Reflecting on the African Women’s Decade
The African Union (AU) launched the African Women’s Decade in March 2010 at the 54th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The African Women’s Decade, that was set to run from 2010–2020, aimed to “advance gender equality by accelerating implementation of Dakar, Beijing and AU Assembly Decisions on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE), through dual top down and bottom up approach which is inclusive of grassroots participation.” The AU laid out plans such as providing sufficient resources and funding to promote gender equality, and to work with member states in the implementation of inclusive policies. But reflection on the African Women’s Decade shows that despite the bold plans made by the AU, Africa continues to lag behind on progress towards gender equality. African women continue to bear the brunt of the economic and political crises in their countries as their governments make empty promises.
While women are disproportionately affected by the growing crises (terrorism, climate change, conflict or displacement) Africa is facing today, they very seldomly have an equal place in the peace processes and decision-making bodies that can address these issues. The continent has made some strides when it comes to the representation of women in government. For instance, women make up 62% of Rwanda’s legislature, making it the country with the highest female representation in parliament. In 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia appointed Sahle-Work Zewde as President, making her Ethiopia’s first female head of state. Prime Minister Abiy also appointed 10 female ministers into his cabinet. Most recently, the African Union appointed Rwanda’s Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa as its Deputy Chairperson, a post held by a woman for the first time in its history. The AU also currently has four female commissioners, which is an encouraging sign that the value of women leaders is finally being recognized both within individual country governments and continental organizations.
While these developments seem promising, a closer look at the state of women’s representation in politics shows that the demand of women to have a seat at the decision-making table still remains unanswered. In Sudan, where women led the movement for democracy and change against President Omar al-Bashir, the promises given to them of equal representation in the transitional government has yet to become a reality. Despite leading a revolution that ousted one of Africa’s brutal rulers, Sudanese women have been excluded from the transitional government. Women’s rights groups in Sudan have continued to demand representation in all levels of government. According to the country’s constitution, 40% of all council seats should be reserved for women. Sudanese women are not alone in their quest for equal representation in government. In Nigeria, women’s rights advocates are calling for an increase in representation of women, especially following the powerful leadership that Nigerian women, like the Feminist Coalition, have shown in organizing and mobilizing in support the #EndSARS movement. If women have the capability to lead movements for change, then why are they not capable to lead their governments? This is a question that African countries must answer as they are forced to grapple with their disappointing women’s rights records.
African women and girls have always faced numerous challenges that hinder them from enjoying full economic and political freedom and their problems are now compounded due to COVID-19. According to Human Rights Watch, school closures due to COVID-19 is putting young girls at a higher risk of sexual violence and exploitation, child marriage and social exclusion. Violence against women and girls has become a shadow pandemic, as governments across Africa are reporting a high number of cases. In South Africa, COVID-19 prompted an escalation of violence against women and girls, with the South African Police Service receiving a staggering 2,300 calls for help related to gender-based violence, in just the first week of lockdown. The progress made against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in numerous countries has also suffered a blow due to the pandemic, as more girls have reportedly been forced to undergo the harmful practice. In October 2020, almost 2,800 girls from the Kuria community in south-western Kenya underwent FGM, defying the government’s ban on the practice. Somalia, Tanzania, Liberia and Sierra Leone have also seen a rise in the number of girls that undergo FGM due to lockdowns related to COVID-19. In Liberia, the government declared a state of emergency after a spike in rape cases, and concrete actions are yet to be taken to address the issue. In Algeria, femicide and gender-based violence has turned into a public health crisis. According to Feminicides-dz, an initiative led by two Algerian feminist activists who document feminicides that take place in Algeria, in 2021 alone, 9 women have been victims of feminicide.
The above cases reveal that governments are not doing enough to protect women and girls. Despite hundreds of conferences, bold proclamations, numerous international treaties and agreements on women’s rights, little progress has been made to make the world a safer and equal place for women and girls. African governments as well as regional institutions like the AU, must take a hard look at themselves and realize that they have failed African women and girls by not delivering on their grand promises of gender equality. As we celebrate yet another Women’s History Month amidst a global pandemic, it is time to reimagine our societies and create safer and more equitable places for women. The design and implementation of national and regional policies should involve the integration of a gender perspective, and must place women and women’s leadership at the center. If the AU is to truly achieve its Agenda 2063 priorities, then it must ensure that women and girls are included at all levels of government and protected from violence.