African influences on women’s rights globally

19Apr 2016
Our Reporter
The Guardian
African influences on women’s rights globally

The scholarship in Africa is shaping and challenging broader understandings of gender and politics. One of these has to do with African influences on global women’s rights discourse.

Anna Mghira, the ACT Wazalendo presidential candidate in last year’s elections addresses a rally.

There has long been a tendency in Western scholarship to see international influences in women’s rights as external to Africa.

Africa not only has absorbed international women’s rights norms and practices, but it has contributed to them as well.

Ideas and practices have emerged from Africa and spread elsewhere and for this reason it is important to acknowledge the ways in which African women’s movements have, and are, influencing these global trends.

The marginalised position of Africa in the global context has often blurred the contribution of African women to many discourses of the global women’s movement. Also the international media has had little interest in African women, except to portray them as hopelessly mired in traditional practices such as genital mutilation or as helpless victims of war and famine.

The extensive documentation of the women’s movement in Europe and the United States has often overshadowed the contributions of the women’s movements outside these regions, creating the misinformed perception that women’s activism globally was a byproduct of Western feminist movements.

Women in Africa, especially after the mid 1970s, started protesting such characterizations and increased efforts to document their own movements. The Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD), for example, was formed in 1976 in response to experiences at the first UN conference on women held in Mexico in 1975.

AAWORD sought to promote scholarship among African women scholars, in part, as a response to the domination of research on women in Africa by Western scholars and the lack of availability of scholarship on women in Africa. African scholars were critical of the condescending and patronizing assumptions of Western scholars that did not regard African women as capable of looking after their own interests.

African women’s movements continue to actively define their own agendas. They have helped influence the combination of the rights-based and development-based approaches to women’s advancement. Global feminism is a more South-centered movement than ever before, and African women leaders have significantly contributed to bringing about this transformation.

African contributions to transnational women’s rights activism have been especially important in the areas of violence against women, women and conflict, the girl child, financing women’s entrepreneurship which was influenced by pioneers like Esther Ocloo in Ghana, opposing female genital cutting, analysing the role of government vs. NGOs in service provision, and, increasingly, encouraging discussions about women and political decision making and the adoption of quotas.

One area that has generated considerable momentum in Africa has been the adoption of ‘gender budget initiatives’, or attempts to make the gender implications of national spending priorities more explicit and ultimately fairer.

After the 1995 Beijing UN women’s conference, many countries in Africa adopted women’s budgets patterned along the lines of South Africa’s 1994 budget exercise.

Approximately 30 gender-sensitive budget initiatives were underway globally by 2006, the largest numbers of which were in Africa.

Gender budgeting, which was initially primarily found in Africa, is an approach that has subsequently spread more widely in the West; the European Union has endorsed this as an approach as have the parliaments of some of its member states such as Germany. African experiences with this form of mainstreaming thus became an important factor in increasing their popularity in other parts of the world.

African women’s contributions to policy were also to be seen in global fora. Coming from a continent that has experienced a great many of the world’s civil conflicts, African women were very proactive in promoting issues of peace and peacemaking in international fora and in confronting various heads of states.

African women, in particular, made peace a central issue at the UN Beijing conference on women in 1995. Their efforts contributed greatly to the passing of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000 to include women in peace negotiations and give them roles in peace-keeping missions around the world.

Research on women and politics in Africa has made important contributions to both scholarship on Africa, on African politics and the more general literature on gender and politics.

This area of study is fast evolving and has made key advances in helping explain the increasing rates of female legislative representation; the role of women in conflict; state policies and processes regarding women’s rights; women and patronage politics; and the role of traditional authorities with respect to women’s leadership and rights.

Gender and politics in Africa is an emerging field of study which poses many new and exciting possibilities for new scholarly agendas. There is still a lot we don’t know, including the role of traditional authorities, women in local politics, women and decentralization, and the constraints and possibilities for women in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian/semi-democratic regimes.

But perhaps above all, we don’t have a good sense yet of what difference women in power make, particularly in authoritarian and hybrid regimes. We have seen increases in woman-friendly legislation in countries like Uganda being advanced by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.

At the same time, the disappointing persistence of nepotism and patronage politics and corruption in a female-headed country like Liberia shows just how intransigent old habits can be. The increase of women in politics signifies that norms have changed and are changing, and it represents a step toward greater equality.

If women are not represented politically, their voices will not be heard and their interests are less likely to be advanced.

Nevertheless, women enter institutions with long histories and established ways of doing things. Although some women will challenge the status quo and will see themselves as advocates for women’s rights, many become absorbed into these same institutions and behave much like the male legislators, ministers and presidents that came before them.

It is these processes that we need to better understand.

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