African women: asserting their rights

Introduction to the Special Edition on Women
From Africa Renewal: 
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Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, the world body’s new agency on gender equality issues.Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, the world body’s new agency on gender equality issues.
Photograph: UN Photo / Paulo Filgueiras

As elsewhere in the world, women in Africa are struggling for their fair share of political power and economic opportunity. In recent decades — thanks in great measure to their own organization and energetic efforts — they have made important strides. As Africa shakes off its legacies of autocratic rule, social marginalization and economic disarray, women are staking their claim to participate fully in their continent’s promising future.

But progress has been halting and uneven, and each step forward has been won against difficult obstacles and stubborn resistance. As in many parts of the world, gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched. Women suffer violence and discrimination across the continent. They lack access to decent work and face occupational segregation and wage gaps. They are still too often denied access to education and health care. Few women are represented in key political and economic decision-making positions.

Accelerating women’s empowerment is obviously critical for women themselves. But as the UN’s global agency for women, UN Women, emphasizes, gender equality is more than just a basic human right: “Its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.” When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched UN Women in 2010, he observed: “Where women are educated and empowered, economies are more productive and strong. Where women are fully represented, societies are more peaceful and stable.”

Over the years, Africa Renewal has frequently reported on and analyzed many different aspects of the struggles of African women for political, economic and social advancement. This special edition of the magazine – with the generous support of UN Women — brings together a number of those articles, most of them with new and updated material.

The Africa Renewal articles highlight important developments at the summit of political power, such as the adoption by the African Union (AU) of a legally binding protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of women. The AU has also declared the current decade, 2010-2020, as the “African Women’s Decade.” A few countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and South Africa have exceeded the 30 per cent benchmark for women legislators, while Rwanda has the highest percentage in the world. But in all African countries women still have a long way to go.

In some areas gender gaps have narrowed noticeably, as in primary schools, where nearly as many girls as boys are now enrolled. But completion rates remain low, and many girls still are unable to go on to secondary or tertiary education. Meanwhile, health care for women and girls has scarcely improved, while HIV/AIDS continues to exact a deadly toll on Africa’s women.

Repeatedly, the articles in Africa Renewal have noted that it is the hard work and commitment of women at the grassroots that can make the difference: the women farmers, traders, entrepreneurs and activists who struggle day-in and day-out to better their lives and improve the prospects for their families, communities and nations. If Africa is to have a brighter future, gender equality must be achieved.