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African Union summit addresses gender equality as

Global economic crisis impacts African women

Published Jul 5, 2009 11:09 PM

Delegates convened in Sirte, Libya, for the 13th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, a meeting of heads of state to be held July 1-3. The summit’s theme is “Invest in Agriculture for Economic Growth and Food Security.”

Over the last two years Africa has been severely affected by the downturn in the world economy, resulting in 53 million more people being thrust into poverty. As a result of the legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism, the prices of exports from the continent have gone down while the cost of food, fuel and other commodities imported into Africa has increased drastically.

One of the hundreds of women who
occupied the ChevronTexaco oil export
terminal in Escravos, Nigeria in 2002
emanding jobs, schools, water,
electricity and other neccessities.

According to Abdoulie Janneh, the United Nations Under Secretary and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the AU Executive Council—which met prior to the summit—has an essential role to play in ensuring the continent speaks with one voice on international questions involving the economic crisis, as well as the post-Kyoto negotiations related to climate change.

Janneh noted that political stability was largely dependent upon economic stability. He said the economic growth rate in Africa was 6 percent last year and could possibly drop to 2 percent by the end of 2009. Janneh appealed to the upcoming G20 summit, to be held in Pittsburg in September, to fulfill its promises of assistance made four years ago at the gathering in Gleneagles, Scotland. Billions of dollars were promised to foster economic development in Africa.

Women say gender issues must be addressed

AU Agricultural Commissioner
Rhoda Peace Tumuslime.

Prior to the AU summit, advocates for women’s rights stressed the necessity of implementing existing protocols on gender equality. In a two-day pre-summit on women, AU Agricultural Commissioner Rhoda Peace Tumuslime delivered a report on the status of gender equality on the continent.

Tumuslime discussed aspects of the history of women’s status in Africa and stressed the necessity of the AU to effectively address these issues, especially regarding agricultural production and food security. In many African countries women are responsible for the production of 80 percent or more of the food supply, yet women’s decision-making authority falls far short of their overall economic contribution to society.

“The women have always been there and they starve in order to feed their husbands. They starve in order to feed their children, and they starve in order to look after the sick, to look out for the HIV people in the hospitals. Without women, I don’t think, we would be anywhere,” Tumuslime stated in her address. (VOA, June 18)

Tumuslime also examined why the existing initiatives aimed at development have not done nearly enough to guarantee women’s equality. “We need to look at approaches that have been used in the past in trying to improve the status of rural women, build on what has worked and change strategies that have not worked.”

Other delegates to the AU pre-summit meeting on women’s affairs reported that the efforts launched to improve gender equality have made gains in Africa. Geebile Ndlove of Swaziland noted that even though equality has not been realized, “The good work that happens at the community level, it is women who are taking the lead. And then, of course, in some southern African countries, there are more and more women getting into political positions like parliament. I can’t say much for Swaziland, but it’s improved from what it was five years ago.”

In the west-African state of Nigeria, which has the largest population of any country on the continent, Luisa Ono Ellchomun told the AU gathering that there has been an increase in awareness along with new laws that protect women’s rights. “In Lagos state where I live, there’s [a] law on domestic violence to protect the rights of women in marriages,” said Ellchomun.

Helen Chasowa, a delegate from Malawi, said the government there has a goal of achieving 50 percent representation for women in most state institutions and agencies, including the vice-presidency. “For the past elections we had, we made sure we must have at least 50-50 in parliament — in all leading organizations. So we are coming up, we have achieved something.”

However, with the worsening economic situation in most African states, activists feel that the gains that have been made could be reversed during the present period.

In a paper published prior to the AU summit, Hilary N. Ervin and Caroline Muthoni Muriithi point to the effects of the world economic crisis on Africa and the specific impact on women. “The slowdown in growth will likely deepen the deprivation of the poor and the large number of people clustered just above the poverty line, who are particularly vulnerable to economic volatility and temporary slowdowns.” (Pambazuka, Issue 439)

The authors continue: “This is particularly true for African women who for a long time have been the face of poverty in Africa. In Africa many women are already struggling daily against an entrenched patriarchy, enforced through formal and informal social, cultural, political and economic practices. They often face rampant sexual and psychological abuse, which is further exacerbated by the numerous conflicts on the continent.”

Ervin and Muriithi call for the adoption and implementation of the AU’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which has only been accepted by less than half the state structures on the continent. This document demands fundamental rights for women in society.

It calls for the “elimination of female genital mutilation, the rights of widows, the rights of women to property and inheritance; calling on states to invest in social programs for women; the right to food security and housing; a right to sustainable development; the prevention of early marriage for girls; and sexual and reproductive health rights among others.”

With specific reference to the U.S.-backed government in Kenya, the paper says the fact that the “government has yet to ratify the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa is indicative of the culture of male dominance that dictates many social and cultural practices in the nation. In Kenya reproductive health is not a government priority and provision of services are extremely limited with respect to family planning and maternal health.”

In an attempt to chart a way forward, Ervin and Muriithi stress the significance of state structures investing in the improvement of the social conditions of women.

The authors illustrate the importance of enhancing the status of women in overall plans to foster economic development. “History demonstrates that investment in women’s economic security and their place within the workforce helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression and aided the stabilization of the Latin American economies during the regional economic crisis of the 1990s. However, a focus on the massive wealth of resources available on the continent and responsible adjustments that focus on the human development and specifically women’s socio-economic empowerment is important during this period of economic turmoil.”

Capitalist crisis hampers women’s liberation

It is important that advocates for gender equality in Africa are placing emphasis on the impact of the economic crisis on the status of women. Western capitalist financial institutions, whose policies have prevented the full realization of national independence on the continent, have been responsible in many ways for the failure of development programs to adequately address the necessity of abolishing inequality for women, which has been inherited from the legacies of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism.

In those African states where revolutionary national liberation movements and efforts to build socialist societies have occurred, there have been the greatest achievements in regard to the enhancement of the status of women. In South Africa, for example, women have achieved over 30 percent representation in parliament as well as representation in executive branch of government. The educational achievement of women has been mandated by legislation passed during the post-apartheid period.

During the period of the revolution in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, the nation led the continent with participation of women in government and civic affairs. Great accomplishments took place regarding education and the rights of women in family and community life.