Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-SOUTHERN AFRICA: Ground-breaking Gender Protocol Signed

Zahira Kharsany

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 18 2008 (IPS) - Gender activists breathed a sigh of relief when a long-delayed gender protocol was signed at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit this weekend. Women bear the brunt of social injustice and problems on the African continent, ranging from access to clean water, poor health care, access to economic opportunities or adequate protection before the law.

The protocol calls for 50 percent representation by women at all levels of government by 2015 and further calls for member states to put in place legislative measures which guarantee that political and policy structures are gender sensitive. It draws up a plan of action setting specific targets and time frames for achieving gender equality in all SADC countries as well as effective monitoring and evaluation.

The document covers 25 articles on different aspects ranging from access to justice and education as well as ensuring women's rights is included in member states' constitutions.

One of the highest priorities within the document is putting legislative measures in place to promote and ensure practical realisation of equality of women. The protocol states: "Member states shall adopt and implement legislative and other measures to eliminate all practices which negatively affect the fundamental rights of women, men, girls and boys, such as their right to life, health, dignity, education or physical integrity".

SADC counties who sign the protocol agree to support equal access to education and to free quality primary and secondary education to aim for the eradication of illiteracy by 2020. "They (member states) should eliminate gender discrimination and stereotypes in the curriculum, career choices and professions while putting in place gender sensitivity training programmes for educators and stakeholders," the document states.

The gender protocol also calls for governments in the region to prohibit all forms of gender-based violence, including marital rape. The document has a provision which will ensure perpetrators of all forms of gender-based violence are tried by a competent court of justice.

HIV/AIDS is also addressed. The SADC region has the highest number of fatalities across the globe. The protocol calls for necessary steps to be taken to prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS among women, men, girls and boys, including persons with disabilities. It also stresses the importance of female-controlled prevention methods.

"These prevention efforts will be based on an understanding of the underlying gender power relations that fuel the pandemic, the challenges encountered by women in insisting on safe sex and the need for behaviour change."

Long overdue

Seven years in the making, the document is seen as a ground-breaking commitment that will put gender rights at the forefront of the SADC plan of action and provide a clear roadmap for the region's leaders to move towards gender equality. Regional heads of state had postponed signing the document on two previous occasions and activists are hoping that this would be implemented on schedule.

Though it was signed by 12 heads of state, the protocol met opposition from Botswana and Mauritius at this year's summit. Speaking to IPS, a member of the Mauritian delegation, who wished to remain anonymous, voiced concern that the protocol meant that their constitution would have to be changed.

"For just one word we would have to change our entire constitution," he said. "Also the amount to change our constitution will cause financial constraints on our country."

He was referring to the affirmative action clause found in the protocol. It is believed that the same objection was raised by the Botswana delegation.

Next challenge: implementation

In a statement, 180 media practitioners, analysts, activists, critics and editors who participated in the Gender and Media Summit just ahead of the SADC meeting described the Protocol "as the most far reaching of any sub-regional instrument for achieving gender equality."

Participants said it was time for southern Africa to move from being "a region of commitments, to one of action".

Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of GenderLinks, a South Africa-based NGO which works across the southern Africa region for the equal participation of women and men in public and private life, told IPS that she was thrilled by the outcome.

"It has been a very long journey for us. The protocol has been watered down and we are not entirely happy by that. But there are 23 concrete targets set down that each country must work towards. It is one of the most concrete and explicit document on gender equality in the region, and it will be a challenging target to all governments."

The watering down that Morna is referring to is the exclusion of key provisions on marital rape, cohabitation and the rights of vulnerable groups. She also pointed out that contradictions between customary law and constitutional provisions for gender equality are not explicitly addressed.

Morna emphasised that the economic provisions provided in the protocol's affirmative action plan were "superb".

Morna said that the challenge now was putting in place the structures and strategies within each of signing nations over the next seven years.

The Africa Protocol Alliance, which unites 42 organisations from all 14 SADC member states, is developing an action plan to support governments in meeting the targets set for them in the next seven years. The protocol calls for governments to launch public awareness campaigns and report bi-annually on progress towards achieving the commitments outlined in the protocol.

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