Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

EAST AFRICA: Raising the Bar for Gender Equality

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jul 13 2009 (IPS) - Mention of the East African Community (EAC) usually elicits thoughts about regional trade, but a campaign is under way to use the regional body to promote gender equality.

The treaty that re-established the EAC in 1999 contains protocols on the role of women in the development of society. For example, Article 121 requires the five partner states to make necessary laws to support the “full involvement and participation of women at all stages of development, especially in decision-making”.

A decade after the treaty was signed, Rwanda leads the pack in ensuring equal participation of women and men in parliament, while Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi have improved participation of women in politics through constitutional provisions. Kenya has made negligible progress.

The campaign for an East African Declaration on Gender Equality wants all five countries to be at par in terms of gender equality laws and implementation. It is seeking a single binding legal instrument to address gender gaps in decision-making spheres such as parliament throughout the region. The campaign is being driven by the East African Sub-Regional Support Initiative (EASSI), a women’s rights organisation headquartered in Kampala.

“We want to package these concerns and lobby East African governments on the need to adopt such a document if they are serious about ensuring gender equality. Rwanda is our role model, so let us all in East Africa be at the same level,” said Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, the executive director of EASSI.

“It will not only be about a common document specifying gender equality: it is important for it to bind the States to put measures in place for implementation of such specifications.”

Legal experts from all five states are expected to start drafting the gender declaration this month.

“We are hoping that by the end of two years, our governments are going to at least accept this gender declaration, which is going to galvanise implementation of instruments promoting gender equality in line with Article 121,” Bukachi told IPS.

EASSI is pursuing its campaign by lobbying gender ministers, working through various EAC channels, and holding regional meetings of women’s rights activists. The most recent of these meetings, held in Nairobi at the end of June, criticised the manner in which governments had ratified numerous international directives aimed at ensuring gender parity, particularly in various levels of decision-making, but failed to implement them.

These commitments include the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted by world leaders following the Beijing Women’s Conference held in China 14 years ago, and the U.N. Millennium Development Goal Three. Both stipulate the establishment of initiatives promoting 50/50 level of gender equality in all sectors of decision-making, with the latter bearing a deadline of 2015.

Progress is needed in terms of national legislation as well. For example, in Uganda, the percentage of women in parliament stands at just over 30, in line with the country’s constitutional requirements for the representation of women in parliament and the public service. However, this is still below the U.N. and Beijing Platform targets.

Observers say that harmonising standards needs greater attention.

“Who is there to follow up; to ensure that the laws we have in place rhyme with international instruments promoting gender parity? So long as there is no monitoring to see that what our constitution offers is implemented in tandem with the international instruments, the laws will remain as ink on paper,” said Beatrice Ngonzi of the Ugandan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers.

The figures for women legislators in Tanzania and Burundi stand at 30.4 and 30.5 percent respectively, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Of the five East African countries, Kenya has the lowest percentage of women in parliament, just 9.8 percent.

Rwanda, which currently has the highest percentage of women lawmakers in the world – 56.3 percent – thanks to laws which guarantee seats for women in parliament. Tellingly, Rwanda also established a monitoring body earlier this year; the Gender Observatory is mandated to ensure that gender parity is upheld at all levels of government.

The positive steps Rwanda has made in achieving gender equality have been largely because of massive public awareness programmes conducted both by government and civil society organisations.

“There has been a lot of sensitisation of the public to support women leadership at all levels. We have been involved in conducting some of these activities over the years,” noted Jane Abatoni, the second vice chairperson of Profemme Twese Hamwe (“towards the promotion of women” in Kinyarwanda), an umbrella body of over 50 organisations involved in advocating for women’s rights.

While Rwanda has made giant steps towards achieving equality, Kenya is at the end of the other spectrum. The country has not passed any legislation to support equality. Analysts say numerous verbal statements on promotion of gender equality issued by government, but lacking the force of law, do little to hold leaders accountable. For instance, no action followed a 2006 presidential directive that women must form 30 percent of all newly recruited public servants.

“There is need to ensure that such directives are safeguarded by law, or there must be some methods to monitor their implementation. Without legislation on gender equality in every sphere, we are not safe at all,” Wanjiku Kabira, chairperson of the Women Political Alliance told IPS in an interview.

The campaign for an East African Declaration on Gender Equality maintains that having more women in critical decision making positions is the beginning of tackling other gender-related injustices.

“Things may change with a high number of women in parliament. A law was passed last year in Rwanda providing for strict punishment of perpetrators of gender-based violence. The large number of women ensured that the law sailed through smoothly,” Abatoni stated.

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