Africa: Enforcing the protocol on the rights of African women is a challenge

Pambazuka News
The adoption of the Protocol in July 2003 was undeniably an important event in the history of African women's struggle for the recognition of their rights.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women was adopted by the Conference of the Heads of State and Government (the Conference) at the African Union (AU) meeting in Maputo.
This Protocol, the fruits of exemplary collaboration between the African Commission for Human and People's Rights (the Commission) and civil society organisations, was identified as a priority for the promotion and protection of the rights of African women during a workshop in March 1995 on women's rights, organised by the Commission, in collaboration with Women in Law and Development in Africa/Femmes, Droit et Développement en Afrique(WiLDAF/FeDDAF) and the International Commission of Jurists, based in Geneva.

The workshop recommended that a protocol on women's rights should be established and a Special Rapporteur on the rights of women should be nominated. The Conference of the former Organisation of African Unity (OAU) mandated the Commission to initiate and coordinate the process of developing a preliminary draft of the protocol. A working group was put in place to propose a text. Since the beginning, the process has been very participatory.

Civil society organisations mobilized themselves to enrich the first version written by the working group. This mobilization increased during the process, as more and more organisations became interested in all steps of the development of the protocol. The numerous ups and downs that punctuated the process sometimes worried civil society members. The long wait between the first and the second meetings, due to successive postponement of the second one, and in the absence of a quorum, was one of the most difficult moments.

However, the lobbying efforts of civil society and the determination of the officers of the African Union responsible for the file resulted in the second meeting of experts. This was followed by a meeting of ministers implicated in the process, who succeeded in registering the protocol on the agenda of the Council of Ministers in July 2003. Eight years after the beginning of the process, the protocol was thus finally adopted by Heads of State.

I relive the joy manifested by the lobby of women's organisations at the announcement of the protocol's adoption, and salute the cooperation that coalesced between certain commissioners and these women. But nobody was fooled! Once the protocol was adopted, there remained many equally important steps to take: to obtain the necessary signatures and ratifications for its entry into force and to respond to the challenge of its effective implementation.

One year on, where are we at in the process? Thirty signatures and one ratification had been registered by 15 June 2004, less than three weeks before the next AU Heads of State and Government Conference. Twelve of the signatory countries are in West Africa, eight in East African and five in southern Africa. Lobbying work must continue in all the regions of Africa, particularly in Central and North Africa, where only three and two signatures, respectively, have been registered. It is important to note that we are still far, very far, from the 15 ratifications necessary for the entry into force of the protocol. And the question of its ratification must absolutely, in one-way or another, be added to the agenda of the July 2004 Summit in Addis-Ababa, in the interests of women, African populations and the African Union.

But why is ratification of the protocol so important?

For African women, the entry into force of the protocol will be an essential step towards the recognition of their rights, the daily violations of which are the source of immense suffering. The protocol will offer, following the example of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) a legal framework of reference, allowing diverse actors, as well as the population, to daily work towards the effective respect of women's rights. But, in addition to CEDAW, the legal framework of the protocol reflects specific violations to African women. Its preamble justifies the adoption of the protocol by the existence of discriminations against women and harmful traditional practices, despite commitments taken by States at regional and international levels. It also expresses leaders' formal support to the principle of equality between men and women.

In addition to these declarations, the protocol contains provisions to respond to problems as crucial as the multiple violations of rights in marital relations, violence and grave risks to the life, physical and moral integrity, and security of women and girls, the pressing reality of which we cannot deny in our societies. The entry into force of the protocol offers an invaluable framework to end violations against civilian, refugee and combatant women and children, particularly girls, in periods of conflict, and to uphold the challenge of peace in Africa, a condition sine qua non of development.

The fight against traditional practices harmful to the health of women and girls needs the protocol, which provides guidelines for eliminating them. Economic and social rights as vital as the right to health, including reproductive health, to education and to inheritance rights for widows and girls, which are daily transgressed out of ignorance or deliberately, would be better protected if actions taken could rely on adequate measures, such as those recommended in the protocol. Definitively, there is no doubt that, in the interests of hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Africa, the protocol on women's rights must be ratified as quickly as possible.

For African populations and societies, the absence of a legal framework of reference to fight against violations of women's rights currently constitutes a real handicap for the optimal participation of women in the development of their countries and of Africa, even though they constitute more than 50% of the population of the continent.

Finally, the credibility of the AU, which demonstrated its commitment to promote women's participation and gender equality, notably through parity in the AU Commission and in the equitable representation of Judges of the African Court for Human and People's Rights, rests on proving its coherence and consistency by implementing the protocol without delay. By doing so, the AU and its member States will show the world that, for them also, women's rights are truly an integral part of human rights, and that they are determined to promote and protect them without any discrimination.

The imminent entry into force of the protocol will mark, in sum, a decisive step towards entrenching a culture of respect and exercise of the human rights of women in African societies. For all these reasons, every human rights defender, man or woman, should feel concerned and lobby governmental and parliamentary authorities in order to convince them to ratify the protocol on women's rights and take steps for its effective implementation. Our mothers, our daughters and our sisters, including those who are rarely accustomed to demand their rights, cry for help in a meaningful silence, but are often too quickly assimilated into resignation. It depends on each person to ensure that the voice of the voiceless are finally heard by those who are responsible for the fate of African populations.

* Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson is the Coordinator of Women in Law and Development in Africa, West Africa

Cross-posted from: The Norwegian Council for Africa