Sustaining the spirit of Beijing or chasing a mirage?

Date: January 1, 1970
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It?s time again for Africa and the world to take stock of women?s gains during the last decade. Will a new story emerge, or, are women still stuck where they were 10 years ago?

At the 1995 UN World Conference held in Beijing, the global community was encouraged to “look at the world through women’s eyes”.

The Beijing Platform for Action’s goal was to achieve equality, development and peace. And, measures to do so were all embracing, addressing traditional, cultural, spiritual, structural, institutional and social dimensions of women’s disempowerment. 

The Beijing decade, however, is rapidly drawing to a close. During the upcoming review process dubbed Beijing +10, African activists musk ask themselves: Do we have a story to tell that is different from that told at the end of other UN women’s decades (the inaugural one started in Mexico in 1975)?

Africa signed onto and generated many blue prints to “accelerate” development, democracy, equality, including gender equality, and justice during the last decade. These include the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, SADC’s Charter on Fundamental Social Rights, the SADC HIV and AIDS Framework (and a Declaration), and the adoption of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.

But the perennial lag between policy and implementation posed a serious threat to any gains for women in the years following Beijing.

Some gender activists argue that we have made headway towards women’s empowerment in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Others say that in the face of discriminatory traditional and customary practices, coupled with sexism and backlashes that coalesce in subordinating women, this apparently new packaging of actions, legal rights, and opportunities in the name of women’s empowerment is flimsy.

There has been an incremental conceptual shift and understanding that equality and development goals can only be achieved by addressing the unequal power relations between women and men across the entire socio-economic spectrum.

All SADC countries have adopted gender or women’s policies that seek to redress the inequalities between women and men. Institutionally, all the countries either have a gender or women’s affairs departments/units, or ministries of gender; some have gender desks/focal points in line ministries.

Constitutionally approximately 13 SADC countries have constitutions that outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex  (very few on the basis of gender), and provide for equality of persons before the law.

But there are fissures in these “gains”. Most gender policies are conceptually weak. They confuse or conflate the development theories of Women in Development, Women and Development, and Gender and Development, thus setting a precedent for weak implementation processes and weak structures with corresponding limited results and change on the ground.

Although South Africa and Malawi have mainstreamed women’s rights into their constitutions, the anti discrimination clauses in most constitutions are rendered meaningless, because these clauses sit side by side with customary and personal law which allow discrimination against women.

Women in positions of power and decision-making can support transformation, and SADC has moved incrementally on the political front from 17 to 19% in the past 5 years, however, it remains more than 10% short of the SADC minimum of 30% and still shorter of 50% parity.

There is an acknowledgment in SADC that HIV and AIDS is rapidly rolling back the gains achieved over decades, yet asserting and negotiating sexuality by women remains a minefield, coupled with pervasive violence in both the public and private sphere.

But gender activists also can point to significant steps in the last decade.

There have been important legal inroads in responding to violence against women with some countries expanding the concept of rape to include marital rape, legislating on domestic violence, trafficking of women and girls amongst others. Some countries have gone further to establish specific courts and other structures to practically address the problem, including rape courts (South Africa), and Victims Support Units (Zambia, Malawi).

Access by many women to the law and its opportunities remains a big challenge, with some experiences of women still unrecognized (political violence, femicide). While legal services provided by civil society groups in particular is a good mechanism to facilitate this, it is impossible for them to cope with the magnitude of the problem due to capacity constraints.

What then can the women’s movement claim to have contributed to empowering themselves in the last decade?

In SADC it can safely be asserted that no gain either at the policy or practical level would have occurred without some concerted pressure from a women’s coalition, group, or network. The increased validity and legitimacy of knowledge and information generated by the women’s movement has enriched problem analysis and implementation processes, whilst withstanding challenge, and at times ridicule, by authorities at all levels. Also, the skills base in the women’s movement has widened, including expert training, research, and other forms of service provision.

Correspondingly it is also argued that the movement has weakened in the past decade. This is attributed to, amongst other things, cooption, disintegration, self-aggrandizement, lack of focus and cohesion, lack of effective governance, and a shrinking resource base. 

Depending on where one stands, it remains for us to determine whether we have succeeded in maintaining the spirit of Beijing or whether the last decade has been a mirage.

The picture certainly looks contradictory, and the question remains whether another Beijing decade with new benchmarks is necessary, or some creative alternatives can be crafted to envision a future for women in Africa and globally where gender justice is a reality.

Pamela Mhlanga is the head of the Women in Development Southern Africa Awareness (WIDSAA) program of the Southern African Research and Documentation Center.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information




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