The first woman Chairperson of the African Union Commission leaves behind an outstanding legacy of strong commitment to gender equality and women’s rights in Africa. Overall, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma scored remarkable victories in advancing the AU’s vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.
The results of the 2012 African Union’s Chairperson’s elections marked a significant victory for gender parity representation at AU, ushering in a first woman Chairperson H.E Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This victory came after 49 years since the Organisation of African Union (OAU)/African Union (AU) was formed in 1963. Dr. Dlamini has demonstrated in her words and actions a strong commitment to gender equality and women’s human rights. In her acceptance speech Dr. Dlamini noted:
“My election is not a personal victory but a victory for the African continent in general and for women in particular”. She further stated that, “We are grateful as women that our leaders have understood that women have to participate and take their rightful place in society so they can reach their full potential because it is only if men and women reach their full potential, shall we as a continent reach our full potential”.
At the 27th AU Summit in Rwanda this month, a new AUC Chairperson will be elected by AU Member States as Dr. Dlamini steps down after her first term. It is apt to assess whether her time in office has actually been a victory for women. In assessing Dr. Dlamini’s tenure it is important to remember that advancing gender equality is just one component of the AU’s Vision of achieving “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”. I will focus on the gender component looking at how she has fared in this area. My intention is not to reinforce the misperception that women must advance the gender agenda as I believe that every leader regardless of their gender has a responsibility to develop and implement policies that put human rights including women’s human rights and gender equality at the center.
Although Africa has made remarkable improvements in the area of gender equality ranging from adopting progressive policies to having countries such as Rwanda leading the world with the highest number of women represented in Parliament and 22 countries with at least 30 percent of women in Parliament, while 14 countries have 30 percent of women ministers, with Cape Verde leading Africa with the highest representation of women ministers, gender inequality remains the most flagrant threat to the realization of human rights in allAfrican countries and beyond since no single country in the world can claim to have achieved gender equality.
It is seen and experienced that gender inequality results in women being the majority of the poor, dispossessed,unemployed and those whose bodies are daily violated with little or no redress. Many women across Africa continue to lack control over land and assets, disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care and labour, are more likely than men to have low wages and poor working conditions, experience unacceptably high levels of maternal mortality and face the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, FGM and early and forced marriage. This is a situation that must force every single leader accountable to improved wellbeing and status of women to put gender equality on the priority agenda.
Given the gender inequalities highlighted above, it is noteworthy that during Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure the AU dedicated two consecutive years to women’s rights: 2015 was the year of Women’s Empowerment while 2016 was dedicated to Women’s Human Rights thereby putting gender on the agenda of the highest decision-makers in Africa. In line with advancing accountability for gender equality she supported the development of a Gender Scorecard to track progress made in achieving gender equality. During the same year of 2015 she called on AU member states to banish the hand hoes to the museum and work towards mechanizing agriculture. This is beneficial to women who make up majority of small farmers currently using the hoes. She also continuously called on policy makers including members of the Pan-African Parliament to ensure that gender dimension is an integral part of the efforts to strengthen domestic resource mobilization by ensuring progressive taxation systems that treat women fairly .
Agenda 2063, Africa’s development blueprint developed during her tenure, puts gender equality at its center although it often frames gender equality as a means to achieve Africa’s best performing economies rather than treating gender equality as an end goal in its own right. This is dangerous since it positions women as instruments for development and growth rather than human beings whose rights deserve to be fulfilled. Agenda 2063 also commits to end all forms of oppression and discrimination including those based on gender by 2020, end gender based violence and harmful traditional practices including child marriage and FGM. In addition, Agenda 2063 promises women’s equal right to own land and property, to occupy at least 50 percent of elected public offices at all levels and managerial positions in the public and the private sector and will entrench the principles of democracy, human rights and gender equality.
A major gap in Agenda 2063 as far as gender equality is concerned is its omission of Sexual and ReproductiveHealth and Rights (SRHR), a component that is critical to both women and youth especially young women and adolescents.
Dr. Dlamini-Zuma also appointed women in key positions during her tenure including appointment of a Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, a Goodwill Ambassador for ending Child Marriage, Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff at the Bureau of AUC Chairperson.
The highest decision-making body is the AU Head of States – The AU Assembly, giving little power to the Chairperson of the AUC. For example the AUC Chairperson has no institutional authority to sanction states that have fail to comply with AU rules . With this kind of environment, congratulations are in order for the kind of achievements the outgoing Chairperson has been able to attain especially in the area of gender equality that is often not considered a high priority beyond lip service.
It is important to remember that any achievements in gender equality would not have been possible without the contribution of the women’s rights organisations, networks and coalitions working at different levels in their different diversities. For example, African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) played a critical role of mobilizing African women to engage and influence Africa Agenda 2063 and Common Africa Position (CAP) on SDGs to capture gender issues. Other Organisations such as Girls Not Brides have tirelessly pushed for ending child marriage, Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR) and Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) have made sure that gender equality remained on the agenda of AU during Dr. Dlamini’s tenure and before, and they will continue to do so.
I call on the next chairperson of AUC to take off from where Dr. Dlamini has left and ensure that the policies and programmes as well as the momentum put in place for advancement of gender equality is not only sustained but enhanced. For this to happen, a strong candidate who is committed to advancing gender equality must be elected. The criteria to select the chairperson must include capacity and commitment to gender equality and human rights. In addition, a more conducive, empowering and supportive environment needs to be put in place to give the AU Secretariat and its Chairperson decision making powers to truly lead the organisation .
* Dinah Musindarwezo is the Executive Director of FEMNET (the African Women’s Development and Communication Network), a pan-African membership organisation working to advance women’s rights and amplify African women’s voices across Africa since its inception in 1988. Dinah Musindarwezo is a gender equality advocate with more than ten years of experience working on issues of gender and development, women empowerment and women’s human rights at national, continental and international levels. Connect with Dinah at email@example.com and/or @DinahRwiza