Action will make SADC Gender Protocol commitments a reality

Date: January 1, 1970
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All indications are that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Heads of State will adopt the Gender and Development Protocol at the upcoming SADC Summit in Lusaka in August 2007. Will this Protocol mean greater Member State accountability to achieve gender equality and women’s rights?

The past one and a half years have seen an unprecedented move by SADC Heads of State, spurred on by civil society groups, to upgrade the 1997 SADC Gender and Development Declaration and 1998 Addendum on Prevention and Eradication of Violence Against Women and Children, into a Protocol.  
Gender ministers are to hold a final meeting on 20 July in Maputo, Mozambique to review the draft Protocol, which would then be reviewed by justice ministers before being forwarded to Heads of State at their annual summit being held in Lusaka, Zambia from 16-18 August. While the timing is tight, it is still expected that this ground-breaking instrument will go before heads of state this year.
The SADC Gender Unit, with the strategic support of women’s empowerment groups, represented by the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, led a series of key technical meetings, which resulted in a draft Protocol.
The question remains, what is a Protocol, and what does this particular Protocol mean for women? In 1992, SADC institutionalized Protocols as legally binding instruments aimed at facilitating the implementation of the SADC Treaty. All SADC Protocols provide a legal and institutional framework for deepening regional integration in the social, economic and political spheres.
Currently there are 23 Protocols in place. These Protocols address a broad range of areas of cooperation amongst SADC member States, such as infrastructure and services, economic and industrial policy, natural resources, social and human development, as well as legal and political cooperation. Upon adoption, a Protocol enters into force after two thirds of the Member States have ratified it.
The SADC Protocol system aims to be a bridge between policy and action. Protocols aim to step up accountability by Member States for policy commitments made, and to translate political will into systematic and sustainable implementation.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges women’s rights activists experience in realising the gender equality agenda in SADC is the apparent widening gap between policy and action. Promises made by governments to women rarely match substantive delivery. There are more ‘paper rights’ than real rights being enjoyed by women on the ground.
Moreover, a negligible number of SADC countries have domesticated international conventions they have signed, including the recently adopted Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Lack of effective implementation often mars a good ratification record.
Can we therefore expect any different with the adoption of SADC Gender and Development Protocol? The main reason there is a move towards the adoption of this intergovernmental legally binding instrument on gender equality is because of the need accelerate implementation, as well as address the weakness of the non-enforceable nature of the current Declaration on Gender and Development.
Fundamentally, there is a need to ‘step up the game’ by getting governments to agree to be bound in law to a supra national legal and monitoring framework. The timing is also opportune, given the strong regional policy position on gender equality.
For example, SADC heads of State committed themselves to 50% parity in politics and decision-making. Recently they also adopted plan to mainstream gender effectively into the regional integration process, as well as increasingly progressive national policy and legal environments in SADC Member States.
There is complexity with regard to implementation of Protocols, and it is at two levels, namely at the intergovernmental and national levels. Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms in the Protocols framework therefore have a crucial significance on achieving accountability and implementation.
Unlike Treaty bodies, responsibilities for enforcing international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) , SADC Protocols do not have this kind of mechanism. Exceptions include a few structures that play a role in monitoring implementation, such as SADC National Committees (SNCs), Integrated Committee of Ministers (ICM), Council of Ministers, and the SADC Summit.
All these spaces do offer an opportunity for monitoring progress on implementation in a structured and systematic way, though the ability by civil society to influence the agenda in the higher structures is somewhat limited. The question remains, as to what happens when a state has failed to implement its legally binding commitments?
It seems sovereignty still reigns supreme, as a non-compliant state cannot be ‘punished’. The Gender Protocol not only provides for time bound action for targets set, but also has innovative provisions for establishing and strengthening institutional mechanisms for implementation, resource allocation, as well as monitoring and evaluation.
If the Heads of State adopt and affect these innovations in their entirety, the door for achieving genuine success in moving the gender equality agenda forward will have opened.  Real success in making the Gender Protocol a reality for women lies in focusing on the continuum of action from development, to adoption, to ratification, to domestication, to implementation, to monitoring and enforcement.
Women’s rights activists need to position themselves to influence this continuum in an effective way, so that the new standards found in this Protocol and the potential to transform the lives of women in a deep and meaningful way in SADC is realised.
Pamela Mhlanga is with Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) in Zimbabwe.  This article, part of a special series ahead of the SADC Heads of State Summit 2007, is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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