Ensuring women’s rights to Access to Information (ATI)

Ensuring women’s rights to Access to Information (ATI)

Date: July 8, 2011
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The release of the draft Model Law on Access to Information for AU Member States for public comments provides an opportunity for gender dimensions of ATI to be explored before it is adopted in October 2011. While this is a positive development to ensure improved accessibility of information as well as increased openness and accountability of public institutions, it remains worrisome that this model is silent on the gendered nature of ATI. Yet, it is expected to inform continent-wide ATI laws.

Evidence from Africa shows that there has been limited participation by women in the processes that have led to the formulation, enactment and implementation of laws or policies that enable citizens to enjoy freedom of information, especially information held by public bodies. A research conducted by the African Women’s Development Network (FEMNET) titled Freedom of Information and Women’s Rights in Africa noted that few women’s organisations have actively campaigned for Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. This is despite the acknowledgement that:

“the right to information is a core principle of good governance, and can provide decision and action leverages to women to effectively participate in important developmental issues like poverty alleviation strategy papers, the attainment of UN Millennium Development Goals, International instruments that protect women like CEDAW, Beijing Platform for Action and the AU’s NEPAD initiative”.

This disconnect between what women want and expect in terms of Access to Information and their interaction with access to information laws is worrisome. Very few women’s organisations actively participate in the formulation of media laws probably because they may not see the added benefit of these laws to their constituency of women. Organisations interviewed by FEMNET in Zambia perceived the FOI law as an issue that affects the media only and did not see how it affects them. In Ghana, women’s organisations felt that this campaign would unnecessarily add to their work load. However, this is not true as access to information is one of the major reasons why women continue to suffer inequalities on the continent.

Unfortunately the AU Draft Model Law on the ATI risks facing the same disinterest from women if no conscious effort is made to ensure that the law relates to women and their rights, and addresses women’s interests within its ambit. In order to ensure effective access to information by women, the law will need to make a deliberate attempt to enhance access to information of women as a disadvantaged group. Women as a group are disadvantaged by factors such as geographical location, education and literacy, levels of economic empowerment, access to various media, as well as other societal barriers that limit women’s access to knowledge. These factors mean that women remain enmeshed in a viscous cycle of lack of knowledge which can only be mitigated by a conscious effort to ensure that women access information that can assist them to make informed choices.

In Zimbabwe for example, young girls have lower access to education than their male counterparts. The lower literacy levels in turn imply lower levels of knowledge, and therefore lower levels of access to information and resources.
The model law need to be more pro-active in providing information in certain languages. Section 20 of the model law says that “Where information exists in more than one language, the information shall be provided to the requester in such of those languages as the requester prefers.” English is the official language in most African countries and the bulkier of public information held by public bodies is in English. Whilst English is the official language in most of these countries, it is however not the main language that people speak. Accessing information may be difficult for women and men who do not speak/ understand English.

Needless to mention that the majority of women in Africa reside in rural areas where there are fewer public services and institutions were people can access information. Rural areas in Africa are also poorly serviced by public and private media, a key source of information for people. The model should thus stipulate pro active measures that states should put in place to ensure that women who have limited access to the media access information they need.

Part VI of the draft model law makes provisions for the establishment of an oversight mechanism. It has however conveniently forgotten commitments made by the African Union or regional bodies such as SADC in the Protocol on Gender and Development (2008), to ensure equal representation of women in all decision making bodies. The oversight mechanism as a decision making body should ensure 50% representation of women who can influence access to information policy processes. In section 60 (2) of the model law, deliberate concessions to multi-partyism are stated but it fails to take into consideration other factors such as gender in oversight mechanisms.

A section in the model that is especially interesting to a layperson is that access to information can be denied when the information officer deems the request for information “manifestly frivolous or vexatious.” The information officer has the discretion of dismissing information requests on this basis but the question is; what is the determination of whether the requests made are frivolous or vexatious?

The Draft model law on access to information as indicated will potentially change the dynamics of access to information on the continent. However, if the law remains inaccessible to women it risks alienating half of the people it purports to give rights to information. It has been proven numerous times that laws are not gender neutral and it is important to ensure pro active mechanisms in place to ensure access to legislation by women.


Download : AU Draft model law on ATI

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