African women have made significant gains, UN rights report shows

African Leadership

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published its first-ever report on the human rights of African women. The report celebrates important achievements such as provisions on sexual and gender based violence, economic, social and cultural rights and the principle of non-discrimination in constitutions, polices and in legislations across the continent.

The UN Women’s Rights in Africa Report was produced in honour of the African Union 2016 theme “year of human rights”, thus celebrating the gains made by women in the continent.

The gains made in sexual and reproductive health and rights are acknowledged by the provision of regional instruments such as the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.

According to the report, health gains have been achieved in the continent through increase in domestic expenditure on health, reduction in mortality rates, improved maternal healthcare and the achievement of the Abuja Declaration target of allocating 15% of state budget to healthcare in countries such as Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, Togo and Zambia.

Other gains include the advancement of the rights of women and ensuring gender quality. Specific provisions highlighted in the report include the adoption of binding agreements, generating recommendations informed by various reports and instruments within the African continent mandated with the promotion and protection of the rights of women.

The Women’s Rights in Africa report admits that despite the gains achieved, gaps exist in the full realisation of enjoyment of rights for women. The key gaps include the multiple forms of discrimination women go through and the inherent intersectionality of this discrimination, the continued violation of women’s rights in both the public and private spheres and the inhibitions women face when effecting participation in these spheres.

The report recognises that rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent, and observes that achievement of one right contributes to the achievement of another right. The report further notes the role of culture as a justification for violating women’s rights and voices Maputo Protocol’s perspective that culture and tradition ought to evolve when they contribute to violation of rights or discriminate women.

The Women’s Right in Africa Report notes key issues within the Maputo Protocol in recognising that a vision for ‘The Africa We Want’ is unachievable until and unless women are able to enjoy their rights. These include access to safe abortion, recognition of the rights of women living with HIV and creating an enabling environment for access to healthcare services, ensuring protection against sexually transmitted diseases, the protection of persons with albinism and specifically women.

Other key issues raised include sexual and gender based violence, harmful practices such as child marriage, economic, social and cultural rights including access to land, legislations that are discriminative to women’s access to and control of land and the plight of women in prison.

On access to safe abortion, the report points out that when women are denied access to essential health services with respect to termination of pregnancy; the results are serious for both the life and health of women. Articles of the Maputo Protocol on health that the report draws reference to include Art 4(2) (c) which calls upon states to protect the reproductive rights of women by allowing medical abortion in cases of rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy is likely to harm the mental and physical health of the mother.

The report recognises that on abortion, a lot of resistance has been observed, with the laws going further to criminalise the procedure. The relevance of access to contraceptive is also noted, with the observation that denial of contraceptives has negative impacts on women’s health, ranging from disability to death.

The Women’s Rights in Africa Report remarks that the number of people living with HIV in Sub Saharan Africa is among the highest, accounting for 71% of global total infections and that young women are at high risk of contracting HIV. The report brings to attention rights violation among people with HIV such as sterilization without full, free and informed consent. As a protective mechanism for the rights of women living with HIV, the report draws attention to Art.14 of the Maputo Protocol which guarantees women the right to protection from sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. It also commends the milestones achieved by countries towards lowering the number of HIV infections amongst their citizenry.

For women with albinism, the report acknowledges the stigma that is meted on the persons affected and the belief that body parts of persons with albinism can bring wealth and good luck when used in witchcraft. Violence against persons with albinism has increasingly been reported in the African continent with women and children being the majority of victims. The plight of women with albinism and persons with albinism in general is documented by the report to be a result of the gaps in achievement of disability rights in the continent.

Furthermore, the report indicates that the challenges facing persons with albinism are a result of non-inclusion of albinism into mainstream healthcare to ensure they get access to care such as for preventing skin cancer of which persons with albinism are susceptible.

The role of key voices in the African human rights system on condemning violence against persons with albinism has also been highlighted, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights of the Child.

Sexual and gender based violence is noted to be a phenomenon on the rise amongst women with the interplay of many socio economic factors. The report notes categories of women who are more vulnerable to sexual violence such as migrant women with non-binary gender identify (intersex), women with disabilities and sexual minorities.

Harmful practices that impede the realization of women’s rights have also been highlighted, including child marriage.

The report recognises women’s economic contribution, mostly in agriculture and in employment and within households. An impediment to rights on economic, social and cultural issues is noted to be limited access to credit facilities and markets. The report also notes the challenges women face in their bid to access and control land and calls upon states to embrace a human rights-based approach when dealing with issues of land .The report further observes that challenges still exist on access to land more so for women in conflict and disasters. Countries that have amended their laws and repealed sections that discriminate against women have been noted such as Sierra Leone.

The report notes that peace and security are an integral part of achievement of rights of women and that conflict enhances vulnerability to discrimination and risks of sexual, physical and psychological violence against women. The report invokes specific provisions of Maputo Protocol on women and peace, such as Art. 2 o non-discrimination, Art. 3 on the right to dignity and Art. 4 on the right to life, integrity and security of the person.

According to the report, Africa has the lowest number of imprisoned women but prisons in Africa are worse in comparison to other prisons worldwide. The report recognises the fact that some women are imprisoned not for criminal offences but due to discrimination, poverty, the absence of economic social and cultural rights access .It also observes positive best practices for women in prison such as remote parenting programme to mitigate the impact of imprisonment on the family.

The report also acknowledges that prisons lack the necessary gender sensitive infrastructure because they were designed with the male gender in mind. Women ex-prisoners  suffer from gender specific discrimination such as the case of pregnant women, women living with HIV and women with drug problems. The report emphasises the  actualisation of the provision of Maputo Protocol in relation special protection of women in distress(Art.24) including women in  detention.

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