Africa In Focus

Africa In Focus: "The mainstream thinking now is that Africa is different and we could get it right if we want. The choice is fully ours, and it is now time for us to define what we want."

African Development Bank (AFDB) President, Dr. Donald Kaberuka.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Of Women, Girl-Child Rights, Rainatou Sow, MEWC and the African Women Decade (AWD) Era

"We are at the dawn of the African Women's Decade ....We need to empower African women who produce food, raise children and drive the economy here. When those women take their rightful place at the negotiating table, in the parliament and in leadership positions across society, we can unleash Africa's enormous potential."

Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General

We are in the African Women Decade (AWD 2010-2020). The decade where African women and the girl-child are empowered to take charge of their rights in being an equal and active participant in the political and social-economic development of the continent.

The AWD launch promotes women empowerment and female right- giving them the power to make their voice heard, not to keep silent or take the back seat any longer in the issues affecting them, their society or the continent as a whole.

Already the appointment of the first Malawian woman president- Joyce Banda which makes two female head of state in Africa and the election of the first female International Criminal Court prosecutor, Gambian Fatou Bensouda- the first African to hold this post; have become some of the big highlights marked in this AWD era.

Recently, I conducted an interview with Ms Rainatou Sow, the founder and executive director of “Make Every Woman Count” (MEWC), an organisation that promote women and girl’s right. MEWC puts African women and girls’ right it at the heart of the continent’s political and socio-economic development.
Through her organisation, Sow is working towards making the AWD era a significant one by making sure that African governments are accountable in backing up their commitments with actions in empowering the African women and girls with the tools they need to become agents of change.
She has been an activist since the age of 12.

Her efforts in this sphere have been recognised over the years. Apart from featuring on CNN’s African Voicesand being named one of the “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa 2012″, Rainatou was awarded “Most Inspirational Woman”  by  Women4Africa in 2012, perhaps the highest award to be bestowed upon an African woman.

Growing up, Sow says “My life was the one of an ordinary young girl; the only difference was that I was always involved in doing some community work. From teaching evening classes to young girls in my neighborhood after school to representing my school, joining the Guinean children parliament where I used to be the Minister of children and women affairs and then working with UNICEF at a very young age to promote children’s education with a focus on girl child, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), HIV/AIDS through door to door and radio/TV awareness campaign. I have always wanted to make a difference, and I took every opportunity to do so.

Sow is passionate about ensuring that African women and girls have a real voice in all governance institutions, from the judiciary to the civil service, as well as in the private sector and civil society, so that they can fully participate equally with men in public dialogue and decisions-making and be able to influence the decisions that will determine the future of their families, communities and countries.
What prompted her to choose this: the quest for social change.

With the creation of the AWD (African Women’s Decade) in 2010, Rainatou took control of her passion and career to create her own gender-based organisation –Make Every Woman Count (MEWC). Her encounter of witnessing several Guinean women sexually abused in September, 2009 also contributed to her quest for social change.

“I wanted to do something that could have a positive impact on African women’s and girls’ lives – and the African Women’s Decade was the perfect opportunity,” she said.

According to her, “Through Make Every Woman Count, my aim is to provide a spectrum of platforms and tools for African women, grassroots, activists, international organisations and women rights groups. I feel that what has been missing from the African women’s movement is a space, a voice that comes directly from African women.”

                Courtesy Mohaart:
“Most organizations that focus on empowering and gaining the equal rights of women often neglect the voices of African women themselves.”

Sow sees a bright future of young African women who are showing themselves to be leaders in their own equal rights.

“I hope to help them find strength in their voices while raising awareness on their issues and work on the international stage.”

To achieve these goals, Sow, through her organisation publishes a yearly report that summarises the progress made by African countries regarding women’s rights and gender equality on the continent.
The report will be produced yearly throughout the 10-year duration of the African Women’s Decade.

                    Rainatou Sow, Winner  Inspirational Woman of the Year
Through the MEWC’s Annual Review of the African Women’s Decade (AWD), the organisation  aims to evaluate the progress, or lack thereof, made to include and promote the rights of women at the country, regional, and Pan-African levels. This is done by presenting each country on the continent with a background and a presentation of progress and developments made within different areas, with importance for the human rights of women and gender equality.

The report is also an important tool when advocating for change, as developments regarding progress on gender issues will be made available. Furthermore, the report functions as an incentive for countries to improve their efforts in the areas of gender equality and the human rights of women.

“We evaluate each of the levels around our central gender issues, including Women, Peace and Security; Violence Against Women; Political Participation and Leadership; Economic Empowerment; HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health; and Human Rights of Women. The report is divided into sections according to regional visions of the African continent, and the countries are then presented individually. The objective of the report is twofold: firstly, it is meant to be a reference to provide insight into the rights of women in Africa during the AWD and secondly, to provide pressure on individual countries that either failed to make any progress on women’s rights or repealed legislation protecting women,” Sow explained.
For example, in the past years, the report has shown some encouraging progress regarding gender equality in Africa.

 “Today, African women are beginning to break the political glass ceiling in many countries and finding their way in roles that was traditionally occupied by men. We now have two African women out of 54 head of state and the chair of the African Union is a woman.”

Apart from these, there has also been some recent progress regarding women’s political in the recent years. Women’s representation in parliaments in Sub-Saharan Africa is now higher than in South Asia, the Arab states or Eastern Europe. The year 2012, for example proved promising for the African woman’s status within public bodies.  Women are beginning to break the political glass ceiling in many countries and finding their way in roles traditionally occupied by men. According to the 2012 data from the Inter- Parliamentary Union, women occupy 20.2 percent of parliamentary seats in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is slightly higher than the world average of 19.5 percent.

The report also holds African governments accountable in fulfilling their role.
 According to Sow, Women’s issues and machineries charged with women’s affairs have been marginalized and under-resourced for too long, and this has led to the very slow implementation of international and regional commitments made to women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Therefore, “African Governments needs to be accountable, and take responsibility in keeping their promises. We need to push African governments to work harder on women issues; those who have not ratified the various legal framework to ratify, those who have already ratified to put money aside for implementation with concrete action plans such as clear gender budgeting as well as allocating more funding for food security, human security and better education/health care for sustainable development.”

Sow says “It is important to remember that the protection of citizens is up to the Government of each country and UN or International organisations, NGOs cannot act on behalf of a country. Governments and Members of Parliament have a responsibility to ensure that the necessary legislation and norms are in place. They have to allocate the resources needed to turn words into actions when it comes to ensuring the rights of half of the population (women).”

However, she said, “Some states have made considerable advancements in protecting women from sexual violence as well as encouraging them to participate in politics and election. Most have gender policies or some kind of national women’s mechanism, such as a Ministry of Gender or Ministry of Women’s Affairs. There are also aspects of gender equality in many constitutions and some countries have passed other laws on different aspects of women’s rights.”

She added that despite the obstacles and challenges they face, a growing proportion of women are breaking through the glass ceiling.

“Women who have entered into leadership positions attribute their success to factors such as access to education and work opportunities, good mentoring by both men and women, support from family, employers, supervisors, teachers and colleagues, and successful lobbying by gender activists.

But the government and the private sectors are not the only one charged with the responsibility of engaging and empowering women, rather, Africans themselves have a role to play in creating lasting peace and sustainable development in the continent.
Sow says it is important for the African women to air their voice because women represent half of the population in Africa.

“We simply cannot develop a continent if half of its population is left out. African governments need to tap into the talent and wisdom of women.”

It is not a secret that the world’s challenges will not be effectively addressed unless the exclusion faced by women and girls is tackled across the board. We need to have more women in decision-making and leadership positions because whether the issue is food security, economic recovery, health, or peace and security; the participation and inclusion of women is needed today more than ever for more sustainable and equitable solutions.”

“The participation and inclusion of African Women and girls are vital to the continent growth and development. African governments can simply no longer afford to deny the full potential of half of the population. Women and girls need to be empowered and have their developmental skills unleashed to participate in the socio-economic and political development of the continent.”
“By placing women at the centre of it all, African women and girls will have an opportunity to flourish and become advocates and leaders.”

Sow hopes that by the end of the AWD era, there will be complete removal of discrimination against women, both in law and in practice, as this greatly hinders women’s economic, social and political rights, women’s land rights as well as their Sexual and reproductive health rights.

Presently, with her organisation is working on its 2nd annual report on Women’s political participation & Elections monitoring in Africa over 2012. It is also organising a month long campaigning in March to invite young African Women between 15-35 years-old to enter the stage, pick up the microphone, and let their voices  heard on their vision for the future.

“MEWC is also tirelessly working to secure funding to start a leadership and technology training for young African women starting this year.”

Her advise to young women:  “If you know what you want and you have the passion and motivation to do it, nothing will stand in your way. More importantly, you have to believe in yourself and stand by your decisions. Life is full of challenges and you will never overcome these challenges if you doubt yourself. Always remember that nothing is impossible if you believe in it and put some work into it, you will succeed.  Like Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.””



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