Celebrating African Women’s Day
This 31st of July we are celebrating African Women’s Day, which was declared by the African Union after the first Pan-African Women’s Conference in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1962.
This important date honours the achievements of all African women, and offers a space to reflect on progress towards the recognition of women’s rights and gender equality at the political, economic and social level in all the countries of Africa.
New African women leaders
In the last few years we have been pleased to see an increasing number of African women take up positions of power and influence at national and international level. Here are just a few:
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia, was the first women elected as head of state in Africa, serving as President of Liberia since 2006. Taking power in a country devastated by 14 years of civil conflict, Sirleaf was one of the three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
Joyce Banda, Malawi, was elected President of Malawi in April 2012, becoming the first female head of state in the country. She is a grassroots women’s’ rights activist, promoting funds and associations for the education of girls and the economic advancement of women
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa, was elected in 2012 as leader of the African Union Commission in a third round of voting, making her the first woman to lead the organisation.
Fatou Bensouda, Gambia, in June 2012 became chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands, making her the first African woman to cover that role.
Rashida Manjoo, South Africa, was elected as UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its causes and consequences, in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council.
While we welcome the success of these inspirational women and hope that they will bring positive improvements in terms of gender equality, their election is only half the battle in the struggle for women advancement in the continent.
What progress has been made for women’s rights in Africa?
African governments have signed several commitments for the promotion of women’s rights in the last few years, from the adoption in 2004 of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa by the heads of state of the African Union, to the enforcement of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as Maputo Protocol).
However, two years into the Decade of African Women (launched by the African Union) most of these commitments haven’t been translated in real improvements for African women. Women across Africa continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination, sexual and domestic violence, lack of access to education, employment opportunities and economic resources, and poor access to reproductive healthcare.
Women in politics in Africa
In terms of women’s participation in decision-making, today in Sub-Saharan Africa women occupy an average of 19% of seats in national parliaments, marking an increase from 9.8 % in 2005, but still not enough by any standard of equality. Women’s political under-representation at the national and local level means that their voices are missing in the forums where policies that affect their lives are shaped.
In many countries women who hold leadership positions still face significant barriers and intimidation in a male dominated political and cultural environment, so that their elections rarely translate into the shift in power relations that is necessary to achieve gender equality.
While we celebrate African Women’s Day we must not forget to call on African governments to honour their commitments to advance women’s political, social and economic rights. One day a year isn’t enough.
“For most politicians, political leadership is not for service but for power…” Read this account from a woman MP in Zimbabwe about the challenges she has faced.