Saturday, March 8 is International Women?s Day. The theme of this year?s celebration is ?Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women and Girls?. The day comes as African women who make up over 50 percent of the continent?s population continue to be the most affected by poverty on the continent. 

Litha Musyimi-Ogana is director of women and gender at the African Union Commission. From New York City, she told VOA that although many challenges still remain, African women have made enormous strides since the beginning of their struggle for empowerment.

?First let me say that the state of African women has improved since Mexico. Today is 33 years since the Mexico Conference in 1975. At that time the issue of women was not even recognized at government level. But we have moved beyond that now. We do have ministries of gender and women in many of our countries. We have women serving in key ministries in most of our governments. We have foreign ministers; we have ministers of finance. Some of our governments have adopted what we call affirmative action. They have deliberately helped women to get into decision making places, and whether it?s in politics, whether it is giving opportunity in higher education, whether it is in giving them opportunity to compete in male-dominated fields,? she said.

But Musyimi-Ogana said African women still face many challenges, among them is the opportunity to compete in party politics.

?Parties, the way they are constituted have actually not gone out of their way to make sure that women are part of the party politics, and because of that at the election process, women have found it very difficult to penetrate in decision-making. In terms of competences in international jobs and in judiciary and in executive, women have not been able to claim their full share because the family duties, responsibilities that women have to combine with executive duties. So really what we are saying is that there has to be conscious effort by governments, by political parties, by decision makers in general to make sure that women are given their allocated their share and they are able to make use of that share,? Musyimi-Ogana said.

The African Union has recognized that the empowerment of women is one key variable to fighting poverty. Musyimi-Ogana said African women need equal opportunity before equal employment.

?First of all, employers have to be encouraged to hire both men and women if they are qualified. Then when it comes to promotion for every one woman present there are about four men present. So really if even you wanted to give the only woman a job, the forces are against her. And so really what we are saying is that if the numbers are equal then we can talk equal opportunity in the job market,? Musyimi-Ogana said.

She said violence against women is a major concern of the African Union and men need to take the leadership in the effort to eradicate violence since they are the main violators.

?Violence against women is a major global phenomenon. In the case of Africa we do have examples of violence of every nature. We do have physical violence; we do have violence among some of our cultural practices. Statistics show that most of the rape cases involved either relative or somebody who is closed to the family, and these are the people who are supposed to protect women and girls. So it is a very complicated issue, and it is an issue where we actually need men to take leadership in trying to eradicate violence because they are the main violators,? Musyimi-Ogana said.