Tracing the Birth of and Advocacy for the Ratification and Implementation of the AU Protocol on Women’s Rights - Mary Wandia*
11 years ago, on the 11th of July 2014, The African Union (AU) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa was adopted. It is also known as the ‘Maputo Protocol’ alluding to the city where it was adopted, or the African Women’s Protocol (hereafter referred to as the Protocol). The Protocol addresses comprehensively, for the first time, women’s human rights in Africa and state obligations to uphold, protect and promote them. The Protocol enumerates a broad range of women’s rights, including the elimination of discrimination against women, the right to dignity, the right to life, the integrity and security of the person, the protection of women in armed conflicts, the right to education and training, economic and social welfare rights and health and reproductive rights. The main focus of the paper below is to provide a historical overview of the adoption, ratification and implementation of the Protocol and the role that the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR) has played. The paper concludes with a highlight of achievements that can be attributed to SOAWR’s interventions.
Tracing the Birth of and Advocacy for the Ratification and Implementation of the AU Protocol on Women’s Rights - Mary Wandia*
The development of a Protocol on women’s rights in Africa was triggered by the outcome of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, Austria, in 1993 that emphasized, “The human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of the universal human rights”. Thus the slogan that emerged from Vienna: Women's Rights are Human Rights.
Several meetings took place starting with one organised by Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) in March 1995 in Lomé, Togo. The meeting called for the development of a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (The Charter) on women’s rights. Consequently, informed by the realisation that the Charter as adopted in 1981 had not addressed women’s human’s rights adequately, the OAU in June 1995 mandated the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) to elaborate a Protocol on the rights of women in Africa.
The first Draft was prepared by an experts' group meeting organised by the ACHPR and the International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) in April 1997 and submitted to the 22nd Session of the ACHPR in October 1997. The draft was also circulated to NGOs for comments and was enriched by various meetings that followed. The ACHPR forwarded the Draft Protocol to the OAU Secretariat in 1999. The Inter Africa Committee (IAC) and ACHPR met to merge the Draft Convention on Traditional Practices with the Draft Protocol in 2000 and then submitted the draft to OAU policy organs for adoption.
The first OAU Government Experts Meeting reviewed and amended the Draft Protocol in 2001 and called on the OAU to schedule a second AU experts meeting in 2002 to consider the draft before it was presented to the OAU ministerial meeting for adoption. However, that was not to be as the OAU did not manage to achieve the mandatory quorum in 2002. African women’s organisations with support from United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) (Now UN Women) attended as observers. The African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) noted that the draft Protocol was way below international standards on women’s rights. FEMNET subsequently established an e-mail list serve that enabled the dissemination of the draft, discussion and formulation of inputs to address the gap. Equality Now integrated and tracked the proposals received in the Draft Protocol.
That was followed by the convening of African women’s organisations by Equality Now Africa Regional Office in collaboration with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) and FEMNET in January 2003. The meeting pooled proposals and integrated them into a Draft Protocol highlighting weak provisions and proposing language in a collective mark-up to align it with international standards. A multi-pronged advocacy strategy for the adoption of the proposals by the AU Secretariat and member states was also developed. After the meeting, the organisations met AU Secretariat officials and successfully advocated for the experts and ministerial meetings on the Protocol to be scheduled for March 2003.
Thereafter, the organisations embarked on national level advocacy targeting ministries of Justice and Gender to: adopt the proposals to strengthen the draft, confirm their participation in the AU experts and ministerial meetings, commit to send delegates with legal and human rights expertise from their capitals and to include women’s rights organisations in the official delegations.
Prior to the Experts and Ministerial Meetings Equality Now's Africa Regional Office convened a second meeting of women's rights activists and organizations and an informal meeting with Permanent Representatives to the African Union, in order to ensure that the substantive provisions of the draft Protocol were strengthened during the experts and ministerial meetings.
This resulted in a significantly improved draft Protocol that not only met but superseded international human rights standards on women’s rights as discussed in other sections in this publication. The Draft was subsequently adopted on July 11, 2003 by the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government. The advocacy by women’s organisations represents a successful model of cooperation among national, regional and international women's NGOs with concrete results, namely the strengthening of the final text of The Protocol.
Advocacy for Ratification and the Birth of the SOAWR Coalition
Protocols and treaties of the AU enter into force thirty days after the deposit of the fifteenth instrument of ratification. By March 2004, only one member state of the AU-The Comoros- had ratified it. Clearly, the process of ratification was proceeding slowly and urgent actions were needed to promote, protect and realise the rights of women. Noting that trend, four organisations came together to reflect on how to build the momentum gained from advocacy for adoption to demand for ratification. Consequently, 17 organisations -national, regional, international-that had advocated for the adoption of the Protocol joined together to form a coalition-Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) and its membership has since grown to 44 organisations spread out across 24 African states on the continent. Since 2004, SOAWR has focussed on the ratification, popularisation, domestication and implementation of the Protocol. The coalition designed several campaigns for the ratification of the Protocol.
The first was the launch of the first ever mobile phone short text service/message campaign dubbed “text now 4 women’s rights”. Mobile phone users across the world sent short text from their mobile phones to sign an online petition in support of a campaign urging African governments to ratify the Protocol. A total of 511 SMS messages in support of the petition were received from 29 African countries, while more than 1000 people signed up to an SMS alert list in order to receive updates about the campaign .
The technology enabled thousands of African cell phone users to join the campaign and receive updates on the progress of ratification. Secondly, SOAWR issued an online call for articles in support of ratification of the Protocol that were published in a special issue of Pambazuka News “Unfinished Business” and circulated to all AU member states.
The ‘coloured cards campaign’ was the third strategy targeting Foreign Affairs Ministers at AU Summits. They received red, yellow or green cards depending on their status of ratification of the Protocol: red-card for states that had neither signed nor ratified; yellow-card for states that had signed but not ratified and; green card to honour states that had signed and ratified for their commitment to women’s rights.
The fourth strategy was joint fundraising by SOAWR to enable members to carry out national campaigns for ratification at national level. For example, Oxfam GB successfully raised funds to support SOAWR campaigns (under the Raising Her Voice Project) for ratification and/or implementation of the Protocol in seven countries; The Gambia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. The ratification by Uganda, the passage of violence against women legislation in Mozambique and Nigeria and the Women’s Bill in the Gambia are key achievements of that campaign.
Fifthly, SOAWR seized the privilege accorded to AU members states to host AU conferences and Summits to demonstrate their commitment to women’s right by ratifying the Protocol prior to the events. By way of example, in Kenya in 2010, prior to Kenya’s hosting of the launch of the AU Women’s Decade 2010-2020 ratification was secured by SOAWR members-FIDA-Kenya, Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW), FEMNET, and Equality Now Africa Regional Office.
Similarly, in Uganda, SOAWR members led by Akina Mama wa Afrika (AmWA) in collaboration with the National Africa Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Governing Council and support from other SOAWR members got commitment that Uganda would ratify the Protocol prior to the hosting of the AU Summit in Kampala in July 2010 which was achieved. In Equatorial Guinea, SOAWR members seized the opportunity of their presence in Malabo in July 2011 for the AU Summit to advocate for ratification of the Protocol. This yielded fruit when the Minister for Social Affairs and the Advancement of Women deposited the instrument of ratification with the Chairperson of the AU Commission in Malabo in the presence of SOAWR member-FEMNET.
The resilience of SOAWR members in advocating for the ratification of the Protocol explain its fast entry into force-18 months only following its adoption thereby breaking an AU record! -and the ever increasing number of ratifications that stood at 36 out of 54 AU member states as of March 2013. SOAWR is determine to achieve universal ratification and, in 2012, conducted a mapping study across countries that have not ratified 10 years since the Protocol was adopted by the AU. The study has highlighted the obstacles to ratification and made recommendations that have been incorporated into the coalition’s advocacy strategies.
Raising Awareness on the Protocol: Strategic Communications and Convenings
SOAWR has also invested in ensuring that citizens are aware of the contents of the Protocol in order to demand for its implementation. This has been achieved through various strategies. The first is publication of several books and special issues of Pambazuka News (online newsletter published by FAHAMU with wide reach in Africa and beyond). The publications developed through “Call for Articles” cover different themes on the Protocol such as the pre-ratification including “Journey to Equality: 10 Years of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa”, the Beijing+15 process and linkages between the Protocol and the Beijing Platform for Action, the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) etc. SOAWR also publishes a quarterly online newsletter in English, Arabic, French and Portuguese to disseminate members’ campaigns, challenges and progress and lessons learnt.
Secondly, SOAWR members have played a critical role in developing popular versions of the Protocol and translating and disseminating the Protocol in African languages in several countries. Thirdly, FEMNET and FAHAMU developed an award winning Radio Drama “Crossroads” that has been translated into seven languages and used across the continent-Kenya, Togo, Uganda, Senegal and Southern Africa. The Drama has been an effective tool to popularize the Protocol increasing awareness and demand for its ratification and implementation.
The fourth strategy is a focus on the Youth. SOAWR organized a youth essay competition led by Alliances for Africa, Equality Now, FAHAMU and FEMNET. Youth were asked to respond to the question “Why is the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa important to you?” in an essay of a maximum of 2000 words in English and French. The six winning essays were published on Pambazuka News. The winners were facilitated by SOAWR to attend the AU Summit in January 2012.
Fifth, SOAWR hosts and co-convenes with partners various public debates, meetings, cocktails to popularise the Protocol. SOAWR seizes the opportunities provided by the SOAWR Annual Strategy Review and Planning Meetings, the bi-annual AU Summits and anniversaries of the Protocol to organise Public events on the Protocol.
Finally, SOAWR has developed working relationships with different organs and offices of the United Nations and the AU as well as governments, jurists and parliamentarians at national level. Within the AU, SOAWR works with the ACHPR, The Pan African Parliament, the African Union Commission (Social Affairs, Office of the Legal Counsel and The Women Gender and Development Directorate). The partnerships have enabled SOAWR to provide technical support where necessary, co-host meetings and training sessions and develop joint strategies for the institutions to support member states to implement the Protocol or to domesticate the Protocol within their mandate. As demonstrated by partnerships around the publication of this book, SOAWR continues to invite and respond to invitations from other coalitions, networks and organisations to influence AU processes and decisions on women’s rights.
Bridging the Gap between Policies and the Reality of Women’s Lives: Advocacy for Domestication and Implementation The overarching aim of the Protocol is to enhance the enjoyment, protection and promotion of women’s human rights at national level. It is laudable that more than half of AU member states have ratified the Protocol. However, with the exception of Rwanda, the slow pace of implementation or lack thereof by states that have ratified it is disappointing. This concern lies at the heart of SOAWR interventions since 2010 to address the gaps between commitment and implementation of the Protocol.
The first intervention is encouraging the application of a multi-sectoral approach model developed by UN Women in 2010 . SOAWR in strategic partnership with UN Women Liaison Office with the African Union have embarked on developing a pool of national resource-persons to promote and support the development of multi-sectoral frameworks at national level to fast track delivery of rights enshrined in the Protocol. The model builds on the experiences and lessons learned from multi-sectoral approaches used in other thematic areas such as the promotion of universal primary education, and raising public awareness on HIV and AIDS. The multi-sectoral approach premise draws from the principle that each organ and department of government is responsible and accountable for fulfilling their obligations under the Protocol vis-à-vis women’s rights falling within its mandate.
SOAWR and UN Women in partnership with the AU Commission have jointly convened two conferences where the multi-sectoral framework was introduced to 28 countries that have ratified the Protocol. They have also organised training for government officials and civil society on the framework and mobilized additional support for eight countries that are willing to pilot the framework. It is envisaged that the experiences and results of the eight will prompt other countries to implement the framework as a toll for domestication and implementation of the Protocol.
The second strategy has been to boost capacity for the implementation of the Protocol in litigation. In this regard, Equality Now, on behalf of SOAWR, developed a “Guide to Using the Protocol on the Rights of Women for Legal Action” to help jurists and activists to facilitate the exercise of the rights set out in the Protocol in cases brought before domestic courts and how to bring complaints of violations of the Protocol to regional judicial mechanisms such as the ACHPR and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Equality Now/SOAWR has gone further to organise trainings for over 150 lawyers from 32 African states drawn from the continent’s sub-regions. The convenings have been an opportunity to use the manual outlined above.
The third intervention is on reporting. States that have ratified the Protocol are required to report every two years on the legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures taken towards full realisation of the rights and freedoms of women enshrined in the Protocol. To facilitate that SOAWR through its member-Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria- provided technical support to the ACHPR to develop guidelines on reporting that were adopted by the ACHPR in 2010. In 2011, SOAWR partnered with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa in organizing training on guidelines on reporting on the Protocol. Then, in 2012, SOAWR supported the Special Rapporteur in disseminating copies of the Guidelines to AU Member States in English, French and Portuguese. Hopefully these efforts will encourage state parties to the Protocol to implement it and submit reports.
What has SOAWR Achieved Since its Inception in 2004?
SOAWR has managed to build a formidable coalition at the regional and national levels that consistently ensures that the Protocol remains on the agenda of AU member states. The SOAWR coalition’s model: ‘one united voice on a common agenda bringing together diverse groups (international, regional, national and local) tapping into various networks and relationships to pass one messages using multiple media and languages’ could be emulated by other campaigns.
The advocacy for the ratification and implementation of the Protocol has created strong women’s movements at national level. For example, the Women First Coalition in Uganda, The Nigerian RHV Coalition, and the Gender Action Team in the Gambia that have strengthened women’s voices in demanding for the national level ratification and implementation of the Protocol. Although gender equality and women’s empowerment is yet to be fully achieved in Africa, with women’s movements like SOAWR and emerging national level coalitions, governments cannot escape the pressure to walk their talk on women’s rights commitments.
SOAWR has demonstrated that treaties and Protocols need not take years to enter into force if civil society organisations carry out intense campaigns. The Protocol entered into force in a record eighteen months due to SOAWR’s advocacy, thereby becoming the fastest human rights instrument to enter into force in the history of the OAU/AU. To date 36 out of 54 AU member states have ratified it.
The Protocol provides a new standard that national and sub-regional laws on women’s rights must meet. Rwanda is a case in point where it has implemented the Protocol across all government sectors and The Gambia has adopted a ‘Women’s Bill’ to implement its commitments on women’s rights entered into at the regional and international levels including the Protocol.
At the sub-regional level, the SOAWR campaign offers a model for collaboration and joint action among organisations to demand for women’s rights instruments with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and East African Community (EAC) adopting or developing declarations on gender equality as a result of advocacy borrowing from SOAWR’s campaign.
Due to SOAWR’s public sensitization campaigns, the Protocol has become a public education tool on women’s rights at the national and grassroots levels. SOAWR members in The Gambia, Liberia and Tanzania have translated the provisions of the Protocol into songs. Other SOAWR members have published simplified versions of the Protocol and/or translated the Protocol into local languages to facilitate access by women and the public at large. This has encouraged citizens to demand for the implementation of the Protocol’s provisions. For example, the Protocol has been a major boost to the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Liberia and Tanzania.
SOAWR/Equality Now has also contributed to the advancement of national jurisprudence on women’s rights. In Zambia, a 13 year-old girl was raped by her teacher. Through a lawyer a civil suit was instituted against the teacher, the school, Attorney General, and Ministry of Education for failing to protect her from sexual violence while she was in the school. During the trial, the lawyer cited the Protocol given that Zambia is a state party to the Protocol. The judge, in his decision, referenced the lawyer’s use of the Protocol and quoted Article 4. This is a Common Law judgment that can be used as a precedent in other common law countries when citing instances when the government has been held accountable for the violation of rights provided for in the Protocol.
Finally, SOAWR’s popularization of the Protocol has expanded the discourse on women’s rights in Africa into areas that were hitherto considered ‘no go zones’ setting new international standards including on sexual, reproductive health and rights, female genital mutilation (FGM) and polygamy.
There is no doubt that the Protocol is useless if it does not contribute to substantial changes in the situation of the African women and girls. The real test of AU member states’ commitment to women’s rights lies in their actions towards the implementation of the Protocol. It is apt to recall that the Protocol offers us a tool for transforming the unequal power relations between men and women that lie at the heart of gender inequality and women’s oppression. What we need is for SOAWR to be joined by others to push an agenda to demand concrete action by African leaders to the existing commitments in the Protocol. This is not to benefit women only but all African citizens – men and women.
*Mary Wandia is one of the co-founding members of SOAWR. She currently works with Equality Now, as the FGM Programme Manager.
Comprising of members of the ACHPR, representatives of African NGOs and international observers
Represented at the meeting were ACDHRS, Akina Mama wa Africa, the Association of Malian Women Lawyers (AJM), the Association of Senegalese lawyers (AJS), Equality Now, Ethiopian women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA), Femmes Afrique Solidarite (FAS), FEMNET, WILDAF, and WRAPA.
African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET), Oxfam GB, FAHAMU and Equality Now Africa Regional Office
African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS), Akina Mama wa Afrika, Association des Juristes Maliennes, Cellule de Coordination sur les Pratiques Traditionelle Affectant la Sante des Femmes et des Enfants, CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), Equality Now-Africa Regional Office, FAHAMU, FAMEDEV-Inter-African Network For Women, Media, Gender and Development, African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), Foundation for Community Development (FDC), Oxfam GB, Sister Namibia, Union Nationale des Femmes de Djibouti, University of Pretoria Center for Human Rights, Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternatives (WRAPA), Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF)
Manji, Firoze FAHAMU (2007) Mobile Phones, Human Rights and Social Justice in Africa, FAHAMU : London
The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa: Not yet a force for freedom; The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on Women’s Rights in Africa: From ratification to the Realization of African women’s human rights (September 2005); Second anniversary of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa: Challenges Ahead (November 2007); Breathing Life into the African Union Protocol on Women’s Rights in Africa; A publication commemorating the 5th anniversary of the Protocol’s entry into force http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/507) (November 2010).
UN Women (2010) Multisectoral Approach to Women’s Rights in Africa: Manual