Legal reform for women and girls gathering pace on African continent

Monday, 21 September 2015 09:41 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

NAIROBI, KENYA - During the last year, we have unfortunately seen many familiar challenges for African women and girls. Ending female genital mutilation (FGM)child marriagesexual violence and fixing laws which discriminate on the basis of sex have all been ongoing struggles.

However, following years of work by African activists, we have seen some quite significant progress too on the same fronts. On July 2nd, Sierra Leone became one of the last countries in West Africa to ratify the African Union’s women’s rights framework, also known as the ‘Maputo Protocol’.

This follows Tunisia, which signed it in January. Only Botswana and Egypt have yet to sign, although subsequent ratification and implementation is where practical change in the lives of women and girls can take place.

Efforts to end FGM have been bearing fruit recently too. In May, Nigeria, a country with one of the highest number of women and girls affected by FGM in the world, finally banned this extreme form of violence. Kenya has continued to lead the continent in terms of falls in prevalence, while Equality Now supported the first ever FGM prosecution in Egypt, which ended successfully on appeal earlier this year. 

13 year old Soheir Al-Batea died after a doctor mutilated her in June 2013. 27.2 million women and girls in Egypt have been affected by FGM – the highest number globally. It is also increasingly being performed by health personnel in medical environments, a huge risk to the ongoing campaign to end it.

Child marriage is often directly related to FGM – particularly in Africa. We have seen change on that front too. Late last year, Malawi took the vital step of setting a minimum age of marriage of 18. Tanzania also re-committed to strengthening its efforts to end both child marriage and FGM.

Laws which enable women to be equal to men are vital to ensure obstacles are removed to their full participation in social, economic and political life. Without these, they do not have a level playing field and cannot live their lives freely and in the way they wish. The law codifies the value of people. If half of humanity is considered to be of less worth, then that group of people tends to experience greater harms and obstacles throughout their lives. 

The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, an initiative led by Equality Now, the Equal Rights Trust, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, UNHCR and the Women’s Refugee Commission, has been part of this positive change for legal equality for women. Together, we are calling on all governments to amend all nationality or citizenship laws which discriminate on the basis of sex. 

Women tend to be disproportionately affected by these types of discriminatory laws. State services such as education and healthcare can be less accessible to their children with non-national men, while limitations to freedom of movement and other rights are common. An Equality Now report, published last year, suggests that “losing her nationality of origin can leave a woman especially vulnerable if her marriage ends, particularly if her children have their father's nationality. 

Some African countries have made progress in recent years on fixing sexist nationality laws, including Senegal, which now grants Senegalese women the same rights as men to transfer their nationality to their husband and children. Sierra Leone has pledged to do likewise and improvements are anticipated in Togo and Liberia. 

African activists have fought for many decades to reach this point, where countries seem to be influencing the behaviour of their neighbours to make legislative advances to improve the lives of all African women and girls. Momentum is growing by the day, but we cannot afford to take anything for granted. 

Equality Now’s global campaign to fix all laws which discriminate against women is gathering pace too. Over half of the sexist laws we highlighted in our initial report in 1999 have been either repealed or amended, but twenty years after 189 governments committed to legal equality for women, we are still calling on governments to fix all of their #UnsexyLaws and help ensure that every woman and girl can live her life fully and freely.

Equality Now's Africa office is secretariat for the Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) coalition of 46 civil society organisations, working across 24 countries. Established in 2004, SOAWR works to ensure that the rights of girls and women as articulated in the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa are prioritised by policy makers on the African continent.