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Women in Africa’s Independence and Development Movement in Historical Perspectives Featured

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Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas; and Ms. Zebib Kavuma[i]

Concluding a negotiating process that has spanned more than two years, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the post 2015 development agenda on September 25,2015 in New York: 17 new sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that aim to end poverty, combat gender inequality and promote prosperity while protecting the environment by 2030.

The UN has been at the forefront in the support for the protection and promotion of gender equality and women’s rights since its inception, 70 years ago. Article 1 of the UN Charter underscores the importance of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” Furthermore, in 1979 – following the first World Women’s Conference in Mexico in 1975 – the UN General Assembly adopted the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women”, which clearly stipulates women’s rights as a human rights issue and calls for an end to all kinds of discrimination against women. Since then there have been subsequent conferences held in Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing. 2015 marks 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, which outlined 12 critical areas for action to accelerate and bring about full equality for women and girls.

The UN Millennium Summit, which was held in September 2000, came up with eight time-bound, realistic and achievable sets of goals, commonly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of the goals focused on the promotion of gender equality and women empowerment; in full complement to the Beijing Platform for Action. To this end, the UN and its partners have been working hard to support countries to achieve this important goal where women, men, girls and boys enjoy access to rights and opportunities as equal partners. Despite numerous efforts both at policy and practice levels, gender discrimination still remains deeply rooted in custom and tradition; coupled with under-enforcement of policies and laws. Although Kenya enjoys a progressive and rights-focused Constitution, the country still lags behind when it comes to achieving the MDG goal on gender equality.


A long walk to Gender Equality….

Historically, this is reflected in the record of women’s role in both nationalist and development movements that reflects the androcentric reality of the political leadership both in pre-colonial, and colonial governance and in African nationalism of the period. The colonial framework that the nationalists confronted was also predominantly male, with women in a domestic – and subservient – position. The two charter documents of the Organization of African Unity and of its successor the African Union, deal exclusively with the rights and limits of state sovereignty with little attention to individual rights, much less those of women.

Women as the backbone of liberation struggle in Kenya and all over Africa

In Kenya, women freedom fighters played a significant role in the push for self-rule and independence. Be it Mekatilili wa Menza from the Coast or the women Mau fighters, Kenyan women fought hard for the independence of Kenya; and paid the price in the form of detention, loss of life and the destruction of the family unit. Although one or two women formed a part of the team that negotiated Kenya’s independence in Lancaster House conferences in 1960, 1962 and 1963, it would be literally 50 years before Kenyan women began to reap the benefits of gender equality in power and decision making. . Women played a formidable role in the success of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and its women’s wing was critical in leading Tanzania to independence. Women were central to the independence movement, even if women’s interests were not of paramount importance in the country at that time. In South Africa, women resisted the policies of the European settler-colonial rule under both British and Boer domination with organizations such as the ANC women’s league playing a pivotal role.

Individual leaders—among them Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Sékou Toure in Guinea —may have held separate views on the rightful status of women, but the prevailing nationalist behavior remained sexist. Sékou Touré, leader of the Party Démocratique de Guinée, incorporated women’s rights into the struggle for independence from the outset. The party made women’s political participation as one of its four guiding principles. Much in the same manner as Tanzanian women, Guinean women created the culture of anti-colonial resistance through their songs, dress, performance, dance, and rallies. In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah relied heavily on women in the urban and rural areas during the struggle for independence and the post-colonial period.

A Women’s movement in its own rights

The women’s movements of the 1990s were distinct from women’s mobilization in the early post-independence period in several important ways. For women’s organizations, the 1990s witnessed a shift away from predominantly economic concerns to social issues such as education, health and welfare, with an added interest in advocacy of women’s rights. These women’s organisations were generally autonomous from the ruling party and state. They selected their own leaders, and adopted broader agendas than in the past. Their funding sources were novel as they were independent of state patronage networks, which were characteristic of previous women’s organizations.

Women’s mobilization in the political arena gained prominence with the emergence of multiparty democratic systems in which new women’s organizations flourished. Women aggressively sought participation in political affairs and championed reform and the end to public corruption through demonstrations and other civic activism. The women’s movement in Kenya will attest to the fact that their initial role in political spaces was in support of pluralism and democracy; the backbone of good governance and equality. In other countries however, the government response was frequently repressive. For example, in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Togo. But women fought back and their collective Voice grew stronger. In 1990 in Guinea Conakry, women organized a sit-in in front of the presidential palace in support of a general strike of workers and student demonstration to protest the government’s role in the economic crisis. In the early 1990s, the late Professor Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, led the Kenyan Greenbelt Movement (GBM) in one of Africa’s most successful environmental campaigns.

Cultural practices and under-enforcement of policies and laws are today’s agenda

Currently, the women’s movement focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women; as well as mainstreaming gender issues in all development policies. Culture still plays an important role in informing community perceptions of the role of women who continue to be denied access to planning and decision-making forums. However, there are beacons of hope where some African countries such Rwanda, have made tremendous strides in women’s empowerment. The constitution of the country requires that 30 per cent of all representatives, including those in parliament be women. The 2010 Kenya Constitution also stipulates that no more than two thirds of any appointive or elective body be of the same gender, and all the 47 counties should also elect a woman representative.

Individual Africans have also made tremendous contributions to women empowerment in Africa. For instance, the co-author of this article, Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, was recently recognized by the African Union – Diaspora African Forum (AU-DAF) – as a ‘Woman of Excellence’ for her outstanding contribution to women in Africa. She was honored along Liberia’s Head of State, H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; the former President of Malawi H.E. Joyce Banda and many other distinguished and deserving award recipients.

A global commitment for gender equality enshrined in the SDGs

To sum up, the women’s organizations and individuals who championed women’s cause illustrates the ideals of African unity. Combined with a renewed commitment in the SDG declaration with a standalone goal on gender equality gender quality will be achieved by 2030. The women’s struggle for the last 60 years was a movement to secure independence, human rights, good governance, equality and unity for all African peoples. In its original form women’s organizations had a wider scope than the geographic continent and encompassed African diaspora and descendants worldwide. So too did African individuals who held onto the vision of Africa united, free of poverty, corruption, conflict and gender discrimination.

[1] The views expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the United Nations.

[i] Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya; and Ms. Zebib Kavuma is the Country Director of UN Women in Kenya.

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