Africa's gender agenda 50 years on

Women fetching water. (Photo:
African Agenda)

The July 2012 election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the position of Chair of the African Union represented not only a milestone in the continental body's history, but it also an affirmation that African women occupying leadership positions had come a long way since the Organization of African Unity was established 50 years ago.

At the time of independence, despite being part and parcel of the different liberation struggles and being members of parliament, in a number of countries, and holding ministerial positions in countries like Ghana and Guinea, there was no similar effort to ensure women's voices were heard at continental level with the establishment of the OAU. And whereas voices such as Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana were posing questions such as “What part can the women of Africa and the women of African descent play in the struggle for African emancipation?”, the Charter of the OAU had no reference to women or the roles they could play, or how the institution could support their advancement or address focus on gender as well as actively ensuring issues of gender equality.

The situation is different today. There has been a greater recognition of and attention to the role of women in Africa's integration and development processes. The African Union, successor to the Organization of African Unity has taken a different stance on gender issues focusing on both the institutional mechanisms that focus on gender as well as actively ensuring women have leadership roles in the organization. For the main institution promoting Africa's integration, 50 years of engaging with various actors particularly, civil society groups and organizations has resulted in a number of positive changes with regards to raising the profile of gender and gender issues in Africa's international institutions, and through the institutions to African countries.

When the Organization of African Unity was established in 1963, the main impetus for the Heads of State championing the formation of the body was to among others solidify political and economic links in order to “consolidate the hard-won independence as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our states and to fight against neo-colonialism in all its forms”. To do this the organization aimed to “harness the natural and human resources of our continent for the total advancement of our peoples in all spheres of endeavor”.

The role of women in this grand scheme for Africa was little mentioned. In fact there was not one mention of women or gender equality in the Charter establishing the OAU, and despite the efforts by African women's groups and organizations for the organization to advance the gender equality issues, it took the OAU 29 years to set up the Gender and Development Directorate, GDD.


It was one thing however to set up the Gender Directorate and another to make it effective. Even after the Gender and Development Directorate was set up its impact on the organization was minimal. The GDD was essentially hampered in its ability to carry out its work by a number of weaknesses. Insufficient human and financial resources were major challenges. In addition the layers of bureaucracy that it had to work through limited the Directorate’s ability to both attract needed funding and to develop and undertake programmes that addressed gender gaps.

The OAU also had a dismal record when it came to women in leadership positions. Up until the time the OAU was succeeded by the AU there were few, if any, women in leadership positions. The weaknesses of the OAU on gender equality issues gave it little leverage in calling on its member states to address issues of gender.

When the OAU was succeeded by the African Union in 2002, it adopted a different approach to gender issues. Unlike the OAU, which, as a consequence of its time the post-colonial period, and the height of the East-West superpower divide - was all about establishing the continent as a power, a force in its own right, the African Union (AU) came into being when neoliberal globalization was at its height. Ostensibly part of its response to the current political and economic global outlook was to set out might be described as a more people-centric approach, seeking among others to pro-mote democratic principles and institutions, encourage the participation of various constituencies and promote good governance principles.

Women have been a key constituency in Africa's development and right from its establishment the AU has recognized the need to engage with women. The promotion of gender equality is one of the principles set out in the Constitutive Act. Thus the AU seeks to build “partnerships “between governments and all segments of civil society, in particular women ...”.


Like the OAU, the AU has established a gender unit, the Women, Gender and Development Directorate (WGDD). However, unlike the OAU, there has been an effort to support the work of the WGDD. Located in the office of the Chairperson of the AU Commission the WGDD has political support to carry out its mandate of mainstreaming gender, undertaking research and advocacy and building capacity on issues of gender within the AU and its organs (including the regional economic communities - RECs) as well as within member states.

Since its establishment the WGDD had a role in a number of positive initiatives on gender equality championed by the AU. In 2003 African Heads of State and Government adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women, the Maputo Protocol. The Protocol which went into effect in 2005 is a landmark in the push for gender equality in Africa although not without controversy. It seeks to combat discrimination and violence against women, as well as promote and ensure the rights of African women.

As of January 2013, 46 of the 53 members of the AU have signed the Protocol, 36 countries have ratified it and there are 4 countries that have neither signed nor ratified the instrument. The WGDD has, together with African women's right groups, been engaged in advocacy for various government to ratify the Protocol.

The African Women's Decade is an initiative spearheaded by the WGDD. Launched in 2010, the decade is expected to review progress made towards attaining gender equality and women's empowerment. It is also expected that concrete actions to accelerate progress on the goals will be identified as well as measures to increase and secure funding for gender equality and women's empowerment programmes would be taken. Over the ten year period, themes to be focused on will include, fighting poverty and promoting economic empowerment and entrepreneurship; agriculture and food security; environment and climate change; finance and gender budgets and women in decision making positions.

Already the AU has made an effort to increase the number of women in decision making positions particularly in the AU commission based on the principle of gender parity. Currently six of the ten AU Commissioners are women, holding portfolios such as Trade and Industry, Human Resources, Science and Technology and Rural Economy and Agriculture. There have been steps taken to ensure the gender parity principle holds true at the level of heads of divisions and eventually throughout the Commission and the other arms of the AU albeit with different levels of success.

Yet despite the positives chalked by the AU in advancing the gender equality and women's empowerment agenda, there still remain a number of challenges that not only impact the effectiveness of the institution's own gender programme, but also impact its ability to influence member states on their on gender programmes.

Two of the critiques of the erstwhile Gender and Development Directorate of the OAU was it was poorly staffed and it was far removed from the executive arm of the organization. The layers of bureaucracy that it had to muddle through made it difficult to attract the needed funding. It can be imagined that bridging these layers informed the decision to locate the Women, Gender and Development Directorate in the Office of the Chairman of the Commission. Yet the WGDD continues to be constrained by the lack of sufficient human and sufficient financial resources to carry out its programmes.

There are similarities with national level gender focused institutions. In Ghana for example, the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs recently given a new designation as the Ministry of Gender and Social Protection, was one of the least budgeted for ministries. Its budgetary allocation was but a fraction of what other ministries received and much of that was dependent on donor inflows.

Yet while there are similarities there are also dissimilarities.

With the exception of Rwanda which in actual fact is the only country in the world in which women have a majority in parliament, and Mozambique and South Africa which have a high percentage of women in parliament, African countries continue to do poorly in terms of women in governance. Women continue to be on average less than 20% of the parliament, far less than the recommended 30% threshold. Leadership positions in African continues to be male dominated. Only two of Africa’s presidents are women - President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and President Joyce Banda of Malawi. A number of governments have made efforts to appoint women to high positions - in Ghana Justice Georgina Wood is Chief Justice and the 4th most important person in the land. In Nigeria Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the Minister of Finance.

Women continue to confront multiple challenges in making it to the government table. Systemic prejudices often mean that the entry barrier to public life is raised higher for women than men.

The discussion on the progress of African institutions and gender equality cannot be without an acknowledgement of the role of African women's rights organizations and groups. Groups like FEMNET and Femme Africa Solidarite to name just two have championed the cause of African women's rights at the regional and continental level, offering support to the GDD and the WGDD as well as bringing pressure to bear on governments to bring about the necessary changes promoting women's equality and empowerment.

A look to the future isn't as bright as one might wish. The global financial and economic crisis has negatively impacted gender equality and women's empowerment efforts at various levels. States continue to grapple with less money for many of the sectors that women participate in economically, and which have impacts on their well being such as health. How this will impact on continental initiatives like the African Women's Decade remain to be seen.

For African women's groups who have been the force behind many of the continent's gender agenda initiatives, the global financial and economic crisis has manifested in a fall in available funding. Many organizations are facing funding challenges, negatively impacting their ability to undertake advocacy at the different levels. Pushing the gender agenda forward in the coming years is likely to be a challenge.

In that there is little that has changed. Advancing gender equality goals continues to be an uphill battle for Africa, African women's groups and African institutions.

Pauline Vande Pallen is Gender Programme Officer, TWN-Africa.
Source: African Agenda, Vol. 16 No. 2,
Africa- 50 years in Search of Unity.