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Major gatherings assess women’s progress in Africa

Published Dec 6, 2009 9:21 PM

Two recent conferences held on the African continent reaffirmed the determination of women to achieve genuine equality and political empowerment. The Eighth Africa Regional Conference on Women (Beijing+15) took place in Banjul, Gambia, in West Africa, Nov. 16-20. It featured reports on progress made towards achieving the goals adopted during the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995.

The Pan-African Women Conference 2009 was held in Sandton, South Africa, October 21-23. This yearly gathering is sponsored by Pan-African Women Projects and a network of women’s groups and organizations from around the continent.

Every year, women from the 54 African nations as well as the Diaspora participate in the PAWC. The theme of this year’s conference was “African Women Marching against Poverty.”

A statement by the event’s organizers declares, “African women have decided to fight poverty both in homes and in the continent as from the previous conferences, it was clearly understood and unanimously agreed that the primary cause of all the problems facing the African woman and Africa in general is this ugly cankerworm called POVERTY.” (panafricanwomenconference.org)

The statement points out: “Poverty has caused coups and wars in the nations of Africa. It has given birth to numerous ills including deaths, crime, prostitution and human trafficking, forced and early marriages, illiteracy, child labour and slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, etc.”

The conference was attended by more than 3,000 women from various regions. Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, first lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and chairperson of the Association of Wives of Heads of States/Presidents of Africa, delivered the opening address.

The keynote address was delivered by Graca Machel-Mandela, spouse of former South African President Nelson Mandela and a major figure in conflict mediation and child welfare on the continent. Eighteen presentations were delivered at the PAWC, including ministers representing women’s affairs and social development from various African states.

One of the PAWC’s highlights was the formal launching of the blueprint for a Pan-African Women’s Bank that would provide credit for development projects benefiting women and girls on the continent. In addition, the architectural design for the Pan-African Women Projects’ headquarters was unveiled by the president of the Republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Women meet in Banjul

The Eighth Africa Regional Conference on Women (Beijing+15) met to assess progress in the ongoing struggle for gender equality and empowerment on the continent. Prior to the conference, experts met November 13-14 to discuss and prepare recommendations for the ministerial gathering that was held Nov. 16-19.

On Nov. 21, ministers of Women and Gender Affairs convened to consider numerous African Union documents related to women and gender issues, including the Women’s Trust Fund feasibility study, the African Union Commission Gender Action Plan and the Roadmap for the African Women’s Decade, slated for 2010-2020. The meeting also provided reports on the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa.

In the opening ceremony of the ministerial meeting, the director of Women, Gender and Development Directorate, Litha Musyimi-Ogana, reiterated the political commitment of the AU to gender equality and empowerment for women.

So far 27 AU member states have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women and 30 have addressed the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. Musyimi-Ogana, speaking on behalf of AU Commission chairperson, Jean Ping, reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to develop an African Women Trust Fund, stating that “this move will pave the way for the realization of the objectives presented in the Road Map for the African Women’s Decade and in the Decade Action Plan.” (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Julia Dolly Joiner, political affairs commissioner of the AU Commission, placed the conference within the context of the global economic crisis, saying, “We gather at a time when the financial, economic and environmental crises that the world faces together represent no other than a human rights crisis and increasingly pose a challenge to the 12-point women’s empowerment and gender equality agenda that we had set for ourselves in Beijing in 1995.” (Foroyaa Online, Nov. 24)

Joiner emphasized: “This reality is more apparent for Africa than any other part of the globe. The consequence for us is clear—we must respond to the voices of the marginalized who call on us to act in a situation where their human rights took a backseat to a globalization that swept the world into a frenzy of growth and environmental degradation. At this time of crisis, we are all called upon to be bold in thought and action, as we strive to move towards a system that is inclusive, sustainable and respectful of universal rights.”

In a major address, Monique Rakotomalala, director of the African Centre for Gender and Social Development of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, indicated that after the Beijing+15 conference several major objectives had been identified for action. One major area was maternal health and mortality, noting that women should not die anymore while giving birth.

Rakotomalala emphasized: “In the context of high food prices due to the impact of global warming, the meeting must act to ensure food security as a right for women. Action applies also to employment as it paves the way to empowerment.” She ended her address by pledging UNECA’s commitment to work with the AU in implementing the outcomes of the conference and to develop young women leaders. (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Dr. Aja Isatou Njie-Saidy, vice-president of the host nation, the Republic of Gambia, said in her conference address that participants must “review progress, analyze current challenges and plan the way forward for ensuring the advancement and empowerment of women and girls, the poor and the most marginalized members of our society.” (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Njie-Saidy stated that the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020 will provide “impetus for African women as it will provide them with the opportunity to consolidate gains made in the quest to attain gender equality and to close existing gaps that serve as barriers to the attainment of these laudable goals.” She said that the AU Fund for Women “will provide the much needed resources that women need to concretize their dreams and ambitions. Africa is on the move and the trend is irreversible.”

The resolutions from the Banjul conference will be presented to the upcoming U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, to be held in New York in March.

Two panels were convened at the Banjul conference by Women in Law and Development in Africa. One panel entitled “Women’s rights implementation in Africa: what has been achieved so far” was held on Nov. 17.

A Nov. 18 panel focused on “Women’s access to land: issues, challenges and expectations of West Africa rural women.” The panel examined issues involving women farmers and their access to land in West Africa and the need to advocate for national and local authorities to develop policies geared toward women’s sustainable access to land.