If laws were rights, women would be free!

Campaign for safe abortion

Dinah Musindarwezo

If women’s rights in Africa were to be measured by the number of laws and policies directed at that specific goal, then African women would be the most liberated human beings walking the face of the earth!

The reality, however, is far from this. Africa’s policy makers at high levels continue to put women’s rights on the agenda but with minimal positive impact on the lives of African woman and girls.

Africa prides itself on having strong and progressive policy frameworks on women’s rights. The list reads like the dream of many women’s rights enthusiasts across the globe. It includes the:

  • Gender equality principle in the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act of 2002;
  • AU Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa of 2003 (Maputo Protocol);
  • Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa of 2004; and the
  • Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

African Union member states are also signatories or party to almost all the international frameworks on women’s rights, including the extremely progressive Commission on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the annual global International Conference on Population Development ICPD declarations and plan of action.

Africa’s presumed resolve to uphold the status of women in Africa does not end here. The African Union dedicated the year 2016 toHuman Rights, with Special Focus on Rights of Women’,  following the 2015 AU focus on ‘Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063. This deliberate focus by the African Union is being highlighted mid-July when the AU summit  meets in Kigali, Rwanda. At the time of writing, there are only six months to go before the regional theme shifts from African women – six more months within which the continent must surely amplify the call for the full implementation of all these wonderful policy frameworks.

There is no doubt that progressive legislation and national policies are a move in the right direction towards realisation of women and girls’ human rights. But merely having these rights on paper without breathing life into them and putting them into practice is inadequate. Ms Yasmeen Hassan, the global Executive Director of EQUALITY NOW summarises the importance of having and practising the right laws and policies thus: “The law is a statement of your worth by your government. Laws that treat men and women, girls and boys unequally relegate women and girls to a lower status in society. Failure to outlaw practices that harm women and girls leaves them with no recourse for violations against them. The law is the way to hold your government accountable for your protection.”

As a women’s rights activist particularly interested in ensuring that laws and policies actually work for African women, I have realised with disappointment that it is not always guaranteed that these policy frameworks lead to the protection of our human rights.

Almost all abortion-related deaths occurred in developing countries, with the highest number occurring in Africa.

Take for instance women’s rights to bodily autonomy and integrity, focusing on the abortion issue. According to a factsheet by international organisation the Guttmacher Institute, it is estimated that 56 million induced abortions occurred each year worldwide during 2010–2014. The overall abortion rate in Africa was 34 per 1000 women in 2010–2014. Sub-regional rates ranged from 31 in Western Africa to 38 in Northern Africa.

There has been little if any change in abortion rates in these sub-regions since 1990–1994. Research also shows that almost all abortion-related deaths occurred in developing countries, with the highest number occurring in Africa.

There are international and regional women’s rights instruments that specifically call for medically necessary safe abortions. These include the ICPD Program of Action in 1994, Beijing Women's Conference Platform for Action 1995 and our own home grown instrument – the Maputo Protocol of 2005.

Article 14 of the Maputo Protocol is clear on the rights to safe abortions in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and when the pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the woman or the life of the woman or the foetus.

The Maputo Protocol has so far been signed by about 34 African countries but very few have started its ratification process in full.

This is a classic case of having good laws and policies that are however almost ‘useless’ when it comes to actually guaranteeing this right to the woman. In January 2016, during the AU Summit, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) called for the decriminalisation of abortion across Africa. Unsafe abortion is globally, regionally and nationally recognised as a serious public health problem as well as a human rights violation. However, due to stigma, even countries that have adopted national laws to legalise abortion are still faced by cases of unsafely procured and botched abortions by a concerning number of women.

Because of cultural and religious stigma across the continent, sexual and reproductive health rights for women continue to take beating as women continue to suffer the consequences of this stigma.

On an encouraging note, and largely because of ambitious policy frameworks that are becoming entrenched in the systems of various governments, infant and maternal mortality rates have decreased for women and children in the region. They have fallen by 37% and 42% respectively since 1990, according to a United Nations Family Planning Agency (UNFPA) report.

However this does not mean that African countries may now relax on delivering rights and protection to women. In fact, with the glaring gender gaps in economic, political and social spheres, much more still needs to be done.

Women and girls in Africa are unaware, disempowered or denied the opportunity to access their economic, political, social and cultural rights. Many women are exposed to gender based violence (GBV), harmful traditional and religious practices, denied the right to employment in favorable and just conditions, the right to food, housing and quality healthcare, as well as social security and employment benefits. Women further lack access to, ownership of and equitable benefit from resources, such as land and other means of production that are necessary for sustainable development. Their contribution and rights in all these areas are provided for and stipulated within all the policy frameworks, as mentioned above, but grossly ignored.

It is time for African governments to put their actions where their promises are and fulfill the urgent need for respect and protection of human rights for women and girls in Africa.

Dinah Musindarwezo is the Executive Director of FEMNET (the African Women’s Development and Communication Network), a pan-African membership organisation working to advance women’s rights and amplify African women’s voices across Africa since its inception in 1988. Dinah Musindarwezo is a gender equality advocate with more than ten years of experience working on issues of gender and development, women empowerment and women’s human rights at national, continental and international levels. Dinah is a feminist who is passionate about advocating for gender justice and equal rights for all.

Connect with Dinah at director@femnet.or.ke and/or @DinahRwiza

This article forms part of the Sex Rights Africa Network Campaign to support safe abortion in Southern Africa and globally.