroads too in ensuring the rights in the Protocol are accessed by girls and women. On January 30, 2015, Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, proceeded to sign the instrument at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, during the 24th African Union Heads of State Summit. This means that of the 54 member states of the African Union, 37 countries have now signed and ratified, meaning they are legally obliged to uphold it. 17 have yet to ratify and only two countries – Botswana and Egypt – have not signed at all.
There have been commendable initiatives too on a regional level. Last year, the African Union launched a campaign to end child marriage in ten African countries, opening up an opportunity for dialogues on practices such as child marriage and FGM, which grossly violate the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls.
The expected change has already started to happen. Malawi set the pace this year by banning child marriage – a traditional practice that has seen half the country’s girls end up as child brides. One female chief took it upon herself to annul over 300 child marriages and asked them to return to school. It is actions such as these, happening on the ground, which show the force needed to bring the Protocol to life.
Sexual violence has been a complex challenge, but progress is also being achieved. In April this year, following a campaign by Equality Now and others, Sudan finally repealed a law that would subject victims of rape being put on trial for adultery – a crime that would lead to the victim being jailed, flogged or even stoned. The Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) coalition continues to advocate for the country of Sudan to ratify the Protocol, but commends the efforts being put in place to address the discrimination of women.
Kenya also set a national precedent in April, when three men were convicted and sentenced to 15 years for rape, and seven years for causing grievous bodily harm to “Liz”, a 16-year-old girl, who was gang-raped and left for dead in Busia County in 2013. The case testified to the difficulties faced by women and girls trying to seek justice and reparations. In a more recent development, the government of Kenya was ordered to award damages amounting to close to $50,000 USD to two minors, defiled by a teacher five years ago.
The African continent faces economic, social and political challenges, but political will often demonstrates that these are not insurmountable. In Nigeria, while all citizens have borne the brunt of the jihadist group Boko Haram’s uprising against the government and its people, there has been indiscriminate abuse and violations subjected extensively and particularly against women.
While the former President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was considered to have failed to effectively address the Boko Haram insurgency, in a bold exit move, he also left a legacy for the women of Nigeria, when he signed the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 on May 25, 2015. The Act prohibits FGM, spousal battery, among other violations.
With progress being made by brave and determined people in many countries, the Africa we want for our girls and women, boys and men, is getting closer by the day.
* Kavinya Makau is Program Officer with Equality Now. She leads the organization's work with the Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) coalition. Kavinya is a lawyer and has engaged in Pan-African women’s human rights advocacy in a wide range of areas including, peace-building, transitional justice, the intersection between HIV & AIDS and Violence Against Women in conflict situations.
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