Don’t stop! Keep pressing for progress!

Dinah Musindarwezo | Mar 08, 2018
Dinah Musindarwezo is the executive Director of the African Women’s Development & Communications Network, FEMNET.

Indeed, let us keep pressing for progress as the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day demands. However let us do so with the clarity and tenacity that will finally end all forms of discrimination against women and girls and sustainably instigate gender equality across all spheres.

This year’s theme echoes the priority theme of the upcoming 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the focus of which is Challenges and opportunities for advancing gender equality and empowerment of rural women and girls. This draws attention to rural women both as a group that faces multiple and intersecting forms of gender discriminations but also as a category that is a backbone of our economies and development.

The Sustainable Development Goals also speak of Leaving no one behind, further putting a spotlight on those often left out as others progress.  This then means it is no longer enough to only focus on women and youth as marginalised groups; we must look further at different intersections and ensure that their voices and different experiences inform policies, programmes and resource allocation.

Keep pressing for progress!

We have come a long way as far as women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality are concerned. The biggest achievement is in the policy and legal framework. We have made significant progress in terms women’s rights and gender equality both at the international, regional and national levels. Our governments have signed on to international policy frameworks including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) and several others.

We have developed and adopted our own home grown instruments such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) that takes into account issues that are specific to African women such as widows’ rights, child marriages and Female Genital Mutilation and recognises that women have a right to safe abortion under specific circumstances of sexual assault, rape, incest and when the pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the woman or the life of the woman or the foetus. We have reviewed our own constitutions at the national level to view men and women as equal citizens. We have continuously agitated for equal representation in numerous spaces that were initially taboo zones for women. The list of these tireless efforts is long. It continues to grow everyday as women’s rights organisations continue the struggle for gender equality.

But then, one might ask, so what? So what if we have all these policies and women are still beaten, harassed and intimidated and continue to be threatened? What if, despite all that we have put in place, women are still violated even as they walk the streets, at their work places and in their homes? What if we are still dodged by the patriarchal reality that women’s decisions over their bodies, resources and voices are still being made by their husbands, brothers, and fathers, or men in governments?  

My answer is clear-cut: despite all the prevailing challenges, we must still celebrate the policy environment that women’s rights activists including those in rural areas have worked so hard to achieve. We must acknowledge just how much they have transformed the lives and status of women. As a region, we have made so much progress in the area of maternal health, women’s political leadership and women’s access to education and employment opportunities.  The backbone of this progress is the support and work done by women and girls living in rural areas that fuels food sovereignty and carries the burden of unpaid care work of caring for the sick, children, elderly and adult men. They do so within limiting and unsafe environments and a system that refuses to recognise, value or rightfully reward their contributions.

The struggle continues!

Yes, Aluta Continua! Despite all the challenges, we must never relent on the struggle for gender equality.  The statistics of shame and discrimination are still heart-breaking. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take us 217 years to close the gender pay gap, and this is just one aspect of gender inequalities.

In parts of Africa, women comprise more than 50% of the agricultural labour force, and yet less than 20% of landowners are women, according to recent UN data. In Uganda, a rural woman is significantly less likely to give birth with a health care worker than an urban woman. Moreover, a rural girl is 2 times more likely to be married as a child than her urban counterpart.

Women activists in rural and urban areas have pushed for too long to transform systems and structures of oppression, not only  to achieve women’s rights but for the development of their families, communities and countries.  Today on International Women’s Day, I celebrate these selfless women – those working in rural and urban areas, young and old: especially those whose work is most invisible and unrecognised despite its massive impact on our economies and our lives.

The African Women’s Development and Communication Network, FEMNET - a pan African and feminist membership network of over 600 members in 46 countries across Africa - has existed for almost 30 years. It tirelessly expands the platforms for all women and girls, including those living in the rural areas, to actively and effectively inform policies and decisions affecting them. FEMNET continues to be at the forefront of policy change, connecting women’s local and national activism and advocacy to regional and global-level advocacy platforms.

We have experienced at first-hand what women can do and the power they have to bring about transformation. If they can achieve so much albeit with multiple challenges and discrimination, one wonders what they can do if they had a favourable and safe environment where their rights were protected, guaranteed and fulfilled.

FEMNET was at the forefront of mobilising African women and girls in all their diversities to advocate for a Gender Equality standalone goal and specific gender targets in the 2030 agenda and SDGs. We have learnt from various research that we cannot achieve development if we do not achieve gender equality; we cannot achieve any of the SDG aspirations unless we achieve gender equality; we cannot end poverty, hunger or unemployment without achieving gender equality. It is simply impossible because all aspects of development have a gendered impact.   

We must take action!

My call today on International Women’s Day is simple: for eons, women have worked hard enough for the economy and they are not about to stop doing so. It is therefore paramount that we co-create an economy that works for women and girls and which addresses their specific interests and needs. What we currently have is a largely unequal economy that works for half the humanity (or, according to Oxfam, 1%).

 It is possible to change this if we all act together to address structural inequalities and systems of oppression that continue to define women and girls as second class citizens. Unless we significantly achieve this, then women and girls world over will keep pressing...pressing for progress!

Dinah Musindarwezo is the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development & Communications Network, FEMNET.

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