Women assess continent's progress since Beijing

Banjul — The Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 set out an agenda to address gender equality in priority areas, including poverty, education, and health care. It also committed governments to address violence against women, equitable access to economic resources and decision-making power.

"Overall, there has been progress made, but we are not yet there," said U.N. Under-Secretary General Dr Abdoulie Janneh at the opening of a regional review of progress implementing the Beijing plan.

Six hundred people from 43 African countries took part, including gender experts, civil society organisations, and government officials were present in the Gambian capital, Banjul for the review.

There was good news with respect to women's representation in government. Participants were encouraged by the growing number of women in powerful political positions in Africa.

Liberia has the continent's first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and women serve in senior positions in several other countries as speakers of parliament, prime ministers and vice-presidents, including the host for the conference, the Gambia, whose vice president, Aja Isatou-Njie-Saidy, attended every session.

A variety of affirmative action measures including quotas have helped six countries elect parliaments comprising at least 30 percent women; Rwanda's legislature has the highest proportion of women in the world, with 56 percent of members of parliament being women.

Fatou Kargbo, director of Gender and Children Affairs in Sierra Leone, said her country had seven ministers and deputy ministers, 18 parliamentarians and about 45 percent of local councillors were female.

"In the whole of Africa," Kargbo added," we have the first and only female brigadier. Our deputy inspector-general of police is a women; our chief justice is a woman, two of the regional police heads are women"

But Kargbo pointed to the constitution as an obstacle to electing women. "We are now campaigning for proportionate form of election that will give women more chance to be in parliament."

The Fifteen-Year Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in Africa Synthesis Report, produced by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa to cover 1995-2009 says that despite the immense achievements made with women's representation in politics, there are still stiff challenges ahead to meet the 50/50 target.

"Leadership and decision-making positions are still closed, and would require creative and innovative measure if the number of women is to increase."

The Sudanese minister for women's affairs, Agnes K. Lasuba, said for women to be included in the top levels of decision-making in her country would take a long time.

"After emerging from the (decades-long civil war), we have taken an affirmative approach," Minister Lusaba said. "But we have our constitution and other issues of tradition and custom tend to undermine our endeavor. It would be done but slowly."

Another area of qualified success for Africa is increased gender parity in primary school education. Thanks to measures like free and compulsory education, more than 60 percent of African countries have already reached the gender parity target.

However many girls fail to progress to higher levels of education. The synthesis report is also critical of education content as being irrelevant to the job market, and a perceived deterioration in the quality of education across the continent.

The synthesis report is critical of progress on women's health. Budgets for health have generally increased, and sexual and reproductive health programmes have been created.

But in terms of HIV/AIDS, women remain disproportionately affected by the pandemic, accounting for 60 percent of people living with AIDS.

Africa's rate of maternal morbidity, the proportion of women in Africa who face serious complications during pregnancy, remains the highest in the world.

"Although all countries report that they have established programmes of action, this has not yet translated into substantial gains in fighting maternal mortality and other women's reproductive rights and health challenges. This is caused primarily by the inadequacy of medical personnel and limited access to emergency obstetric care."

There appears to be little good news in the area of reducing poverty for African women. The Synthesis Report says governments need to do more to reduce poverty. "So far, there is no evidence to show that existing policies and strategies have curbed the feminisation of poverty in Africa."

And with the global economic downturn, the trend is expected to grow worse.

"The global economic crisis is likely to hit African women on two fronts," the synthesis report says. "First, it arrests capital accumulation by women; second, it is drastically reducing African women's individual incomes as well as the budgets they manage on behalf of their households, with particularly damaging consequences for the girl-child."

Another important area of concern is the escalating rate of violence against women. Nearly every country has taken steps to enact or strengthen of legislation protecting women, but there remain significant weaknesses in implementation, as well as in laws covering violence within the family.

Fatou Kargbo, director of Gender and Children Affairs in Sierra Leone, said her country had developed five acts of parliament, in addition to ratifying numerous international and regional protocols aimed at protecting women from violence.

The problems, she said, persist due to a lack of human and financial resources to implement laws and policies. "Look, we are even supposed to be going to the provinces to monitor, but we could not," she said.

As for the causes of violence, Litha Musyami-Ogana, director of the African Union's Gender and Development Directorate, said these should not be looked for only in war and armed conflict, but in the unequal relationship between men and women. Many women lack economic power, and have to depend on men who take advantage of this to harm them.

"We also have an unhelpful justice system where the police do not take violence against women seriously. And courts are not as well helpful," Musyami-Ogana added. "We are caught in a system where violence against women is yet to be appreciated as criminal."

In the end, it is a familiar refrain: policies and programmes need to be backed and implemented by governments if they are to have full effect.

"The time to revisit our habits and actions is now," said Lalla Ben Barka, deputy executive secretary of UNECA, " because women are still bearing the brunt of all types of shortcomings, crises, wars, and conflicts."


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