Does Africa know women’s rights progress?
African countries, known for their penchant to ratify international conventions and other instruments, are not doing well when it comes to providing periodical reports on progress made in implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Worse yet, though the Unites States prides itself as an industrialised country and a leading democracy, this super power is unable to stand tall at the 54th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) currently underway in New York as it has failed to ratify this cornerstone of women’s rights.
Ironically, America played a key role in drafting the CEDAW and was among the first signatories in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was President. Now it is classified with poor nations such as Iran, Nauru, Palau, Sudan, Tonga, and failed states like Somalia, which have not ratified the treaty.
The key focus of this year’s CSW is the fifteen-year review of the historic Beijing Platform for Action. “African countries have a very low rating when it comes to the regularity of submitting reports detailing progress,” says Dorcas Coker-Appiah, CEDAW committee member. Signatories are expected to submit their first report one year after ratification and thereafter every four years.
Coker-Appiah singled out two reasons cited for Africa’s poor performance. First, African countries complain they lack technical capacity to put the report together. However, she counters that these countries can ask for support from United Nations’ organs such as the Division for Advancement of Women. “On several occasions when we realise that a country lacks technical capacity to come up with the report, we recommend where they can get assistance,” she says.
Second, some countries lack documentation related to interventions made by state and other stakeholders. They also find themselves without sufficient data to inform their reporting, especially if they have done little to promote women’s rights. This delays the reporting process.
Besides the poor reporting, civil society organisations are disappointed about the many reservations countries have on certain CEDAW articles. Countries in Africa and from other regions have registered reservations mainly on articles two, five, nine and 16, arguing that they conflict with their religion, culture, tradition or national laws.
Article Two calls on State Parties to condemn discrimination against women in all its forms; Article Five calls on State Parties to take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women. Article Nine requires State Parties to grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality; and Article 16 calls on State Parties to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.
These articles are at the core of women’s rights. However, despite the setbacks, African non-governmental organisations are using CEDAW as a tool to safeguard women’s rights and push governments and regional blocks to come up with gender aware instruments.
Emilia Muchawa, Director of Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) says they have used CEDAW to push for recognition of women’s rights at regional and national levels. “CEDAW informs many of the articles in the South African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development and the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women, which we vigorously fought for,” says Muchawa.
ZWLA also used CEDAW to challenge the requirement that a woman needs a father’s approval when seeking a passport or other identification documents for her child. They filed the case in the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe arguing that the law is discriminatory and goes against the spirit of the CEDAW. The ruling is yet to be given.
Arthur Okwemba is a journalist with the African Women and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, produced during Beijing +15.
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