March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day that is recognized globally and in many countries celebrated as a public holiday. Its annual commemoration brings into sharp focus the contributions of women to the development efforts in all parts of the world. Bringing the focus closer home the International Women’s day has been used by many African leaders to give an account of what they have done successfully or otherwise to improve the lives of women and girls in their respective countries. Since its first commemoration in 1975 during the International Year for women and later throughout the global Women’s Decade (1976 – 1985) it was recognized internationally and in all regions of the world that women and girls were not equally enjoying their rights compared to men and boys. The purpose of the day therefore is to constantly remind men and women that without the fulfillment of women’s rights to equality, development and peace we cannot achieve sustainable progress for all.
Each year a theme is chosen at the international or national levels to guide the activities organized in commemoration of the day. The theme for the 2010 women’s day celebrations is: “Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all.” It is the most appropriate theme for the year as 2010 is the review of the implementation of the Beijing Commitments made to women by world leaders of 192 countries in 1995 at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women.
It is thirty–five (35) years since the first commemoration of the Women’s day. What is the significance of the celebration today? Apart from the usual singing and dancing, spending the meagre resources allocated to the national women’s machineries on the national celebration events, the staging of colourful parades and the attentive listening to the rhetoric of our leaders, what are we really celebrating on March 8th 2010? Have we achieved equal rights and equal opportunities for all women, or for men and women?
The response to this question is a resounding “No.” Despite the promises and commitments made by world leaders in four global conferences on Women to address the complex issues that deny women equal rights and opportunities the pace of change has been very slow. At the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995 the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) adopted as the blueprint or framework to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment goals as essential requirements for achieving progress for all. In March 2010 representatives of member states of the United Nations are meeting at the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to review the progress made in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA). It is fifteen years since Beijing. Have the daily realities of the lives of women and girls that make up more than half of the population of the world been transformed? The reality is that women especially in Africa are still waiting for the promises of Beijing to be realized in her life. SHAME!!!
Based on the findings of the progress review reports from Africa the gains are far below the expectations of women. The situation of the African woman has not indicated significant change in terms of the quality of life and the current global economic and financial crises, the prolonged conflicts and situations of insecurity in many parts of the continent plus the climatic changes affecting agricultural production and food security all combine to pose new threats to the sustainability of the gains. Inspite of the global focus on the reduction of poverty in the world, which in 2000 led to the adoption of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) majority of Africans are still living in poverty.
All countries in Africa have placed poverty reduction high on their respective agendas and have continued to heighten their actions and policies to address it especially in the last 15 years. However, more than 50% of the people in Africa are poor. According to the UNECA Report of 2009 forty four per cent (44%) of Africa’s population lives below the region-wide poverty line of $39 per capita per month. However, the extent and severity of poverty varies among the sub-regions. The least prevalent incidence of poverty is found in the North African sub-region where 22 per cent of the population lives below the sub-regional poverty line of $54 per capita per month. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 51 per cent of the population lives below the regional poverty line of $34 per capita per month. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the incidence of poverty in rural areas tends to be higher than that in urban areas. The majority of African women live in the rural areas engaged in agriculture and it is this sector which has the lowest levels of income growth thus having women as the majority of the poor people in Africa.
The key message for 2010 Women’s day celebrations is that the progress made in reducing gender gaps in several sectors and under each of the critical areas of concern highlighted in the BPfA is far below the expectations of the African woman. Fifteen years since Beijing majority of African women are still experiencing discrimination in their public and private lives. Many still experience poor health due to limited access to quality health services and poor economic capacity; majority are in low paying jobs in the informal sector with no provision for social protection. One in every three women in Africa experience some form of violence in their life time. The wars and conflicts on the continent continue to expose women to untold suffering and loss of livelihood due to prolonged periods of displacement and many have fled their countries as refugees and are living in squalid conditions with little hope of over seeing their homeland again. The patriarchal systems continue to perpetrate male dominance and control over resources combined with backward or outdated social and cultural practices remain the biggest threat to African women’s emancipation and advancement.
Women in low income brackets, internally displaced women, women with disabilities are often among the most affected by the discriminations that manifest in different forms. Many African women are denied equal rights in employment when they are paid less than men for similar or comparable work; they are denied promotions and training opportunities due to their reproductive roles and responsibilities; shut out of high paying jobs and occupations because of prejudices towards women in leadership; subjected to sexual harassment and abuse in their homes, communities and at their work places and penalized for taking time off time to attend to family emergencies or needs.
The 15 years’ Beijing Review is taking place on the heels of the commemoration of 30 years since the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979. CEDAW prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and includes guarantees to ensure that women and men enjoy their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights on an equal basis with men. CEDAW (Article 2 (f) further obligates States Parties to the Convention to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women. Fifty–one (51) countries in Africa have ratified CEDAW. The BPfA is one of the mechanisms through which specific actions were proposed by UN member states to stem out discrimination against women.
The failure to meet the Beijing commitments is a clear indicator that sustainable development cannot be achieved without the full recognition and respect for women’s rights as human rights. No commitment is worth the paper it is written on without actions to follow. Therefore, as we enter into the last five years of implementing the Beijing framework FEMNET is appealing to all African women to stand up and be counted by determining to shape the future of our continent and our own destiny. It is obvious from the experience of the last 15 years that nothing is going to change substantially without us being fully in charge of driving the change that we desire to see. We have to stand up against the systemic oppression that denies us equal rights and opportunities.
The African Women’s Decade (AWD) (2010 – 2020) declared by the Heads of state and government in January 2009 presents to us a platform and opportunity to taking women’s rights in Africa a notch higher so that it is not just the privileged few that enjoy and benefit from the positive changes. One of the first and critical steps that we have to take is to recognize women’s agency. Secondly, women must take leadership at different levels and ensure the implementation of governments’ commitment to women. Thirdly, we have to further strengthen our capacities to take actions collectively and individually at all levels as a key component of our broader strategy for achieving systems change which requires the conscious involvement of different actors. As Mahatma Gandhi rightly said “whatever you do may seem insignificant to the struggle, but it is most important that you do it and do it well.” It is the sum total of all our actions that will bring us closer to the achievement of equal rights and opportunities for women for the progress of all.
Freedom and emancipation has to start from within. It is not imposed from outside. African women this is out time to use our strength in numbers, our creativity, resilience and various capacities to achieve what is rightly ours.
African women who have benefited from the gains of the last fifteen years must determine on this year’s International women’s day to open a new page and lead by the examples of those who came before us in this struggle for equal rights and opportunities for women. The struggle though must be without violence. However our strategies must focus on dismantling the powers of patriarchy that hold many women in slavery and ignorance of their potential. We have to combine these efforts with improving the mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the impact of our actions by setting clear benchmarks for each year of the Africa Women’s Decade. As Roselyn Musa of AWDF noted in one of her articles on the ADWF website “It is evident that we would not be able to make much progress without a framework of knowing if and what progress we are making towards transforming the lives of African women for the better. Advocacy has to be accompanied by monitoring progress at different phases of the decade.”
Throughout the women’s decade they must write a different story. Adequate funding is very crucial to making our dreams to come true. Therefore, we commend the efforts of the African Union for the setting up a Women’s Trust Fund. This will be an additional source of the much needed resources for programs aiming to contribute to the achievement of equal rights and opportunities for women and girls. Africa grown initiatives to increase resources available for women’s rights work like the Africa Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), Urgent Action Fund – Africa and the numerous ones that exist at the national and local levels must be sustained through our contributions in addition to those attracted form other international sources.
The gender machineries at the country level, which are mandated with the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment, have to be strengthened during the Africa Women’s Decade in order to deliver reasonably on their agenda. African women must resist the current trends of submerging the gender entities with many other under- resourced departments within governments. Gender machineries must remain strong entities, with strategic positioning within governments in order to have a clear voice within the decision making structures at the highest level. They must be led by competent personnel at ministerial and departmental levels with a track record of work on gender equality and women’s empowerment. They must be allocated adequate resources needed to fulfill their wide and complex mandate and provide technical support to other ministries on how to use a two–pronged approach to gender mainstreaming. The resources must be adequate to support comprehensive monitoring of all other ministries and government institutions on the impact of their actions and programs on the lives of both women and men. The existing frameworks for monitoring and evaluation of women’s rights issues which be integrated in overall monitoring mechanisms.
Ten years may give the illusion of a long time, but the reality is that time flies. With one wink of the eye the decade is here and with another it will be gone. It is our commitment, determination and resolve that will make the decade goals a reality. We must be able to look back with pride and congratulate each other with a pat on the back for having made the best use of this unique opportunity. Therefore on this Women’s day celebration we call upon all African women to hit the ground running.
Women and girls’ empowerment and creating an environment that is conducive to the realization of our full potential is a responsibility of not only governments but everyone in decision and policy making positions and every man and woman in Africa and the world over. FEMNET calls upon all actors, government, media, civil society organizations, the private sector, and most especially religious institutions to contribute to building an ideal society based on the principle of equal rights and equal opportunities for all. THIS WAY WE SHALL SECURE PROGRESS FOR ALL.
Some of the things that must achieve during the AWD include:
- The universal ratification and full implementation of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol).
- The review and amendment of all laws, policies and practices that are discriminatory against women and girls;
- Unity of actors to end all forms of violence against women and girls in Africa
- Building a strong team of Eminent persons that are committed to the advancement of women as one of the critical goals and indicators for sustainable development
Share with us stories on your activities during international women’s Day. Send your stories to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy International Women’s Day!!
African Women’s Development and Communication Network