All too often, the African Union is derided as a “dictator’s club”. Huge strides in advancing democracy across the continent mean that this stereotype is now far from accurate.
But it is a men’s club. The heads of all 55 member states are men. In its history, only three women heads of state have been represented at the AU — Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Malawi’s Joyce Banda and the Central African Republic’s Catherine Samba-Panza — despite the fact that women make up more than half of Africa’s population. This is a shameful failure of representation.
Nonetheless, the AU has long paid lip service to feminist values. The principles of gender equality and nondiscrimination on the basis of gender are enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and have been reinforced by various resolutions and declarations since.
But the AU Commission is not practising what it preaches. In a brave and unprecedented protest earlier this year, 37 women employees — inspired, in part, by the global #MeToo movement — demanded an end to the “professional apartheid” that has seen senior women excluded from promotions and discouraged from further advancement in the organisation. This “excludes and humiliates” women, they said.
The AU must do better. This continent belongs to all Africans, regardless of gender, and must be governed accordingly. That lesson is equally applicable to all AU member states — after all, the continental body is a reflection of the countries of which it is composed, warts and all.
This entrenched sexism at the highest levels of power is not only morally wrong but also handicaps the continent’s efforts to resolve conflict, eliminate corruption and improve living standards. A dysfunctional, male-dominated AU Commission is unable to tackle these pressing issues, as proved by the continental body’s poor record in recent years. If women were given proper representation, it would probably do better.