NOVEMBER 25, 2010: Advocating for Women's Rights - Any New Insights?

Advocating for Women's Rights - Any New Insights?

SOURCE: Pambazuka News

By Norah Matovu Winyi

Looking back on the background to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, Norah Matovu Winyi discusses the efforts of the Solidarity for Women's Rights in Africa Coalition (SOAWR Coalition) to popularise the protocol and push for its widespread ratification, with particular reference to Uganda and Kenya.

On 25 November 2010 members of the Solidarity for Women's Rights in Africa Coalition (SOAWR Coalition) in collaboration with the African Union (AU) will commemorate five years since the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the protocol).

It has indeed been a long journey since the protocol was conceptualised, adopted in 2003 and finally came into force in November 2005 after the 15th country had deposited its instrument of ratification with the Africa Union. As we prepare ourselves for the five-year celebration, it is important to name 28 countries in Africa that have ratified the protocol. This is more than half the total number of countries in Africa and it is a very big achievement when compared to the status of several other human rights instruments and protocols that have been adopted by the AU in the last 10 years of its existence.

When the Protocol was adopted in 2003, many countries signed on to it as an indication that they were in agreement with its provisions. By the January 2005 AU summit, 21 countries had signed and only seven countries had ratified. By the end of the first three years after the adoption of the protocol, 26 countries had ratified the protocol. However, the process slowed down considerably and in 2009 not a single country of those that had not ratified took the required steps to complete the process.

The members of the SOAWR Coalition, together with their partners, continued to lobby consistently the member states to ratify the protocol at the January and June 2009 summits held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Sirte, Libya, respectively. We became familiar faces to the members of the Permanent Representatives Council (the ambassadors resident in Addis Ababa) and to most of the ministers of foreign affairs. They knew what we were to say before we said it and were in agreement with us that their respective countries should ratify the protocol. It seemed like we were talking to the already converted.

However, the reality was that upon return to their respective countries nothing had happened by the end of 2009. It was evident that it was time for the coalition to change strategy and tactics, to change the focus from using the AU summit as the main site for engagement to strengthening linkages with the key stakeholders at the national level. We also narrowed down the countries to target in 2010 to four, including Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia.

It is gratifying to note that as we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the protocol, two more countries have ratified. The change of strategy by the coalition yielded concrete results. Uganda and Kenya ratified the protocol on 25 July and 13 of October 2010 respectively. However, the emerging issue of great concern to SOAWR coalition members is that the two ratifications in 2010 come with reservations on Article 14 of the protocol, among others, which provides for women's sexual and reproductive health. We need to interrogate and understand what the root causes are of this development.

In 2008 the African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) published a book titled 'Advocating for Women's Rights: Experiences from Solidarity for African Women's Rights Coalition'. In the book the SOAWR Coalition members trace the origins of the campaign and their experiences that led to the protocol being the first African Union human rights instrument to come into force only after a period of two years. There was definitely goodwill and commitment on the part of African leaders and member states of the African Union to usher in a new regime for the protection and promotion of women's rights in Africa as part of the accelerated development agenda for the region. Using different strategies like the naming and shaming cards, high-level delegations to the Africa Union summits and the use of peer pressure, the protocol came into force on 25 November 2005.

The members of the coalition reviewed their strategies and agreed that there was a need for more work to be done at the national level. This is exactly what the SOAWR Coalition members focused on in 2010, and it is a cause of a big celebration. We intensified our lobbying and improved our engagement with the key ministries and officers concerned at the national level.

There are a number of lessons that the members of the coalition have drawn from the experiences of 2010. Why did the process of ratification take five years in Uganda and Kenya to be completed? Uganda is a progressive country with a radical constitution that guarantees women's rights and prohibits all cultures and practices that hinder the advancement of women and girls. It outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex. Uganda is one of the first countries in Africa that attained the 30 per cent representation of women in parliament and at all the other levels of local government, right to the community level. The Ugandan constitution is in line with the provisions of the protocol. Why then the five-year delay?

With hindsight it is obvious that we have a lot of work to do to popularise and democratise information about human rights, and entrench the concept of equality of men and women in people's minds. Though the principle of equality and non-discrimination underlay all the rights guaranteed by the constitution, many technocrats within public service are not fully aware of the implications of the constitutional order that was ushered in by the 1995 Constitution of Uganda. Their personal beliefs, socialisation and religious inclinations make it difficult for them to take the right and appropriate decisions to ensure that the state as a secular organ meets its obligations of protecting, enforcing and fulfilling the rights of every person.

Therefore, the need for human rights education and consciousness-raising at all levels cannot be over-emphasised. The government must show commitment to train its cadres so that they ably act on its behalf in the interest of the people. Women's rights have for a long time been politicised and this must change. African women should not longer be denied their human rights. This is the main purpose for having global and regional standard-setting governance bodies that can adopt human rights instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol on Women's Rights in Africa.

We are aware that the Catholic bishops in Uganda categorically stated that they cannot support the ratification of the protocol in 2007. Other religious groupings also denounced the protocol, mainly because of its provisions on women's right to health, including sexual and reproductive health. This article recognises the agency of a woman, her right to make choices about her own body as a sexual being and her unique role of bringing life into this world. A woman's right to health includes among others making choices about whether to get married or not; to choose a partner; to have children or not, when to have them and at what intervals; make choices about sexuality and protecting herself from infections; and to access safe abortion services where her life or health is in danger.

Though there are no provisions in the laws of Uganda that contravene the provisions of the protocol, under this article the protocol was ratified with reservation on Article 14 (1) (a) and (c) and 14 (2) (c). This was done despite efforts to draw the attention of those concerned in the relevant ministries that there is nothing in the laws of Uganda today that contradicts the provisions of the protocol. Education and understanding the concept of human rights are required, as well as constantly being aware that the state is a secular organ that provides for the protection and fulfilment of the rights for all irrespective of their sex, ethnic origins and cultures, religious beliefs and social or economic status.

Therefore, a political commitment to take bold steps on issues of human rights is important. There have to be well-informed and sensitised public officers willing to follow up on the commitments made by the government on behalf of its people. The rights advocates must also be willing to follow through with the processes and provide technical support and advice where it is required.

Moving on to Kenya, it has also been five years since the country signed on to the protocol. There has been a lot of feet-dragging, politicisation of the issues and failure of those concerned to follow through with the process to ensure that the head of state pronouncements on the promotion of gender equality are fully implemented. In the case of Kenya, the cabinet had made a decision that Kenya would ratify the protocol. However, it took two and a half years for Kenya to complete the ratification process, with a number of reservations, including one on Article 14 on women's right to health.

In both cases the SOAWR Coalition members worked closely with the national-level lobbies to ensure that the ratification process was completed. We called upon our leaders to account to the women of Uganda and Kenya as the hosts of two very important AU events, the 15th Ordinary Session of the AU summit of heads of states and government, held in July 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, and the continental launch of the African Women's Decade, hosted by Kenya in Nairobi over 10 to 15 October 2010. The two events provided the opportunity to the AU and member states to put pressure on the two governments to complete the ratification process before hosting the events.

The July 2010 AU summit focused on maternal and child health in Africa. It was therefore necessary that Uganda, as the host of the summit, demonstrate leadership by recognising the AU as the main regional governance body and its role as a standard-setting organ. One way to do so was by ratifying the protocol that guarantees the rights of women in Africa, including the right to sexual and reproductive health. The leaders in Uganda completed the process and deposited the instrument of ratification on 25 July 2010, two days prior to the opening of the AU summit.

Having a clear focus as a coalition made it possible for the regional actors to work strategically with the national coalition members and their allies to lobby consistently for the ratification of the protocol in Uganda and Kenya. The cooperation of the responsible officers in the Ministry of Gender, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in both countries was instrumental to complete the ratification. It remains a challenge for all of us though to work hard to ensure that Uganda and Kenya remove the reservations in the shortest time possible. The right to life and health are fundamental to the realisation of all the other rights articulated in the protocol. As part of the domestication process of the protocol, it is important the Kenya and Uganda review their laws on the right to health so that this matter can be put to rest once for all.

In terms of new insights as we move forward, we need to remain focused on a few countries and work with them diligently to complete the process. Secondly, we have to work with all the key ministries concerned and identify the allies who are able to navigate the bureaucracy within government. Thirdly, we need to use opportune moments to raise awareness about the responsibilities of government to its citizens to enjoy and fulfil their rights. The other insight is that we must be fully aware of the procedures and systems so that if need be we provide the technical support that the public officers may need. Last but not least, we must remain relentless in the pursuit of rights for all.

The Africa Women's Decade (2010-20) (AWD) provides the greatest opportunity to ensure that the 24 countries that have not ratified the protocol do so in the first three years of the decade. Our target is to achieve universal ratification with no reservations by 2013. We appeal to the African Union Commission (AUC) to popularise this message and work towards the achievement of this target.

As the head of the Gender, Women and Development Directorate at the AUC said at the NGO forum held on 10 October 2010 during the week-long launch of the AWD, the focus of the decade is action, action and more action. The frameworks are already in place and it is time to implement them in full so that African women can enjoy and have their rights fulfilled. Therefore, for the 26 countries that have already ratified the protocol, the focus should be on domestication and full implementation.

Norah Matovu Winyi is the executive director of the African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET). She is a passionate leader who has work on issues of human rights and women's advancement for a long time.

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