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AU Delegates See Progress on Rights of African Women

Delegates at an African Union pre-summit meeting on women's issues say they are encouraged by signs of progress on gender equality. But progress has been slow.

Agriculture and food security is the theme of the A.U. summit beginning July 1 in Libya. So it seemed fitting that the keynote speaker at the two-day pre-summit on women be A.U. Agriculture Commissioner Rhoda Peace Tumusiime.

Tumusiime paid tribute to the long suffering African women who historically have been at the bottom of the continent's pecking order. "The women have always been there and they starve in order to feed their husbands. They starve in order to feed their children, and they starve in order to look after the sick, to look out for the HIV people in the hospitals. Without women, I don't think, we would be anywhere," Tumusiime said.

Tumusiime said that after decades of development initiatives aimed at improving the lot of African women, it is time to examine why so little has been achieved. "We need to look at approaches that have been used in the past in trying to improve the status of rural women, build on what has worked and change strategies that have not worked."

But delegates at this pre-summit say all of the work and the millions of dollars spent on gender programs have not gone to waste.

Geebile Ndlove, an HIV-positive woman from Swaziland, admits that equality, in her words, is "still not a word we can spell." But she is encouraged by the number of women, especially young women, moving into positions of leadership and influence.

"The good work that happens at [the] community level, it is women on the lead. And then, of course, in some southern African countries, there are more and more women getting into political positions like parliament. I can't say that much for Swaziland, but it's improved from what it was five years ago," she said.

Luisa Ono Ellchomun of Nigeria says she has seen in recent years a lot of awareness and new laws to protect women's rights.

"In Lagos state where I live, there's this law on domestic violence to protect the rights of women in marriages. Prior to this time, there has not been any law on that when a woman is battered she goes to the police she will not get redress because we only have a law on assaults. And no woman wants to send her husband to jail, so it's like the flood gates are open now for every woman. You can go to the police, you can go to the courts, you get a restraining order restraining the abuser. And if he breaks the restraining order, he can go to jail," she said.

Malawi's delegate Helen Chasowa says women in her country have 50 percent representation in most government bodies, including the vice-presidency. "For the past elections we had, we made sure we must have at least 50-50 in parliament -- in all leading organizations. So we are coming up, we have achieved something," she said.

Like other delegates, Chasowa admitted that the steps taken so far are small. She says that amid all the disturbing news coming from Africa, these bits of good news are encouraging, but not cause for celebration.

As one African Union official said, "Yes, you can find progress on equality for women, but you might have to look [for it] with a microscope."