Countdown to August 2008 Summit À“ Raising the Bar on Gender Equality

Countdown to August 2008 Summit À“ Raising the Bar on Gender Equality

Date: January 1, 1970
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Johannesburg; 4 March. 8 March will mark International Women’s Day. To focus attention on the achievements that have been made and the gaps that remain in financing women’s empowerment, the theme for this year is “Investing in Women and Girls.À Meanwhile, gender activists in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are picking up the pace ahead of one of the most important dates on their calendars this year – the SADC Heads of State and Government Summit, scheduled for August in South Africa.

This is when our governments will decide whether to make the bold move to put in place the SADC Gender and Development Protocol, which would legal bind governments to accelerate and achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in this region.
Protocols in the SADC legal system are the most binding legal instruments to advance regional cooperation. They are also the strongest indicator of what SADC governments consider to be key areas to advance the regional integration agenda. Thus far, the 23 Protocols in place span the whole spectrum of socio political and economic issues. Most of these say little or nothing about the significance of gender equality and women’s empowerment to development, democracy and human rights in this region.
The draft Gender Protocol is an ambitious and solid framework consolidating key commitments made by SADC governments to achieve gender equality, and includes benchmarks and measurable targets, whilst addressing issues at the core of women’s rights in SADC. It has gone through several technical stages including approval by SADC Ministers of Justice just before Summit 2007, and was subsequently deferred and substantially altered.
In December 2007 Senior Government Officials responsible for gender, not only amended the draft, but developed a strategy designed to ensure wide consultations, input through technical ministerial meetings, and subsequent submission to Heads of State and Government for adoption at the August 2008 Summit, after vetting by the Council of Ministers.  
At their January 2008 strategy meeting, the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, comprised of more than 16 organisations and experts from the region, noted that whilst the senior government officials strengthened the text and content of the draft Gender Protocol in December 2007, there are still some critical gaps.
The Alliance developed a 6-month roadmap designed to set into motion a series of technical and political strategic actions at national and regional levels, to support efforts by the SADC Gender Unit so that the draft Gender Protocol is adopted at the August 2008; the countdown towards the Summit has thus begun.  
The analysis of the current draft Gender Protocol by the Alliance, has revealed that though gaps exist, there is significant improvement of the overall document from the post August 2007 Summit draft, in that: 
  • language has been strengthened in areas such as access to justice by women and men;
  • issues that had been removed, such as targets and benchmarks for reducing gender based violence and addressing gender equality in education have been reinstated;
  • the prohibition of child marriages and a benchmark for reducing maternal mortality, had been reinstated;
  • the previous draft had reduced the 2015 targets from 24 to 14, whilst the new amended draft by Senior Officials now has 19 targets; and
  • the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities has been reinstated, though narrower in terms of according them the full range of rights.
The Alliance notes that there are some key rights missing in the current draft Gender Protocol, particularly in eight strategic areas that, in varying degrees, are recognised, practiced, and promoted in national legislation in some SADC countries. The critical gaps are:
  • continued use of non-obligatory language generally throughout the document, and in particular lack of explicitness about the supremacy of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution over religious, customary and other laws and practices that are in conflict with these rights;
  • lack of recognition of the rights of socially excluded and vulnerable groups is a serious gap;
  • exclusion of marital rape, despite the fact that the draft Protocol recognises and makes explicit protection from all forms of gender based violence, including femicide and trafficking;
  • lack of recognition of rights in instances where couples are co-habiting, a reality in SADC countries, is a threat to the property and other rights of these couples in the event of death or other circumstances that nullify the union;
  • although there is reference to the Maseru Declaration on HIV and AIDS, absence of a rights based approach to addressing HIV and AIDS is likely to render the Protocol weak and ineffectual on the ground;
  • articulation of the right to education in general terms ignores key concerns such as early childhood development, career planning, vocational training and effective policies in addressing school girl pregnancies;
  • the critical area of guaranteed access to government and other state controlled contracts by women, often very lucrative, is missing from the economic empowerment Articles of the Protocol; and
  • lack of specific targets to facilitate the achievement of benchmarks to mainstream gender in the media will make it difficult to track progress in this area, and the articulation of issues relating to information and communication technologies remains weak.
So what happens next? The key lies in affirming and promoting the rights already articulated in the draft Gender Protocol, whilst creatively and constructively seeking to close the critical gaps.
President Mbeki of South Africa and President Mwanawasa of Zambia as incoming and outgoing Chair of SADC respectively, will be pivotal in tipping the scales towards adoption of the Gender Protocol. The Alliance therefore plans to engage at the highest levels with both governments, whilst simultaneously mobilising their peers in the civil society movement in the entire region and at all levels.
This forms part of the broad strategy, which also includes preparing for Summit itself, so that no stone is left unturned. As the logo of the Alliance aptly says “the time is now’’ for gender equality in SADC, and there can be no turning back.
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. More info on the Protocol campaign

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