Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The year 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing, China, in 1995, and processes to review the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) are gaining momentum. Recently, a southern African intergovernmental Sub-Regional Meeting for the decade review of the BPFA was held in Lusaka, Zambia, from 26 to 28 April 2004 under the auspices of the southern Africa Office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in collaboration with the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Prior to the sub-regional review meeting, representatives of women's human rights, women's empowerment and gender and development non-governmental organisations from eleven countries met in Lusaka, Zambia on 25 April 2004, at a special session devoted specifically to reviewing the achievements, challenges and opportunities in the implementation of BPFA. The objective of the working session, which was convened by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), Women in Development Southern Africa Awareness programme (WIDSAA) in collaboration with the Non Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council (NGOCC) in Zambia, was to consolidate civil society input to the intergovernmental decade review meeting.

The NGO meeting achieved their objective by producing a communiqué, which was presented to the sub-regional intergovernmental decade review meeting. The communiqué outlined constraints and challenges encountered in implementing the 12 critical areas outlined in BPFA.

While acknowledging the region's progresses, the Gender NGOs expressed deep concern about the rapid spread of HIV infection in the SADC countries and the millions of deaths caused by AIDS, which they described as a testimony to the continued unequal power relations between women and men.

The communiqué highlighted several constrains and challenges hampering the implementation of the 12 critical areas of concern outlined in the BPFA as obstacles to the advancement of women and gender equality. Key among the constraints is the failure to operationalise established gender equality frameworks and implement national and regional policies. A majority of countries in the regional have adopted national gender policies and developed attractive strategic plans for their implementations, but these have remained unimplemented. Reasons include a lack of financial and human resources.

The established mechanisms for the advancement of women have also been less productive due to unclear mandates, understaffing and limited skills in gender mainstreaming. Only a few experts have the requisite gender competencies and awareness on gender equality instruments to implement policies and assist in mainstreaming of gender.

Another major concern expressed was the misconception surrounding gender mainstreaming, which was reported to be hindering the promotion of gender equality.

To clear the current misunderstanding of the concept of gender mainstreaming, the NGOs in their communiqué called for a strong review of 'gender mainstreaming' at the continental, regional, national and civil society levels within countries and for the development of approaches that result in transformation, rather than mere reform, of the patriarchal structures.

“Gender mainstreaming has been simplistically defined as the social roles of women and men without any analysis of the unequal power relations within structures, which hinder women's effective participation. This interpretation of the approach has led to situations where gender mainstreaming is viewed as the sole responsibility of women, and it is seen as a 'favour', rather than as a strategic means to bring about gender justice and equality.

“We note with grave concern the misconceptions that have arisen around 'gender mainstreaming' as the identified approach to give women equal access to opportunities in all sectors. Some governments have interpreted the approach to mean mainstreaming 'traditional gender roles' whereby women are still unable to break through the 'glass ceilings' into decision-making positions,” read part of the communiqué.

Gender experts define gender mainstreaming as the (re) organisation, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and at all stages, by the actors normally involved in policy-making.

Gender mainstreaming means that gender equality is part of common policies and thus it (gender mainstreaming) implies a broader and more comprehensive definition of gender equality, giving value to differences and diversity. In stressing the need to (re) organise, improve, develop and evaluate policy processes, gender mainstreaming must be able to challenge the male bias that characterises society and the structural character of gender inequality. Mainstreaming must involve more and new actors in building a balanced society.

Concern about the the lack of gender specific job descriptions, and the limited knowledge on gender issues, was also expressed. This was coupled with low working morale that defeated the good intention behind established gender focal points in the ministries in most SADC countries. Personnel at these focus points are usually overburdened by other responsibilities, and in some cases lack gender-mainstreaming skills, thereby rendering them unable to influence policy changes in their respective sectors. These problems are compounded by the high turnover of gender specialists.

Recommendations regarding the other priority areas of concern in the BPFA were as follows:

* In order to effectively reduce the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, governments must make gender equality central to all strategies, polices and programmes.

* Declining economies and poverty remain big challenges for the region. It was recommended that by December 2006, women form no less than 50% of all bodies that make decisions on economic policy; and enact laws that guarantee that women form no less than 50 percent of the beneficiaries of land redistribution schemes and have access to and control over ownership of land in their own right.

* Recognising the high maternal mortality rates in the sub-region, provision of quality reproductive health services is paramount. It is recommended that user fees for all women including pregnant girls seeking health services be removed; that a broad range of female controlled protective devices such as microbicides and condoms be provided as contraception and protection from HIV and STIs and legislative reforming permitting access to safe and affordable delivery and abortion be effected.

* On gender violence, it was recommended that all SADC countries provide post sexual violence medical therapies for women and girls and especially those therapies that prevent and reduce the transmission of HIV and STIs; all countries enact legislation that criminalizes domestic violence and sexual offences committed in both the public and private spheres; all SADC countries ensure that they make and protect budgetary provisions for implementing measures to protect women and girls from violence; that governments enact stiffer penalties for all forms of sexual violence against the girl-child including trafficking, and protect girls from child labour.

* On women in decision-making positions, it was recommended that governments adopt measures within the framework of the elections which are unfolding in the region over the next 18 months, to fulfil the commitment of reaching the target of a minimum of 30 percent women in strategic political and decision making positions by December 2005; domesticate all regional and international instruments that are legally binding, and transform declarations into Protocols; and amend all constraints urgently to eliminate the provisions that currently exist for the discrimination of women and girls through customary and personal law.

* While recognising the growing acceptance of women's participation in decision-making, the NGOs recommended that governments make a concerted effort to: meet the African Union's target of 50% women in managerial and decision-making positions in all parastatals, public institutions, regional bodies, media institutions, the judiciary, the public service and trade unions; and enact special measures to increase women's participation in structures and policy-making processes at all levels.

* On women in the media, government and media were recommended to set targets for the advancement of women in the media; and set up an independent regulatory media authority to monitor the implementation of these targets. The media were also urged to develop editorial and employment policies which prohibit discrimination against women in the workplace, and ensure their promotion to key positions.

Lastly, Southern Africa - and the African continent - must begin to operate on a new gear, which ensures that all commitments agreed upon, including protocols and declarations signed, are adhered to. As the continent prepares for the African Union meeting in July, governments and heads of states that have not signed, ratified or acceded to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa must do so.

Few countries have so far signed, ratified or acceded to the Protocol, which holds lots of opportunities to squarely address a number of interconnected issues on violence against women, based on African women's experiences. The Protocol is crucial for enacting gender sensitive legislation that is rooted in local experience and responds concisely to women's lived realities.

* Barbara Lopi is Project Manager/Editor the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, Women in Development Southern Africa Awareness (SARDC WIDSAA) programme.

* Please send comments to

* NOTE FOR EDITORS: Please note that this editorial was commissioned from the author for Pambazuka News. While we are pleased that several print publications have used our editorials, we ask editors to note that if they use this article, they do so on the understanding that they are expected to provide the following credit: "This article first appeared in Pambazuka News, an electronic newsletter for social justice in Africa, Editors are also encouraged to make a donation.

Equality Now, which works for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world, recently launched a global Beijing + 10 campaign for the repeal of discriminatory laws with respect to the commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action.

To highlight the gap between women’s realities in countries around the world and the commitments made by governments ten years ago, Equality Now has issued 'Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing+10 Review Process' The report highlights a representative sampling of discriminatory laws in countries around the world and calls on their governments to rescind these laws in accordance with the commitment made in the Beijing Platform for Action. A number of African countries' laws (Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania) are included in the report, which is available at the website: