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Mobilising for women's rights in Africa.

Following the United Nations Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted a resolution in June 1995 to elaborate a Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which would be a supplement to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. This was based on the fact that the African Charter does not adequately address issues of human rights concerns pertaining to women.


Making it happen

A number of African women's groups had swung into action to make this happen. Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) kicked off the process with a workshop held in Togo in March 1995 that opened a critical review of the gaps in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights visa-vis the human rights of African women. Two key recommendations came out of the discussion: (1) the generation of a protocol that would elaborate women's rights and which would be part and parcel of the African Charter; and (2) the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Women's Rights in Africa by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR).

In 1998 the ACHPR appointed the first Special Rapporteur, Commissioner Julienne Ondziel-Gnelenga of the Republic of Congo. She became a regular participant of the discussions on the draft protocol at various NGOs forums and a strong collaboration between the Special Rapporteur and the NGOs was cemented. When she was replaced as Special Rapporteur by Commissioner Angela Melo of Mozambique this collaboration continued.

Generating discussion on standards

Once the Protocal had been drafted, feedback was generated from all over Africa and the Diaspora following an email discussion of the draft initiated by FEMNET (African Women's Development and Communication Network). More groups joined the process, raising concerns about the weak provisions that the draft protocol contained. Equality Now came on board around this time and after consultation with WiLDAF, ACDHRS and FEMNET convened a consultation meeting bringing together women's organisations across the continent to review the draft document and advocate for its improvement.

The meeting, held in January 2003 in Addis Ababa, produced a paper that highlighted which provisions in the draft were below international standards and recommended language for strengthening those provisions. This became an effective tool that activists used for campaigning with individual member states to advocate for a strong Protocol. Activists also engaged dialogue with the African Union Commission, emphasising how it would be an embarrassment for Africa if the draft Protocol was adopted as it was.

All this lobbying proved to be effective, and in July 2003 the African Heads of State and Government finally adopted the progressive Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.

Developing a Pan-African campaign

By April 2004, one year after being opened for ratification, only one country, The Comoros, had ratified the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Women's and human rights organisations who had engaged in the drafting process realised that ratification and domestication of the Protocol might take a long time, unless governments were consistently held accountable to honour their commitments.

Hence these organisations, which included ACDHRS, Akina Mama Wa Afrika, Equality Now, FAHAMU, FEMNET, Oxfam GB and WiLDAF among others, went into action in a number of innovative ways. They formed the Coalition on Solidarity for African Women's Rights--SOAWR, to campaign for the speedy ratification of the Protocol, and the coalition now has 19 member organisations that are active at national, regional and international levels. Sister Namibia is a member of this Coalition.

SMS-ing 4 women's rights

First, the Coalition generated a petition to the Heads of State and Government which was posted at the Pambazuka webpage, a weekly electronic newsletter produced by FAHAMU, which attracted lots of support from across Africa. Special issues of Pambazuka News were prepared as an advocacy tool and widely distributed at AU summits.

This was followed by an SMS campaign titled "Text Now 4 Women's Rights" in support of the petition. Using technology for advocacy enabled hundreds of African mobile telephone users to join the campaign and be updated on progress of ratification.

In addition, coalition members continued to write articles on the value of the Protocol for the continent as a whole; and these were published and distributed electronically through Pambazuka and a booklet titled "Not yet a force for freedom".

During the Abuja Summit of the AU in January 2005, the Coalition on Solidarity for African Women's Rights honoured the first seven countries to ratify the Protocol (The Comoros, Libya, Lesotho, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa) with Green Cards. Other countries were given either a Yellow or Red card depending on whether they had signed or not signed the Protocol. Twenty countries were red carded while 26 were yellow carded.

Following all this activity, 13 countries had ratified the Protocol by mid-October 2005, and there are good signs that the required 15 ratifications will be realised before the end of the year.

Preparing for the next phase

SOAWR members are now gearing up for the next phase of the campaign--Domestication of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. In this regard, on behalf of the Coalition, FEMNET held a conference in Addis Ababa, in collaboration with the Gender, Women and Development Directorate of the African Union Commission, at the end of September 2005. Participants included SOAWR members and other civil society organisations, government officials--especially from countries that have ratified the Protocol, and staff of the AU Commission, who deliberated on post ratification strategies focusing on the following:

* Analysis of domestication and implementation processes in African countries around the Protocol.

* Analysis of the policy (constitutional, legal, planning) and institutional changes (enforcement mechanisms, related resources) that African countries will require to actualise the rights set out in the Protocol.

* Analysis from a gender perspective of AU/NEPAD strategies and plans against the Protocol's provisions.

* Experiential case studies that create demand for African women's human rights as set out in the Protocol and viewed against existing national constitutional and legal provisions and policies.

The outcome of the conference will feed into the action-planning process for SOAWR members and other activists to prepare for launching campaigns for domestication of the Protocol.

Breaking the record

The pace of ratification has amazingly accelerated so that this Protocol may well break the African Union record on ratification of new instruments! Women in Africa could soon celebrate the coming into force of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, but the task is incomplete until these rights are domesticated in the national laws. The campaign therefore goes on and more groups need to get involved as the force of the campaign shifts to the national level.

This story has been extracted from: African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa; Paper prepared for the Conference on Equal Status and Human Rights of Women in East Africa, September 2005, by Faiza Jama Mohamed, Africa Regional Director, Equality Now. It has been updated where relevant.

RELATED ARTICLE: What does the Protocol offer African women?

The Protocol covers a broad range of human rights issues and advances the human rights of African women through creative, substantive and detailed language. For the first time in international law, it explicitly sets forth the reproductive right of women to medical abortion when pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the health or life of the mother. In another first, the Protocol explicitly calls for the legal prohibition of female genital mutilation.

The Protocol contains other equality advances such as; it calls for an end to all forms of violence against women including unwanted or forced sex, whether it takes place in private or in public, and recognition of protection from sexual and verbal violence as inherent in the right to dignity. It also endorses affirmative action to promote the equal participation of women, including equal representation of women in elected office, and calls for the equal representation of women in the judiciary and law enforcement agencies as an integral part of equal protection and benefit of the law. Articulating a right to peace, the Protocol also recognizes the right of women to participate in the promotion and maintenance of peace.

The broad range of economic and social welfare rights for women set forth in the Protocol includes the right to equal pay for equal work and the right to adequate and paid maternity leave in both private and public sectors. It also calls on states to take effective measures to prevent the exploitation and abuse of women in advertising and pornography.

Also, it specifically recognizes the rights of vulnerable groups of women, including widows, elderly women, disabled women and "women in distress", which includes poor women, women from marginalised population groups, and pregnant or nursing women in detention.

Finally, as a safeguard it has a provision (Article 31) that ensures that where higher standards of rights exist in either national, regional or international laws those would prevail over provisions in this Protocol.

These rights, however, would only remain in paper unless the Protocol comes into force. The African Union requires 15 ratifications for the Protocol to come into force.


Obligations of State Parties

State parties are expected to implement and monitor the actualisation of the rights provided in the Protocol. They are expected to take all necessary measures and in particular provide budgetary and other resources for the full and effective implementation of the rights recognised in the Protocol. They are also expected to report on progress in their periodic reports to the African Commission.
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Title Annotation:Organisation of African Unity's Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa
Author:Mohamed, Faiza
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:60OAU
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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