Groundbreaking gender protocol hailed

Gender activists breathed a sigh of relief when a long-delayed gender protocol was signed at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Johannesburg this weekend.

Women bear the brunt of social injustice and problems on the African continent, ranging from access to clean water and poor healthcare to lack of economic opportunities or adequate protection before the law.

The protocol calls for 50% representation by women at all levels of government by 2015, and for member states to put in place legislative measures that guarantee gender-sensitive political and policy structures. It draws up a plan of action setting specific targets and time frames for achieving gender equality in all SADC countries as well as effective monitoring and evaluation.

The document covers 25 articles on different aspects, such as access to justice and education, as well as ensuring women’s rights are included in member states’ constitutions.

One of the highest priorities within the document is putting legislative measures in place to promote and ensure practical realisation of equality of women. It states: ”Member states shall adopt and implement legislative and other measures to eliminate all practices which negatively affect the fundamental rights of women, men, girls and boys, such as their right to life, health, dignity, education or physical integrity.”

SADC countries that sign the protocol agree to support equal access to education and free, quality primary and secondary education, with an eye on the eradication of illiteracy by 2020.

”They [member states] should eliminate gender discrimination and stereotypes in the curriculum, career choices and professions while putting in place gender sensitivity training programmes for educators and stakeholders,” the document states.

The gender protocol also calls for governments in the region to prohibit all forms of gender-based violence, including marital rape. The document has a provision that will ensure perpetrators of all forms of gender-based violence are tried by a competent court of justice.

HIV/Aids is also addressed. The SADC region has the highest number of fatalities across the globe. The protocol calls for the necessary steps to be taken to prevent the transmission of HIV among women, men, girls and boys, including persons with disabilities. It also stresses the importance of female-controlled prevention methods.

”These prevention efforts will be based on an understanding of the underlying gender power relations that fuel the pandemic, the challenges encountered by women in insisting on safe sex and the need for behaviour change.”

Long overdue
Seven years in the making, the document is seen as a ground-breaking commitment that will put gender rights at the forefront of the SADC plan of action and provide a clear road map for the region’s leaders to move towards gender equality. Regional heads of state had postponed signing the document on two previous occasions and activists are hoping that this time it will be implemented on schedule.

Though it was signed by 12 heads of state, the protocol met opposition from Botswana and Mauritius at this year’s summit. A member of the Mauritian delegation, who wished to remain anonymous, voiced concern that the protocol meant that the country’s Constitution would have to be changed.

”For just one word we would have to change our entire Constitution,” he said. ”Also the amount to change our Constitution will cause financial constraints on our country.”

He was referring to the affirmative-action clause found in the protocol. It is believed that the same objection was raised by the Botswana delegation.

Next challenge: implementation
In a statement, 180 media practitioners, analysts, activists, critics and editors who participated in the Gender and Media Summit just ahead of the SADC meeting described the protocol ”as the most far-reaching of any sub-regional instrument for achieving gender equality”.

Participants said it was time for Southern Africa to move from being ”a region of commitments, to one of action”.

Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of GenderLinks, a South Africa-based NGO that works across the Southern Africa region for the equal participation of women and men in public and private life, said that she was thrilled by the outcome.

”It has been a very long journey for us. The protocol has been watered down and we are not entirely happy by that. But there are 23 concrete targets set down that each country must work towards. It is one of the most concrete and explicit documents on gender equality in the region, and it will be a challenging target to all governments.”

The watering-down to which Morna referred is the exclusion of key provisions on marital rape, cohabitation and the rights of vulnerable groups. She also pointed out that contradictions between customary law and constitutional provisions for gender equality are not explicitly addressed.

Morna emphasised that the economic provisions provided in the protocol’s affirmative action plan are ”superb”.

She said that the challenge now is putting in place the structures and strategies within each of the signing nations over the next seven years.

The Africa Protocol Alliance, which unites 42 organisations from all 14 SADC member states, is developing an action plan to support governments in meeting the targets set for them in the next seven years. The protocol calls for governments to launch public awareness campaigns and report twice-yearly on progress towards achieving the commitments outlined in the protocol. — IPS

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Zahira Kharsany
Guest Author

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