Eleven years ago, African states made formidable progress by jointly adopting the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol – regarded as one of the most progressive women’s and human rights instruments in the world. Its signing, ratification and implementation would have a momentous effect on the rights of women on a continent that has historically seen women bear the multiple brunt of poverty, exclusion and experience wars and civil unrests. In the journey towards its adoption, the courageous women and men of this continent did not see this as a reason to shy away but rather felt that this was precisely why such a legal instrument was needed – as a way to hold governments to account on the rights of women and girls.
They saw it as a bridge to protecting women during armed conflict, ensuring a right to the education of women and girls all over the continent, as a step towards the right to participate in making decisions that regard them politically and socially, social and welfare rights for all including widows, the aged, the physically handicapped and distressed, just to name a few. To achieve this progress meant that different African states had to work towards the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, do away with harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage that were limiting the potential of women and girls in the name of tradition and give women full access to information and justice in matters regarding reproductive rights but also in marriage, separation, divorce and annulment of marriage among others – not as a secondary but as an equal stakeholder. These have been sensitive issues traditionally as well as religiously, and getting there was going to be an uphill task.
Adopting a legal instrument is one thing, but ratifying or rather endorsing it officially is an additional process that required the same tireless women and men of the continent who believe in its potential to pick up their advocacy tools and convince different states to join in the campaign. After years of imperialism, concepts such as “rights” are at times misunderstood and either viewed with suspicion as “Western Concepts” – particularly by sensational African politicians. In order to break ground, campaigners needed to recruit women’s organizations that understood the context – organizations that work with women facing the challenges aforementioned on access to justice, who see the challenges faced by those who go through harmful traditional practices and who interact with those denied the right to make decisions that pertain to their own bodies and lives. There are now 44 organizations across 24 African countries that have joined the campaign to make sure that their governments ratify the Maputo Protocol and then implement and domesticate (make part of their own laws) the Articles within the instrument. This homegrown approach has borne fruits over the past 11 years.
Yet challenges continue to require that tools are not stored away and each celebration is swiftly followed by a strategy to combat the next challenge. Take for instance the country of Sudan. Despite being one of the original State Parties that contributed to the drafting of the Maputo Protocol and one of the first African countries to sign the Protocol in 2008, Sudan has stalled in ratifying the essential women’s rights instrument. As such to a certain extent, regionally, Sudan has remained unaccountable for the continuous and significant abuses being subjected onto the country’s women and girls. Although Sudan’s initial step in signing the Protocol was a positive reflection of the country’s commitment towards advancing and ensuring women’s rights and protection, efforts to domesticate and implement such measures have stalled significantly attributable to internal conflict, subsequent separation from South Sudan in 2011, and continued political conflict between the Army of Sudan and Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Any efforts to develop and advance human rights measures have slowed significantly. While CSOs, NGOs, and private actors continue work to ensure that such development continues, it is ultimately the responsibility of the State to ratify and implement such measures. Without laws and means of accountability in place to ensure their protection and equality, women on the continent remain particularly vulnerable to grave abuses. Ratifying and incorporating the Protocol into domestic laws is a step towards making sure that issues disproportionately affecting women would be addressed and at the same time meet international standards of fundamental human rights.
Certain countries have exhibited commendable efforts in measures to safeguard and advance the rights of women and girls. Algeria, Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe are among thirteen countries who have reformed their laws over the past ten years in a bid to address gender discrimination, particularly those that concern passing on nationality to their spouses and children. Twenty out of twenty-nine countries that traditionally practiced FGM have specific laws against the procedure across the continent. It is through an African led coalition that the United Nation declared a ban on the practice of FGM in 2012 (Resolution 67/146), giving a much-needed boost to the campaign globally. Governments are adopting maternal healthcare practices across the continent with maternal mortality declining by nearly half since 1990 – but the aim is to achieve universal healthcare for all by 2015 (Millennium Development Goals). Enrolment of girls has seen considerable increment with gender gaps almost firmly closed in all countries, and family planning is becoming a reality for women in rural and urban areas. Women’s representation and participation in the labour market and in politics is a reality in countries such as Rwanda with healthy quotas of gender parity in others that promises sustainable change in coming years. Only four countries – Botswana, Egypt, Eritrea and Tunisia have neither signed nor ratified the instrument. Yet even those who have signed and ratified are a work in progress in as far as implementation of the rights enshrined within the Protocol is concerned. Harmful traditional practices such as FGM in countries such Mali, Liberia and The Gambia continue, and governments here have not come out strongly by establishing structures and measures to protect women and girls by introducing a law. Nigeria’s dire security situation has been exposed in the recent past where abductions of girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram demonstrated that political battles continue to be fought over the bodies of women. Civil unrest in Libya has undone years of progress and recently, where activists such as recently slain Salwa Bughaighis are killed in broad daylight. The Democratic Republic of Congo bears the shameful title of the world’s rape capital, with rape being used as a warfare tool, in a country that abounds in wealth ranging from fertile soils to numerous minerals that benefits only a few, while the violence in Central African Republic has flourished unabated.
Within their capacities, SOAWR coalition organization and others are working to ensure that the Protocol remains on the agenda of policy makers and to urge all African leaders to safeguard the rights of women through its ratification and implementation. These organizations give visibility to both progress as well as violations of the rights enshrined therein. There are organizations working within the law systems to bring violations of rights to book, particularly for women and girls with little or no access to justice. Others carry out research in a bid to boost documentation of the dynamics that are taking place in different countries from the eyes of those who experience it on a day to day. By networking with each other, they have brought the articles of the Protocol to life and both directly and indirectly are shaping policies that positively impact not only on the lives of women, but on their countries. Even with States where governments continue to show reluctance to ratify and implement the articles of the Maputo Protocol, the wave of progress means that they are forced to recognize the changes taking place in the region. This has sometimes lead to an unpleasant backlash of repression, arrests and closure of organizations, particularly in the field of human rights. Recent incidences include the arrest of human’s rights defenders in Egypt and the closure of Salmmah’s Recource Centre in Sudan.
2015 will be a year of reckoning as the deadline for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals expires, and examination of each country will reveal varying disparities. It will also see the African Union dedicate the AU’s summit theme to be “the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards African’s Agenda 2063”. These are fantastic opportunities that cannot be missed. It will be an opportune time for those who believe in the rights of the girls and women of Africa to demonstrate that an instrument that works hard for its constituents already exists and all we need to do is put it to work to see progress, including the MDGs, become no longer a dream, but a reality.