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The protracted campaign for women's human rights in Africa
Rochelle Jones, The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID)
October 27, 2006

An interview with Faiza Jama Mohamed, Africa Regional Director, Equality Now, about the ongoing campaign for full ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, on the Rights of Women in Africa (ACHPR).

AWID: What is the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (ACHPR)?

Faiza: It is an additional Protocol to the African Charter which was adopted on 11 July 2003 at the 2nd Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Maputo, Mozambique. The African Charter does not adequately address issues pertaining to the human rights of women and that is why an additional protocol was felt necessary to be put in place.

AWID: What does the Protocol mean for women's rights in Africa?

Faiza: The Protocol offers women in Africa not only a bill of rights that addresses protection of their range of rights within an African context, but also obligates states to take action and allocate resources to ensure that African women enjoy these rights.

The Protocol, for the first time in International law, explicitly sets forth reproductive rights of women by recognising their right to access medical abortion when pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother. It further calls for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation and an end to violence against women as well as recognising women's right to own property and protects their inheritance rights.

It endorses affirmative action to promote equal participation of women in the political arena as well as in the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. It sets forth numerous economic and social rights such as the right to food security, right to education and health, right to equal pay for equal work and calls for states to protect women from sexual exploitation such as prostitution and trafficking of women and girls.

The Protocol is an inclusive document as it recognises vulnerable groups of women such as elderly women, disabled women, women refugees as well as women in distress, widows, pregnant and nursing women in detention. The Protocol goes a step further calling on state parties to ensure that where higher standards of rights exist either within national, regional or international instruments, they should retain those standards of rights over the provisions of the Protocol.

AWID: To date, how many countries in the African Union have ratified the Protocol? What are the barriers to full ratification, and what are campaigns focusing on to encourage ratification?

Faiza: The pace of ratification has amazingly moved forward. Today we have 20 ratifications (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, Gambia, Libya, Lesotho, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Seychelles, Togo, and Zambia) and we know that few more (for example Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania and Swaziland) are in the process of ratifying.

In January 2005, Solidarity for African Women's Rights Coalition (for which Equality Now serves as the Secretariat) introduced rating cards (Red for countries that have not even signed the Protocol, Yellow for those who have signed it but not taken the critical step of ratification, and Green for honoring those countries that have ratified the Protocol) during the Fourth Ordinary Summit of the African Union (AU) held in Abuja. At that time we had only 7 ratifications, 26 countries rated yellow and 20 red. These rating cards became an effective advocacy tool and were widely publicized. As a result, today we have only 8 countries in the Red zone, 25 in the Yellow category and 20 rated green.

Several factors can be attributed to the slow pace of ratification. In conflict countries such as Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan, peace-making initiatives were the main priorities of their governments. In countries that were preparing for national elections such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, political campaigning was the priority for governments. Mozambique ratified soon after elections.

In others like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic and other Muslim populated states it appears that they have issues with some of the provisions of the Protocol and that has been the cause for their delay in ratifying the Protocol. Recently, Niger's Parliament refused to ratify the Protocol on the grounds of religion. However, other Islamic states (Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, The Comoros) have ratified it and without reservations. So one wonders why the others are resisting following suit.

The Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) coalition and the Women, Gender and Development Directorate of the African Union Commission are planning to host a joint meeting in Tunis in November 2006 for these countries to deliberate on ways to move forward the ratification process. Several experts on Islam would make presentations aimed at removing any doubts about the Protocol being in contraction with Islam and those Islamic states that have ratified would also share their cases with the rest. So, we are optimistic that this consultation will lead to more ratification. And of course as we did in the past 3 to 4 summits, we will continue with advocacy interventions with a view to securing ratification by all the 53 member states but also to call for its domestication. Our target is to ensure that all countries will do so in order that all African women will equally have the benefit of the Protocol.

AWID: Women's rights groups were involved in an intensive and lengthy advocacy campaign for the adoption of the Protocol, and then again for 15 member states to ratify the Protocol in order for it to come into effect. This is a striking example of women's mobilisation - could you tell us about these campaigns, and how they achieved their outcomes?

Faiza: The adoption of the Protocol came around after 8 years of campaigning. First, it was about pushing for the idea of having this protocol which was finally accepted and a resolution adopted in 1995 by the Heads of State and Government at their 31st Ordinary Summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Second, it took time to draft it and come to agreement about the rights provided in it. Third, the campaign was about strengthening the document as it was weak and not at par with human rights provisions in other international instruments that were already ratified by the African Union member states; and also to convince the governments to come together to finalize it so that it could be presented for adoption to the Second Ordinary AU Summit in Maputo (2003).

Three times the African Union Commission had no quorum to hold the meetings of experts and ministers to finalize the document and so had postponed the meeting three times. Our intervention, as women from all over Africa, was important for this to happen. We succeeded to get more than the quorum needed for the meetings to happen and to improve on the text that was being proposed for adoption. A year after the Protocol was adopted a few of us

(Equality Now, FEMNET and Oxfam GB) came together to review how many ratifications had been received by the AU and we were alarmed to learn that only The Comoros had ratified it and we later learned that it also did it by default ? by that I mean that the Comoros had many Protocols pending and was under pressure by the AU Commission to resolve this situation so its Parliament at one go ratified the whole lot including the Women's Protocol.

We started to get really concerned that it might take another 8 years or more for this important Protocol on the rights of women to enter into force and be of value to women, especially after learning that the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which is the parent treaty, took 5 years before it was in force; while the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which was adopted in 1990, came into force 9 years later. Therefore, we undertook to do something about this and we were inspired by our earlier successes.

So, again we started consulting with other colleagues who have been with us in the campaign before (African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS), WiLDAF, Akina Mama Wa Afrika, Women's Rights Awareness and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) in Nigeria, Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) in Kenya, etc.) and mobilized many more who were equally committed to African women's rights. We are now about 23 organizations in a coalition named Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) and we have been campaigning for ratification and domestication of the Protocol by all the AU member States as well as involved in outreach work to popularize it. Several strategies have been applied by SOAWR members to realize these objectives. To name a few:

  • Producing advocacy materials through various media such as the Special issues of Pambazuka (online newsletter), the publishing of a booklet titled 'Not Yet a Force for Freedom' and other publications. These were good means for popularisation of the Protocol.
  • Making use of mobile phones as way of mobilizing and offering space for African public participation in the campaign with a view to urging African leaders to live up to their commitment.
  • Holding press conferences via TV/radio interviews and issuing press releases as a way of consistently holding governments accountable while also popularizing the Protocol.
  • Continuously handing out the rating cards (red, yellow and green) and upgrading the status of countries as they moved to deliver on their commitments to women.
  • Engaging in direct advocacy whereby SOAWR members dialogue with member states about the progress of ratification at national level and during AU summits and learning about any obstacles if any are inhibiting their progress.
  • Establishing good rapport with the AU Commission through its legal Counsel, the Gender Directorate and the Commission for Political Affairs; and with the Special Rappourter on the Rights of Women of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights thereby enabling us to conceive joint actions to sustain pressure on member states as well as retaining the Protocol as a standing agenda item in the AU Summits.
  • Communicating directly with Heads of State on a regular basis and this served as a good method of constantly reminding them of their commitments. We used opportunities such as the deadline for the implementation of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (a political commitment by Heads of state and government made in July 2004), the Pan African women's day, the Beijing +10 review process which was looking at progress made by countries to realize their commitments to women, and the treaties week of the AU Commission which is a period that member states are urged to ratify pending protocols.
  • Organizing public events thereby reaching a wider African public ? this proved to be a useful tool for popularization of the Protocol.

In conclusion, the objectives of our campaign are focused and clear and our collective energies and actions were therefore harmonized at realizing these objectives. As a result, the Protocol on the Rights of Women broke the OAU/AU record by becoming the first human rights instrument that entered into force in the shortest period of time! For this we are very proud. But our task is incomplete until such time we see women actually going to the courts to demand their rights as provided in the Protocol, and state parties making real efforts to implement their obligations under this Protocol. As SOAWR, therefore, we are committed to continue our advocacy interventions. Recently, we produced jointly with the African Union Commission a book titled, "Breathing Life into the African Union Protocol on Women's Rights in Africa" and that is our ultimate goal ? i.e. that the Protocol remains a living instrument that truly caters for the rights of women. All of us, regardless where we live have a role to play to make this happen.

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