In Africa women have been in the forefront of movements toward national liberation, social and environmental justice, and gender equality.
A host of events took place in March across the African continent and in the Diaspora recognizing the contributions and advancements of women and examining the ongoing challenges. African Union member states have called for full equality for women in governmental and economic affairs, while raising questions about the pace of change and the various states’ commitment to implementing these goals.
In Liberia a third regional workshop on gender, the environment and land tenure was held, sponsored by the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF). Women participated from 16 different countries.
Afterwards, 150 women held a march to present their findings to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of three women heads of state on the continent. Johnson-Sirleaf has promised to institute land reform benefitting the social interests of women, who do much of the agricultural work throughout Africa.
A March 4 article published in The New Dawn newspaper, based in the capital of Monrovia, states, “In Liberia, as in most Central and West African countries, indigenous peoples and local communities do not own the land and forests on which they have lived and cultivated for generations. … As Liberia moves towards adopting a new policy on land ownership … many customary traditions do not yet respect the rights and abilities of women in land governance and, as currently written, Liberia’s proposed land reform policy has no safeguards for women.”
REFACOF President Cecile Ndjebet challenged Johnson-Sirleaf to honor previous pledges to include strong protections for women in pending legislation.
In the Republic of South Africa, the National Assembly passed a bill mandating gender equality on March 5. The Women Empowerment and Gender Equity Bill represents the continuation of similar legislation enacted over the last two decades since the African National Congress came to power.
Minister for Women Affairs Lulu Xingwana called passage of the legislation “a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” (South African Press Association, March 5)
In the same article, Department of Women, Children and People With Disabilities spokesperson Motalatale Modiba said the bill “calls for the progressive realization of at least 50 percent representation of women in decision-making structures.” According to the article, “It also aims at improving access to education, training and skills development. The Bill seeks to promote and protect women’s reproductive health, and eliminate discrimination and harmful practices, including gender-based violence.”
In the Southern African Development Community region a protocol mandates that 50 percent of all decision-making positions should be occupied by women. However, only one-third of the member countries are anywhere near these goals. Only Seychelles and South Africa have achieved levels above 40 percent.
In a March 8 statement, SADC Executive Secretary Dr. Tax Stergomina applauded the advancement made by women but stressed that “Many of our communities, especially women and girls in rural areas, continue to face challenges that include harmful traditional/religious practices, and violence against women and children. … Lack of access to and ownership of resources such as land continues to be a challenge for basic livelihood necessary for poverty eradication, food security and sustainable development.”
In the Republic of Zimbabwe, Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development Minister Oppah Muchinguri issued a statement: “We are happy that the new constitution provides for the establishment of Gender Commission which will work as a watchdog in ensuring that all State institutions abide with gender equality provisions.” (Zimbabwe Herald, March 10)
Muchinguri applauded provisions in the new constitution that place stiffer penalties on those convicted of domestic violence. She said, “We should continue lobbying for deterrent sentences for rape and stiffer penalties for other forms of gender-based violence.”
Race and gender politics
In Britain, many African women feel racism and national oppression are not understood by many white feminists.
In a March 7 Guardian article, writer and activist Armit Wilson noted, “For many of us — Black, Muslim, trans, lesbian, queer and disabled — police harassment is commonplace and specialist refuges and services for women facing violence built over decades by Black feminists are being closed down. Can anyone honestly say that these things do not represent or shape experiences of gender for a vast number of women? And yet the mainstream feminist movement says little (and does less) about these issues. This status quo needs challenging.”
In the article, Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi said, “There have always been conflicts and disagreements between women belonging to the upper-middle classes in the global west or north and the majority of women in the south or east who belong to working classes. For example, working-class women in the U.S. supported African women when others called us ‘women of the third world’ and we were not happy with that term. … It is really a matter of understanding the links between oppression by gender, by race, class and religion.”