The true state of the state of women’s rights in Africa


The United Nations Human Rights has today launched the first-ever report on human rights of African women – and it calls for sombre reflection as the world celebrates International Women’s Day. Have a read.


Credit:Photograph by Planton (People portfolio project)

Although there are now provisions on sexual and gender based violence, economic, social and cultural rights and principle of non-discrimination in constitutions, polices and in legislations across the continent, as well as more political participation – with female participation in African legislatures outpacing many in developed countries, for example,  Rwanda (at 63.8 per cent) is ranked number one in the world, with the Senegal and South Africa in the top 10 of countries. Fifteen African countries rank ahead of France and the United Kingdom, 24 rank ahead of the United States, and 42 rank ahead of Japan.

And yet, in every country on the continent, as is the case globally, women continue to be denied full enjoyment of their rights. In Africa, 1 in 3 women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lifetime; in 6 countries there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence.

“Human rights are not a utopian fairy-tale -they are a recipe for sound institutions, more sustainable development and greater peace. I commend the African Union’s emphasis on women’s rights during this inspirational African Year of Human Rights, and I look forward to intensifying our promotion of women’s rights across the Continent in years to come. When all women are empowered to make their own choices and share resources, opportunities and decisions as equal partners, every society in Africa will be transformed,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein introducing the report.

Under the leadership of the outgoing African Union Chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, 2016 was declared the Africa Year of Human Rights with a particular focus on the rights of women. The African Women’s Right report was, commissioned by the African Union to keep the momentum to beyond 2016 declarations and it is just the first in a series of reports on the situation of women’s human rights on the continent.

“…Women’s rights is not a mere act of charity but a principle one of humanity and a precursor to inclusiveness and prosperity,” declared Dr Dlamini-Zuma adding how the report provides an update on the status of domestication of the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa ( populary known as Maputo Protocol) in all of member states and also draws attention to lesser discussed topics such as women in prison and those living with albinism.

The reports key findings include:

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights:

According to WHO, developing regions account for 99% of all maternal deaths. In 2015, 66% of all maternal deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In Rwanda, the ratio has dropped drastically since 1990 where there were 1030 deaths per 100,000 live births: by 2015, it was 390 deaths.

In 2012, there were 22 million unsafe abortions globally; 6.2 million or 29% occurred in Africa and 60% were performed on women under 25. Over 47,000 women and girls died from complications resulting from unsafe abortions. For the same period, there were 5 million disabilities which were directly linked to unsafe abortion. Mauritius amended its Criminal Code allowing termination of pregnancy in specific circumstances such as when the life of the woman is in danger or pregnancy resulting from rape including statutory rape. Nonetheless, the continent has also witnessed challenges brought about by intensified opposition that has stalled policy advancements in for example Kenya, Uganda and Sierra Leone.

Women have remained at a much higher risk of HIV infection than men. The highest rates of new infections are among young women: more than 4 in 10 new infections among women are in young women aged 15-24, emphasizing the need for ensuring better access to contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of HIV. In a number of countries, pregnant women have been asked to sign consent forms for sterilization procedures in situations of duress, such as during labour and while in severe pain.

Persons with albinism in particular women:

Albinism is the absence or near absence of pigmentation in any or all of the skin, hair and eyes. In a continent where the majority are pigmented, and 1 in 1,500 to 5,000 people have the condition, a person with albinism stands out. For centuries, people with albinism have faced discrimination, neglect and violence both within the family and in their communities. The majority of victims of this tragedy are women and children. Women and girls with albinism and mothers who give birth to children with albinism are exposed to extreme forms of violence such as the hacking of their limbs while alive. This violence is the result of erroneous beliefs including the myth that sexual intercourse with a woman with albinism can cure HIV/AIDs, that giving birth to a baby with albinism is a curse, and that body parts of people with albinism can bring wealth and power if used as part of witchcraft potions. Women are often blamed after giving birth to a child with albinism and are accused of being unfaithful or of bringing a curse to the family. As a result they are rejected by their husbands and abandoned by their communities. They are confined to poverty and further exposed to attacks and other forms of violence and discrimination. These forms of violence against persons with albinism have only been reported in Africa.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence:

Women in all countries in the world regardless of race, class, ethnicity, religion or belief, health, marital status, age, and other statuses continue to experience violence in all spheres of life, whether in the home, at school, at work, on the street, in government institutions, or in times of peace or conflict. Often, violence is exacerbated by the intersection of many socio-economic factors. For instance, women with disabilities, migrant women, women with non-binary gender identity and sexual minorities can be particularly vulnerable to violence. More than 1 in 3 women (36.6%) in Africa report having experienced physical, and/or sexual partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner. Six African countries have no legal protection for women against domestic violence: Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Lesotho, Mali and Niger.

Harmful Practices:

Child marriage: In the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage, nine are in Africa. If current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African. African child brides are most likely found in rural areas and among the poorest segment of the population. Child marriage has a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls and is often justified on traditional, religious, cultural or economic grounds. The practice is a violation of the rights of women and girls and is among the underlining and contributory factors for intimate partner sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, as well as denial of girls’ access to education and to vocational and life skills. The practice exposes girls to the risks of early pregnancy, child bearing, and motherhood before girls are often physically and psychologically ready. Only five countries in Africa have an absolute legal prohibition on child marriage, all other legislation contains exceptions permitting the marriage of children below the age of 18 with either parental consent, judicial oversight, under religious or customary law or in cases of pregnancy.

Female Genital Mutilations: FGM is a form of gender-based discrimination and violence akin to torture. This practice is not based on any valid premise and has no health benefits. It generates profoundly damaging, irreversible and life-long physical damage. It also increases the risk of neonatal death for babies born to women who have survived it. Statistics by the Demographic and Health Surveys Programme indicate significant reductions of FGM practice in cases where States have enacted and enforced comprehensive criminal sanctions against female genital mutilation. In Senegal for example, FGM prevalence has been reduced from 28% in 2005 to 25% in 2014.

Economic, social and cultural rights:

Women in Africa are making substantial contributions to Africa’s development. They perform the majority of agricultural activities, and in some countries, make up some 70 per cent of employees. Women are also central to the household economy and the welfare of their families, and they play a vital leadership role in their communities, yet women often have limited access to credit facilities and market. Some countries have found ways to encourage greater participation of women in the economy. Since 2008, the Ministry for Agriculture in Burkina Faso provides free improved seeds and subsidizes fertilizers to producers. Free seeds for niebe are provided to rural women. In Ethiopia, 60% of rural women own land. In 2013, Rwanda adopted a law guaranteeing women equal rights with men on land access, ownership and utilization.

Laws that discriminate against women:

See Also

Several countries have amended or abolished laws that discriminate against women. Plural legal systems with various customary laws on personal status and family continue to provide the basis for discrimination against women. While plural legal systems are often adopted as a way of acknowledging cultural diversity, its application can be prejudicial to women. For example, in some countries where adultery is penalized, laws expressly discriminate against women: either solely penalizing women for committing adultery or penalizing women more severely than men. Even where legal reforms have taken place, they are often not enforced and institutional mechanisms to promote the human rights of women are often underfunded. Furthermore, discriminatory legislation particularly in family, civil, penal, labour and commercial laws or codes, or administrative rules and regulations also persist. In a number of countries, nationality laws still do not grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change and retain their nationality, or to transfer nationality to their spouses on the same basis as men.

Women, Peace and Security:

Conflict exacerbates pre-existing patterns of discrimination based on sex that put women and girls at heightened risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence. The women, peace and security agenda of the AU emphasizes women’s full and meaningful participation in all peace efforts, protection from human rights violations, HIV/ AIDS, and their access to justice and services, including sexual and reproductive health. It also highlights the differential impact of armed conflict on women, girls, men and boys. Furthermore, it notes that women should not only be seen as victims of conflict and instability and acknowledges the role of women as combatants, as part of organized civil society, as human rights defenders, as members of resistance movements and as active agents in both formal and informal peace building and recovery processes. The international peace and security responsibilities shouldered by the African Union Commission and sub-regional organizations in Africa have grown enormously in recent years. Yet, women involvement in peace and security on the continent has been mixed. Women peacemakers, however, continue to be at the centre of the peace making process.

Women in Prison:

African countries have the lowest proportion of women and girls within the total prison population but in 15 years the number of women imprisoned on the continent has grown by 20%. Furthermore, prisons in Africa are worse in comparison to prisons globally. Women face higher rates of imprisonment than men for nonviolent offences. Prison systems and prison regimes in Africa are designed for men – from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to facilities for healthcare, family contact, work and training. As a consequence, prisons often do not provide gender-appropriate rehabilitation services including sexual and reproductive health services, mental health services and counselling for victims of physical and sexual abuse, all of which are often the cause of women offending in the first place. Kenya has introduced a Remote Parenting Programme in one women prison as a means to mitigating the impact of incarceration on the family while enhancing the likelihood of a successful reintegration upon release.

Click here to access the full UN Report on African Woman’s Rights




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