A historic SADC Summit ahead? Women’s Rights on the Agenda

Date: January 1, 1970
  • SHARE:

5 August; Johannesburg. In just one week, South Africa will host the annual Heads of State Summit of Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders. Coincidentally happening during the nation’s August celebration of Women’s Month, gender activists around the region are busy making final moves to lobby for what could be the successful culmination of a campaign launched in 2005 to see a legally binding Protocol on Gender and Development approved by Southern African leaders.

The question on everyone’s mind – will this be the year historically counted as the Summit where our leaders took the momentous step of raising gender equality issues to the highest level of the regional integration agenda?
Over 60 organisations and individuals from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and across Africa are convening in Johannesburg from 14-16 August 2008, parallel to the SADC Summit, to lobby for the adoption of a draft protocol on Gender and Development. Opening with a keynote address by Dr Essop Pahad, Hon. Minister in the Presidency, activists hope President Thabo Mbeki will bring South Africa’s progressive stance on gender equality to bear on a positive outcome.
Why is it essential for the region to move in this direction? While SADC has made strides to address women’s rights concerns ranging from gender policies to gender sensitive legislation, we are far from realising equality between women and men at many levels. In fact, for every step taken in the direction of equality, we take three steps back.
Even while we are grappling with the longstanding brutalities of domestic violence and widespread sexual assaults, newer forms of abuse, such as human trafficking of women and girls, are emerging. Women remain the poorest of the poor, hunger and food insecurity hit women and children the hardest, and the number of women in leadership positions at all levels remains unreasonably low in most SADC countries.
Although there are a number of regional and national commitments to addressing gender issues, it is clear that “women don’t eat paper.” Policies and laws on paper are not enough, there is need to shift toward delivery to make them work for women. 
As a Protocol (unlike a Declaration), this document would ensure that gender equality and women’s rights become part of the SADC legal system, legally binding Member States to act. This moves gender equality out of the scope of intentions, and firmly into the domain of legal requirements. The current draft has 23 targets to achieve gender equality by 2015, including:-
  • Reviewing, amending and repealing all discriminatory laws
  • Abolishing the legal minority status of women
  • Eliminate gender based violence by half by 2015, including human trafficking, and sexual harassment
  • Have at least 50% of women represented in decision making in the public and private spheres
  • Equal participation by women and men in the economy, including trade and entrepreneurship in the formal and informal sectors
Once adopted, the Gender Protocol would make it necessary for all forms of regional cooperation to take gender on board in all processes supporting development, democracy and human rights in the region. A watershed development indeed.
Moreover, the Protocol would require states to not only report on progress periodically, but also places the issues at the centre of the regional cooperation agenda.
The anxious wait by activists is understandable. Not only is the Protocol an important step for equality in the region, but it also represents tremendous efforts of people of the region.  At least seven drafts have been negotiated at senior technical and political levels by SADC governments, text removed and reincorporated, and issues agreed and disagreed upon.
Suffice to say that the region is a step closer towards adoption after the recent review of the draft by SADC Ministers of Justice in Lusaka at the end of June 2008. Yet, perhaps uppermost in most gender activists’ minds is whether, after its deferment last year at the Lusaka SADC Summit, there is assurance of adoption this time round?
In order to minimise of the possibility of another deferment, women’s organisations have been elevating their game, implementing pro-active political strategies at national and regional levels. One of the more visible lobby coalitions, the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, has been leading this process.
The Alliance, made up of more than 16 organisations and individual activists, developed a roadmap in January 2008 towards the SADC Summit that mirrors the official SADC roadmap. Alliance members focused their energies in different spheres of influence, including at ministerial level in different countries and participated in key technical meetings either individually or as part of government delegations.
The goal – to ensure ensure that the “minimum agreed standards” they have set are not compromised. This has resulted in varying degrees of success in maintaining key issues and text in successive drafts; some fundamental ones such as marital rape, protecting the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups, the rights of women to control their fertility, and the rights of cohabiting couples still hang in the balance. 
At this stage of the game, the critical issue is that the draft presented to the Council of Ministers, and subsequently to the Heads of State or Government, retains the fundamental provisions without which the Protocol would lose meaning for women of the region.
Summit host South Africa has a relatively good record of addressing the issues that matter to women of the region, and is in fact a regional leader in ensuring women’s representation in decision making. It thus has direct influence in the outcome of this gender equality agenda during the SADC Summit. Will it deliver?
The adoption of the Gender Protocol at Summit this month would surely represent this region’s finest hour; a region that is not engendered is endangered.
Pamela Mhlanga is the Deputy Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

Comment on A historic SADC Summit ahead? Women’s Rights on the Agenda

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *