Why more needs to be done to promote gender equality in Africa

Romi Sigsworth
Gender Specialist, ISS Pretoria
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Certain moments in time act as rallying points for particular issues. For gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s participation, 2015 is one of those points.

The year marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which produced ‘the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights’.

It is also the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325, which recognises both the unique impact of war on women; as well as their pivotal role in conflict management and sustainable peace.

The African Union (AU) has themed 2015 the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063. It is furthermore the expiry date for the commitments on gender equality and empowerment stipulated in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development; and it is the expiry date of the Millennium Development Goals, which included the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

For those involved in the gender equality sector, a year like 2015 holds several tensions. There’s recognition of how far we have come; but frustration at how little, really, has been achieved.

Events allow us this moment to revitalise the issue, but we often have to wait for such moments before any real action is taken. There is the tension between using the moment for reflection, and needing to move full-steam ahead with advocacy.

The key is in balancing these tensions and learning from the last 20 years as the agenda is set for the next 20 years. UN Women reports that currently, more women serve in political offices, enjoy legal protection against gender-based violence and live under constitutions that guarantee gender equality than at any previous point in time.

However, no country has completed the agenda set out two decades ago in the Beijing Platform for Action. Women still earn less than men and are more likely to work in poor-quality jobs, and a third of women worldwide suffer physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Gaps in reproductive rights and healthcare leave 800 women dying in childbirth each day.

The AU’s efforts to promote gender equality are laudable. These include appointing a Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security to promote the rights of women during conflict; including gender equality and women’s empowerment as a critical driver for Africa’s transformation and development in all seven aspirations of Africa’s Agenda 2063; and a strong gender component in the AU Framework on Security Sector Reform. However, the AU lacks real authority to enforce the implementation of women-empowerment policies.

Even during this year dedicated to women’s empowerment and development, gender equality has failed to feature significantly at AU summits. The SADC Gender Protocol Barometer similarly reveals patchy progress on gender equality commitments. While 11 member states have undertaken constitutional reviews that have a bearing on gender equality since 2009, women’s overall representation in Parliament has only increased from 25% in 2009 to 27% in 2015. And while 11 member states now have laws on domestic violence, gender-based violence remains one of the most direct violations of women’s rights in Southern Africa, undermining every other gain.

The lesson is that while progress, albeit slow, has been made on gender equality through international and regional agreements, these are not enough to ensure women’s empowerment or change the daily, lived reality of women. The policy and legislative framework may be in place, but the challenge is to ensure its practical, tangible and effective implementation.

Ambassador Smaïl Chergui, Commissioner for Peace and Security of the AU, says the first requirement is ‘concrete strong political will at all levels to ensure implementation and durable solutions. A second requirement is setting a transformative financing agenda to achieve these commitments. This includes increasing levels of financing to meet gender equality objectives; gender-sensitive budgeting; and enabling women’s full and equal participation in the economy.’

A third requirement must be an equally strong monitoring, evaluation and results framework, that enables states to be held accountable for their progress. A lot is being done by various organisations and even through government programmes at grassroots, but these macro-requirements are crucial for the gender transformation agenda to be implemented uniformly and to be sustainable.

A perennial fly in the ointment is that protocols at any level – and even the effective implementation of commitments – cannot necessarily change ‘gender stereotypes and deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms’ of those who are thoroughly invested in the age-old system of gender inequality. Gendered relations must be understood at every level and in every context to identify interventions that can shift established and enduring patriarchal norms.

What is clear is that 2015 has once again highlighted gender equality and women’s empowerment on the global and continental stages. The issue has been given visibility and attention that will hopefully result in renewed commitment at global, continental and local levels. Pressure must now be applied to ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment are included in the post-2015 agenda, with its sustainable development goals, and in the AU’s Agenda 2063 vision and action plan.


This article is published in collaboration with ISS. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Romi Sigsworth is a gender specialist at ISS Pretoria. 

Image: A girl selling apples by the roadside waits for customers just outside the Angolan city of Lubango, January 15, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

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AfricaGender Inequality
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