Women’s roles in the African Union and the continent

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by Runako Celina Bernard-Stevenson

Since the turn of the millennium, the African Union (AU) has made significant progress in identifying areas of much-needed improvement around gender equality and women’s participation in its own ranks, across its member states and within the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs). To date, the AU has established the Women, Gender and Development Directorate (WGDD, 2000), adopted the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (2004), declared 2010-2020 the African Women’s Decade, founded an African Women’s Fund and convenes yearly High-Level Panels on Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment. All of these actions are tied to commitments laid out in Article 4 of The Constitutive Act of the African Union, as well as in the Maputo protocol of 2002.

In addition, the majority of AU member states are signatories of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which both call for the global empowerment of women.

It is arguably in its 2009 gender policy, formulated by the WGDD, that the AU most succinctly makes its case for prioritizing the rights of women and gender equality within its own ranks and across the entire continent. The policy reasons that both women and men have worked for the liberation of the continent, and for the economic emancipation, solidarity and cohesion necessary for its integration and unity.

“Therefore, they should participate and benefit equally in development processes,” it said. At the WGDD’s gender pre-summit convened earlier this month, the WGDD’s director, Mahawa Kaba Wheeler, also shed more light on just why gender equality is such a pressing issue for the AU. In reference to Agenda 2063 she stated that “the prosperity of Africa is clearly conditioned on the opportunities that will be created for women and young people on our continent.”.

This has translated into some excitingly ambitious goals for the AU. 50/50 gender parity was the goal to be reached throughout the AU’s structures by 2015. Meanwhile, by 2025 it is envisioned that 30 percent of member states’ legislative assemblies and public offices will be comprised of women. Such feats have already been surpassed by some member states. Rwanda, for example, has famously reached over 50 percent female representation in parliament. Additionally, the AU’s commission has also been in keeping with its 50/50 target.

However, realizing such goals across the entire continent will require solid strategizing, mechanisms for accountability and evaluation, and the breaking down of several barriers which stand in contradiction to a more gender-equal future for the AU and continent. The latter would include combating negative societal norms and attitudes to women in positions of political authority as well as challenging educational attainment and opportunity, some of which are admittedly already well underway.

While the AU has achieved a degree of success within its own ranks – inviting the participation of more women, and promoting gender mainstreaming in areas where the voices of women are rarely heard, it has struggled to build the same enthusiasm and commitment amongst all member states, even those who have ratified the AU’s gender policy.

This is ultimately where the bulk of the AU’s challenge lies – What evaluative methods does the AU have to ensure the implementation of its gender-related goals, and what sanctions exist to deter states that might otherwise renege on their commitment to the AU’s gender policy and its gender mainstreaming aims?

Should the AU want to see the success achieved in their own corridors emulated across the continent, these areas will need to be of prime consideration. Ratification of the policy by member states is but half of the battle, implementation and practical application of AU gender policy continent-wide is what will bring about deep impactful change.

The momentum to bring about gender equality in the AU and the African continent shows no signs of slowing down, with ever more resources being thrown into all-new bodies such as the recently established African Union Gender and Development Initiative for Africa (GADIA). The AU clearly understands the need for a gender-equal African continent and professes its commitment to this cause, yet improvements in the way in which they relay this importance to member states and RECs would likely improve the impact that the body’s policies and initiatives have ultimately across the entire African continent.

This post was first published on CGTN. You can read the original piece here

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