A major initiative aimed at achieving gender equality in Africa is underway. The African Women’s Decade (2010-2020) has been adopted by the African Union (AU), the continental organization that encompasses 53-member states.
This decade of struggle has been initiated by the Women and Gender Development Directorate of the AU. A series of declarations, protocols and conventions have been adopted over the last several years aimed at achieving the full representation of women in the politics and national economies on the continent.
One such resolution called the Solemn Declaration, urges member states in the AU to carry out programs to end violence against women. On January 30 the AU began the Africa Unite Campaign to end Violence Against Women.
In preparation for the official launching of the African Women’s Decade on October 15, which is also World Rural Women’s Day, the AU’s Women Gender and Development Directorate offered courses from February 8 through 19 at the Commission Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The two weeks of courses were offered in both English and French.
These courses involved 25 delegates from Ministries of Gender, Finance and Economic Development of various member states. A skillfully selected set of course materials advanced theoretical and practical tools designed to fully integrate gender issues into the overall economic policies on the African continent.
According to a document released by the Women, Gender and Development Directorate on the rationale and general objectives of the Decade of Women, it states that “To date the women of Africa, like women elsewhere, have not been included as full, equal and effective stakeholders in processes that determine their lives. For example, women continue to have less access to education than men; they continue to have less employment and advancement opportunities; their role and contribution to national and continental development processes are neither recognized nor rewarded; they continue to be absent from decision-making; and, although they bear the brunt of conflicts, women are generally not included in peace negotiations or other initiatives in this regard.” (African Union, March 1, 2010)
Current Status of Women in Africa
Even though the legacies of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism created extreme social inequalities for women on the African continent and throughout the Diaspora, significant progress has been made over the last two decades. One observer from afar made the following statement in regard to the status of women in Africa that “When you look at women’s involvement in government it seems like they are ahead of even the United States in terms of power sharing between the sexes.” (Feminists for Choice, Dec. 3, 2009, Comment from Andrea)
This observer continued by pointing out that “Liberia inaugurated Africa’s first female president in 2006. Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a leader in her country’s peace movement. She defeated a soccer star with nearly 60% of the vote.”
This writer goes on to illustrate that “In other African nations, women make up a significant part of their governments. Rwanda leads all nations in this regard with 48.8% of its parliament being women. Other African nations with high percentages of women in government include Mozambique at 34.8%, South Africa at 32.8% and Tanzania at 30.4%. It makes our government (U.S.) seem quite inadequate on the gender equity frontlines. In the U.S. Congress women only hold 17% of the seats.” (Feminists for Choice, 2010 Declared African Women Decade)
These gains stem from the policy initiatives proposed by various women’s organizations on the African continent that have been adopted by governments and the AU. National mechanisms have been established designed to mainstream women’s issues into the policies, plans and programs of government.
Nonetheless, these mechanisms for the full integration of women into government and national economic decision-making processes have been stalled as a result of the lack of funding as well as continuing resistance by male-dominated state structures that are reinforced by the world imperialist system. The current global economic crisis has disproportionately affected Africa and consequently the status of women.
The rise in food prices, the decline in export earnings for commodities and the impact of climate change has impacted African women severely. In sub-Saharan African states, the production of agricultural commodities make up 21 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and women are responsible for 60-80 percent of the food supply. Yet the income generated by this economic activity is not equitably distributed to women.
Mary Wandia said in a recent article that “While states have failed to fulfill their commitments, they are undermining regional and international standards by introducing anti-human rights bills. Several governments have adopted or are in the process of adopting discriminatory legislation reversing fundamental women’s rights including, but not limited to, bills on criminalization of HIV, indecent dressing laws and anti-homosexuality bills. These bills violate various rights: The right to privacy and confidentiality, the right to sexual integrity and autonomy, the right to bodily integrity, freedom from discrimination, the right to health, the right to equal protection before the law, freedom of association, sexual and reproductive rights, freedom of choice, the right to life, etc.” (Pambazuka News, Nov. 19, 2009)
In regard to land redistribution policy, the contradiction between the stated aims of gender equality and the continuing role of customary law has hampered the efforts to improve the status of women. A recent thesis submitted at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden studied the impact of land reform in post-apartheid South Africa and ownership rights under traditional cultural norms within the society.
Annika Rudman in her study of South African land policy stated that “Taking as my starting point the new constitution, which came into force in 1997, I have examined the function and status of customary law in South African land reform, and have attempted to highlight the legal problems many black South African women have to deal with when they try to gain access to land through the new system.” (The Namibian, Feb. 26, 2010)
According to Rudman, traditional leaders have an important role to play in the land redistribution process by ensuring that customary law does not conflict with national governmental policy. The racist apartheid system allocated 87 percent of the productive land to the European settlers and relegated the most arid remaining land to the African population which constituted the overwhelming majority of people within the society.
The legal analyses emanating from Rudman’s work point to the relationship between land reform and the elimination of poverty among women. Her thesis places land redistribution within the context of national development. She asserts that traditional leaders must develop laws which mandate gender equality in line with the post-apartheid constitution adopted in 1997.
In neighboring Namibia, which was under the control of apartheid South Africa prior to 1990, the government will soon ratify the international convention on equal wages for men and women. A resolution passed by the cabinet on February 9 states that “Convention 100 (of the International Labor Organization) on Equal Remuneration of 1951 is the only ILO core convention that Namibia has not yet ratified.” ( Namibian Ministry of Information statement, Feb. 9)
This convention has been ratified by all of the member states of the regional organization, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as 44 other African states and 167 nations around the world.
African Women and Reconstruction of the Continent
Africa cannot effectively challenge and overcome centuries of exploitation and oppression without the liberation of women being a central aspect of the struggle for genuine political freedom and economic independence. In a recent gathering of the Socialist Forum of Ghana, this notion was emphasized in light of the ongoing challenges posed by neo-colonialism, where western imperialism continues to dominate the economic and political life on the continent.
In a talk delivered by Dr. Dzodi Tsikata, a Lecturer at the University of Ghana, Legon, on February 25, she stated that “The African woman will spearhead the march towards the New African that Dr. Nkrumah had evoked on the eve of Ghana’s political independence in 1957, the ‘New African’ who is conscious of the African personality. This concept is not associated with a particular state, language, religion, political system, or color of skin. It takes account of our diversity, the influence of Christianity, Islam and our African Traditions in our societies today.” (Ghana News Agency, Feb. 26, 2010)
Dr. Tsikata was addressing the Socialist Forum in commemoration of the Centenary celebrations marking the birth of former President Kwame Nkrumah and the 44th anniversary of the right-wing U.S.-engineered coup in 1966 against the socialist first Republic headed by Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP).
According to Dr. Tsikata, “The call for economic self-reliance, social justice, national cohesion, and greater continental integration is relevant now because sustainable economic development that impact on us with special economic development is still out of reach. This re-awakening, therefore, cannot happen without the active participation of African women in policy decisions.”