Gender agenda

The launch of the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development may not have been accompanied by a snazzy PowerPoint presentation like that of the free trade area, but its reach extends far beyond anything the 15 men who lead the region could ever have imagined.

Bobbing to the tune of an all-male police band playing Pata Pata, the SADC heads of state signed up to 23 targets for gender equality in every sphere of life over the next seven years at their summit in Johannesburg last weekend.

The most binding subregional instrument of its kind, the protocol brings together all the existing global and African commitments to gender equality and strengthens them through specific time frames missing in these agreements as well as in other SADC protocols.

The agreement is a triumph for the 42 women’s rights organisations from across the region that came together as the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance to demand that the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development be elevated to a protocol.
In SADC parlance a declaration is a “nice to do” while a protocol is a “have to do”.

During three years of tough negotiations that saw many targets thrown out and then rescued after the August 2007 summit in Lusaka, gender NGOs have worked skilfully and strategically to craft the document: they came back in through their country delegations as space for meaningful participation at regional level closed.

Raw emotions and backlash have flowed, with comments, such as “No one is going to tell me that I can’t have sex with my wife” and “Who are these women to tell me how many wives I should have?”, not uncommon at the meetings of officials where most of the drafting of such agreements takes place.

Battles lost include those for the inclusion of marital rape; provisions for cohabiting couples who break up; reference to particularly vulnerable groups of women (seen by many in the region as an attempt to bring in sexual orientation rules through the back door); and explicit reference to redressing the contradictions between constitutional rights and customary law. In several parts the word “ensure” has been replaced with “endeavour”.

However, as Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad pointed out when he opened the alliance meeting ahead of the SADC summit last week, the protocol sets a minimum set of standards that even South Africa will struggle to achieve in the given time frame.

While South Africa scores well on paper, the theme of this year’s women’s month is that “business unusual” will be needed to turn paper rights into real change in the lives of women. Among others, the protocol sets targets for halving gender violence and ensuring 50% representation of women in all areas of decision-making and of economic ownership and participation by 2015—none of which South Africa is anywhere near achieving.

But South Africa’s leadership has been critical in raising the bar and driving the process. Some targets have neighbours running for cover, such as constitutional provisions for gender equality that are not contradicted by a “law or practice”, as well as the recognition that affirmative action is needed to redress imbalances. While SADC secured the two-thirds majority necessary to adopt the protocol, Botswana, Mauritius, Malawi and Madagascar have yet to sign and all countries still have to ratify and domesticate the protocol.

Alliance members have already shifted into gear with a 27-page action plan that includes translating the key provisions into indigenous languages, dozens of village-level meetings, thematic clusters to track progress (including a new Gender and Economic Justice Network) and a shadow report every two years, when governments are required to report back on progress. As the free trade area lowers the barriers to trade, Southern African women are determined to see the many hurdles to their effective citizenship come tumbling down as well.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links, a member of the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance. This article is part of the Gender Links opinion and commentary service

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