Celebrating a decade of the African Women’s Rights Protocol

Wednesday, 10 July 2013 02:07 GMT

Women cross the Qunu River near former South African President Nelson Mandela's house in Qunu, June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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It remains a fact that gender parity is a challenge for women across the globe. Yet the African continent boasts an exemplary legal instrument that guarantees comprehensive rights to women - The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women, which will be marking it 10 year anniversary on July 11, 2013.

It remains a fact that gender parity is a challenge for women across the globe. Yet the African continent boasts an exemplary legal instrument that guarantees comprehensive rights to women - The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women, which will be marking it 10 year anniversary on July 11, 2013.  Commonly referred to as the Maputo Protocol, this progressive convention aims to make it possible for women in Africa to take part in the political process, to achieve social and political equality with men, to take charge of their reproductive health and to put an end to harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation.  As the name suggests, it was adopted by the African Union (AU) at the Union’s second summit in Maputo, Mozambique on July 11, 2003. Having been ratified by the required 15 member nations of the African Union, the Protocol entered into force on November 25, 2005.  By January 2013, 48 of the 54 AU member states had signed the Protocol, 36 of which have now ratified and deposited their instrument to the African Union.

Established in 2004, The Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR) is made up of 43 civil society organizations from across Africa with the secretariat hosted by Equality Now in Nairobi, Kenya.  The coalition has played an important role in exerting pressure on governments during AU summits and other important regional and national meetings to not only push for ratifications, but also for African women to enjoy the rights provided in the Protocol.  The 18 countries who have not yet to ratified the Protocol are Algeria, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Sao Tome & Principe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Tunisia. 

Although ratifications are a necessary step to securing women’s rights in Africa, major challenges remain which are deeply embedded social and cultural factors that are extremely difficult to tackle.  The key challenge is to ensure that the Protocol becomes a tool for women’s empowerment and a force for freedom in Africa. To overcome these challenges, there is a need to create awareness among civil society organizations at national and grassroots levels so that they may use the Protocol as a tool to hold member states accountable.   The practitioners of the law such as lawyers, judges, or the police can play a role in how the Protocol is implemented and domesticated nationally, while the general public can be involved by understanding how to use it and by participating more in debates on issues that affect their day to day lives that the Protocol addresses.  Government officials can also be trained to commit to women’s rights across all sectors.

SOAWR has been working closely with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to promote good practices in the implementation of the various provisions of the Protocol and to lend support to Member States to meet their obligations under the Protocol.  Coalition Member Center for Human Rights (University of Pretoria) collaborated with the Commission in generating the first ever General Comments focusing on the Protocols’ articles (Article 14). The General comments provide specific guidance about the States’ obligations under these provisions. 

The Maputo Protocol is seen by SOAWR as a particularly relevant tool to protect the human rights of women in Africa as it highlights issues not effectively covered by other legal instruments but which have particular relevance to the reality of the continent. It is a legal instrument born within the African context and from an African-led process.  Yet legal exceptions are still widespread in national constitutions and in the statutes governing areas such as sexual rights, marital property, inheritance, land and labour. More work needs to be done in promoting common values to strengthen the campaign as it proceeds towards domestication/implementation.

There have been three generations of committed campaigners who have regenerated the movement leading to its growth and sustenance. One of the key players is the Director of Equality Now in Nairobi, Faiza Mohamed.

“Age of marriageability, exclusion or restriction based on sex, violence of any form against women, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, matters of separation, divorce or annulment of marriage particularly under customary law, inheritance laws, health and reproductive rights of women such as the right to safe abortion, the right of women to participate in political and decision making process – these are all touchy issues in many African contexts that have either been relegated to the private sphere or have resulted in women consistently bearing the brunt of the inexistence of provisions that cater to their well-being when confronted by such circumstances. However through this instrument African leaders have joined in to once and for all address discrimination and violence against women and girls,” said Mohamed.

One of SOAWR’s objectives is to strengthen the coalition and its members’ lobbying capabilities in a bid to achieve continent-wide ratification of the AU Protocol on the Rights of Women preferably without harmful reservations and to increase the lobbying capabilities of the SOAWR Coalition members to promote the Protocol and hold member states accountable. Together with strategic partners, SOAWR has been involved in capacity-building exercises and workshops that have not only boosted the partnership, but have also been behind the success in ratifications. The exercises and workshops have also raised debates on key issues that need to be addressed for the Protocol to gain acceptance.

“Coalition members across the continent are key, and can contribute to increased public debate on issues surrounding the formulation of laws that empower women, as well as the implementation and domestication of the Protocol,” said Dinah Musindarwezo, Executive Director of The African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET).

This is a long-term goal that requires determination and persistence. It is one that the SOAWR Coalition remains committed to achieving. While the coalition and its partners understand the uphill task ahead, they look back at the ten years since the Protocol’s adoption and appreciate its journey.


--Faiza Jama Mohamed is the Nairobi Office Director for Equality Now