Across Africa, women’s movements are now putting more emphasis on decision-making power.
Africa’s political independence was accompanied by a clarion call to
eradicate poverty, illiteracy and disease. Fifty years after the end of
colonialism, the question is: To what extent has the promise of that
call been realized for African women? There is no doubt that African
women’s long walk to freedom has yielded some results, however painfully
The African Union (AU) now has a legally binding protocol to the
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of women. The
protocol spells out clearly women’s rights to equality and
non-discrimination in a number of areas. It has been ratified by a
growing number of African states, can be used in civil law proceedings
and is being codified into domestic common law. The AU has also issued a
Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, under which member states are
supposed to regularly report on progress.
The protocol and declaration both reflect and reinforce developments
at the national level. Many African states have moved to enhance
constitutional protections for African women — particularly in the area
of women’s rights and equality. And the last two decades have seen the
emergence of legislation to address violence against women, including
Photograph: Reuters / Mowliid Ibdi
These developments have been accompanied by improvements in African
women’s political representation. The AU adopted, from its inception, a
50 per cent quota for women’s representation, which is reflected in the
composition of the AU Commission.
Again, this standard reflects and reinforces efforts to enhance
women’s representation at the national level. Angola, Mozambique and
South Africa have exceeded the 30 per cent benchmark for their
legislatures. Rwanda made history in 2008 when 56 per cent of
legislators elected to parliament were women, the highest in the world. A
few countries, including Nigeria, have seen women assume
non-traditional ministerial portfolios, in defence and finance, for
example. And Liberia also made history (“herstory”) by becoming the
first African country to elect into office a female head of state, Ellen
Progress is evident, particularly in countries that have electoral
systems based on or incorporating proportional representation. However,
enhanced women’s representation has been harder to achieve in
first-past-the-post electoral systems.
Even where there has been progress, the question is whether increased
representation of women is catalyzing action by the executives and
legislatures in favour of gender equality. That question arises because
the battle for women’s representation is not only demographic (with
political representation as an end) but also for gender equality (with
political representation as a means).
Put another way, there has been a shift in the focus and strategy of
the African women’s movement over the last two decades, from emphasizing
capacity-building to improve African women’s access to resources to
emphasizing decision making to enhance African women’s control over
resources. This shift was made possible by real gains resulting from the
Education, poverty, health
These gains are most evident in African women’s education. Girls and
boys are now at par with respect to primary school enrolment. Efforts to
get girls into school have been accompanied by efforts to keep them in
school and to promote role models by developing gender-responsive
curricula. Gender gaps are also narrowing in secondary education. The
real challenge now lies at the university level, both in the enrolment
figures and in curricula to benefit young women. So much for the
“illiteracy” element of the African independence clarion call.
Gains for women are harder to see in that call’s “poverty” element,
however. It is true that since independence investments in micro-credit
and micro-enterprises for women have improved their individual
livelihoods — and therefore those of their families. Since African women
have proved that they are good lending risks, micro-credit is now being
offered not just by development and micro-finance institutions, but
also by commercial financial institutions.
Yet there was a critique of such investments, especially in the
decade of the 1980s when governments withdrew from social service
delivery as a result of structural adjustment programmes. Under those
circumstances, such investments essentially enabled redistribution among
the impoverished, rather than at a larger level from the rich to the
The end of that era thus saw a new focus on gender budgeting: looking
at where national budget allocations and expenditures could enhance
women’s status in the economy. Unsurprisingly, this approach has led
African governments back towards public investments in social services.
It is now agreed, for example, that the benchmark for public
investments in health in Africa is 15 per cent. The African women’s
movement has called in particular for more to be directed towards
reproductive and sexual health and rights. These areas are of critical
concern to women, given the impact of HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality and
violence against women, particularly in conflict areas. They are also of
concern since African women’s continued lack of autonomy and choice
over reproduction and sexuality lie at the heart of so much suffering.
So much for the “disease” element of the independence call.
Where to over the next 50 years, then? In light of the experience so
far, the African women’s movement will be focusing not just on political
representation, but also on the meaning of that representation for
advancing gender equality and women’s human rights. And given recent
retreats in Africa (such as the rise of the constitutional coup and
“negotiated democracy”), the women’s movement will also be focusing on
democracy, peace and security more broadly — that is, on the nature of
the political system itself and not just on the means of getting into
Economically, women will continue to focus on the macro-level, but in
a deeper sense. What has emerged from gender budgeting efforts is the
need to actually track budgetary expenditures, not just getting
information about allocations.
It is also necessary to concentrate on the macro-economic framework
for fiscal and monetary policies, especially in the context of
stabilization programmes in response to the recent economic shocks.
Previously that framework was assumed to be gender-neutral, but it
clearly can have gendered consequences. This problem must be addressed
to ensure that Africa’s growth will enhance women’s livelihoods.
Finally, the women’s movement will be focusing on reproductive and
sexual health and rights. The battle over choice (including over gender
identity and sexual orientation) is now an open one in many African
countries. It is no longer couched politely in demographic or health
The upsurge of conservative identity politics (in both ethnic and
religious terms) is fuelling conflict on the continent. It constrains
and dangerously limits women’s human rights, including reproductive and
sexual rights. Such notions are not harmless — they have grave
consequences for women’s autonomy, choice and bodily integrity. They
therefore must be challenged.
African women’s long walk to freedom has only just begun.