This 10 December marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, it is more than a global birthday. The anniversary is a pertinent way to take stock of what the Declaration and the movement for human rights in general has meant for African women. At the time of the Declaration’s founding the notion of a common humanity – and with presumed, unqualified rights – was unheard of. Now, on its 60th birthday, Africa has its first female president.
This 10 December marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, it is more than a global birthday. The anniversary is a pertinent way to take stock of what the Declaration and the movement for human rights in general has meant for African women.
The year of its founding, 1948, is itself significant for human rights: that year saw the establishment of the apartheid state in South Africa, as well as the declaration of Israel as a country. The premise that every person is a human being is still a revolutionary and unfulfilled notion in many quarters of the world – through either poverty, dispossession, or the historically non-human status accorded to non-white people.
African women have the anomaly of being a majority population group in many countries, but with the status, dispossession and stigma of an oppressed minority. Accesses to resources play a key role in the self-empowerment that can guarantee women’s rights.
At the time of the Declaration’s founding the notion of a common humanity – and with presumed, unqualified rights – was unheard of. Now, on its 60th birthday, Africa has its first female president. Female deputy presidents are not unheard of and a significant number of women serve in top government posts (with Rwanda having the largest number of female parliamentarians in the world).
The 60-year walk of the Declaration can also be seen in the life of Nevanathem Pillay, the recently appointed United Nations (UN) Rapporteur on Human Rights, the highest-profile international human rights post in the world. Pillay’s life tells the other side of the African human rights movement – as the first black woman to open a legal practice in apartheid South Africa, she made her name as a human rights lawyer defending detainees.
Pillay went on to head the UN Court trying the masterminds of Rwanda’s genocide, where she was instrumental in securing judgments that gave the world the first legal tests for rape as a crime against humanity and act of genocide. Her life is a fitting example of how the struggle for equal rights for African women has direct implications on women’s lives.
With the Declaration’s plain-language talk of “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights,” the promise of human rights often represents a way of organising civic and public life – in other words, an appeal to government to guard the rights of the citizenry.
The Declaration deals with a range of rights - marriage, property ownership, citizenship, free speech, freedom of movement, equal treatment and freedom from fear. For many women these rights are not about their relations with the outside world, but the oppression they encounter daily within their own homes.
The history of the Declaration invokes the nostalgia of the golden age of African leadership and the towering presence of the progressive fathers of the independence era: Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Augustinho Neto and Frantz Fanon.
Their ideas of freedom – and by extension the freedom of women – is regularly invoked, but often as a way to bestow legitimacy on African leaders who are decidedly anti-progressive, anti-women, and often recalling the worst of colonialism in how they treat their citizens. However, it is the core of progressive and leftist African political thought that needs to be built, if there is to be any progress for African women.
Human rights and rights for women do not happen in a vacuum. Fundamental to ensuring progressive, positive change, is access to resources for ordinary people and the fair allocation in resource distribution.
Access to resources, provision of resources, the deliberate withholding and skewed distribution of resources, is fundamentally linked to issues of conflict. Uneven distribution of resources and looting of country’s wealth has been at the heart of modern African wars and conflicts – and women have consistently been its most visible, brutalised victims.
In recent years, there have been significant finds of resources in Africa – particularly oil. Notwithstanding the neo-colonialism and exploitation of big companies who work in the resource industry, African governments have consistently refused to use their newfound wealth to benefit their local population, instead seeing governance as a way to display their corruption and venality.
At the same time, there is little organised local pressure on African governments to behave better – or to call them to account. Articulating clear political programmes and progressive campaigns is often absent from the heart of African electioneering in its contests to gain positions which will facilitate personal campaigns of thieving of the country’s resources.
This has direct relevance to ensuring equal treatment of women in a country. Women’s rights do not happen without ensuring other rights being. That is why women’s rights – and human rights in general - will never truly be a reality when so many African leaders (and religious figures and African populations in general) proudly flaunt their despicable anti-gay hate speech.
Women’s rights can never be guaranteed if parliament is a shortstop to grand theft – and there is no infrastructure to support women’s health programmes, literacy and practical medical needs (including reproductive health and access to abortions).
Women’s rights can never be spoken of unless there are real education programmes – which allow people to know more about their world, have better economic circumstances and have the space to make better, more informed choices for their lives.
There will never be human rights as long as women are unable to access support and services that help them to own property, seek credit, leave abusive situations, care for their health, and the whole range of options that men are often able to easily access, while women are not. And this means government commitments to making resources available to do so – financing programmes and strategies designed to empower women.
For centuries, Africans have struggled against racism, slavery and colonialism. It’s now time for African governments to start seeing their own populations as human with the rights inherent to being a human being – and the easiest place to judge them would be how they treat the majority section of their citizens - women.
* Karen Williams is a journalist who works in Africa and Asia. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism