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Women Take Battle for Rights to African Union - 2004-07-02


Women's groups in Africa have stepped up their campaign for the ratification of a treaty that spells out the rights of women, ahead of next week's summit of the African Union. The year-old protocol on women's rights has yet to take effect.

Only Comoros, Libya and Rwanda have ratified the Rights of Women in Africa protocol, a document adopted with much fanfare at last year's African Union summit.

Thirty of the 53 AU member states signed the treaty, but at least 15 must ratify it before it takes effect.

The slow progress in implementing the treaty has groups such as Equality Now very worried. The New York-based advocacy organization is one of five groups that are lobbying member states ahead of the African Union Summit, to take place in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, next week.

Equality Now's Africa Regional Director, Faiza Jama Mohamed, says she and her colleagues see some hopeful signs.

"We have been meeting with delegates, urging them about this, and they indicated that they are possibly going to ratify," she said. "That's encouraging news."

She says Namibia and Mali have indicated they are close to ratifying the protocol, and Uganda also says it is planning to ratify it.

Ugandan Minister of Gender, Labor and Social Development Zoe Bakoko-Bakoru explains why.

"Women, to me, are the backbone of our economy, and women are going to transform this continent, whether it's in the area of peace, security, and even in the area of development," she said. "I hope the African leadership is going to rise to the challenge of emancipating women in the continent."

Ms. Bakoko-Bakoru says her priority is the area of reproductive health, particularly because too many women die during or shortly after giving birth.

But the provisions in the treaty dealing with reproductive health issues, such as contraception and abortion, are proving to be the main stumbling block for many African countries.

Equality Now's Ms. Mohamed says the governments are mostly worried about the provision authorizing abortion in rape cases and situations where pregnancy would endanger a mother's life, or her mental or physical health.

The use of contraception and the right of a woman to decide if and how many children she will bear are other contested portions of the protocol.

The AU Protocol on the Rights of Women, among other things, outlaws female genital mutilation, prohibits discrimination against women, stipulates that women and men must share their property equitably in cases of divorce and calls for equal access to employment.

Women's activists say one of the most important aspects of the protocol is that it challenges some of the most rigid traditional and cultural practices that lie behind the sometimes violent repression of women.

The executive director of the African Women's Development and Communication Network, Muthoni Wanyeki, explains.

"The value of the protocol is that it recognizes that violence happens for the most part within the family setting and, therefore, it challenges in a way the acceptance of tradition and culture and religion that are often used to impede women's full rights," she added.

Ms. Wanyeki says the protocol, once in force, would give women a second line of defense in cases in which they have unsuccessfully challenged national discriminatory laws or practices. She says the women can base their appeals on the provisions of the protocol.

The head of the AU's Directorate of Women, Gender, and Development, Mary Maboreke, says the protocol is part of a growing awareness in Africa that women can no longer be excluded from society, and that they are essential for a country's development.

"For the very first time in the history of the continental organization, we are going to have gender as a special item, with a special session focusing on that," she noted. "And what we are hoping to get out of that is a solemn declaration, where heads of certain government(s) are committing to actions now. And, of course, the protocol is part of what is included within that declaration."

Ms. Maboreke, and women's advocacy groups, agree that, while getting countries to ratify the protocol is a tall hurdle, implementing it at the national level will be even more difficult.

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