On 1 April 2014, the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and UN Women signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Brussels, Belgium, dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women in ACP member states. The MOU was signed on the sideline of the 4th Africa-EU Summit which took place in Brussels from 2-3 April 2014.
The MOU establishes a partnership between the ACP and UN Women, which will see the two organizations collaborate through policy dialogues, advocacy and joint programme to enhance the socio-political and economic rights of women.1 This piece reflects on the implications of this partnership for the promotion of women's rights within the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and ongoing debates on the post-2015 development framework.
Gender inequality and the marginalization of women have long been identified as a major impediment to development efforts in developing countries, prompting numerous national, regional and global initiatives to empower and promote the rights of women. For example, Goal 3 of the MDGs adopted at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit is dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The main target of this goal is to achieve gender parity ratio among boys and girls in primary and secondary school by 2015. More generally, the three indicators of MDG 3 track key elements of women's social, economic and political participation in a bid to support the building of gender-equitable societies.
It should be noted that prior to the Millennium Declaration, the UN General Assembly had in 1979 adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), while the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) adopted at the 1995 landmark UN World Conference on Women identified key areas in which action was needed to speed up gender equality and the empowerment of women. Similar policy frameworks have also been developed at the regional level. For example, African Heads of State and Government adopted a Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa in 2004, which together with the African Union's 2008 Gender Policy provides a normative framework for promoting women's rights on the continent.
Significant progress has indeed been recorded in the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women on the strength of these frameworks. However, improving the plight of women remains a challenge in most of the ACP countries, particularly in Africa. Although 50% of African countries have managed to achieve equal ratio of girls to boys in primary schools, early marriages and lack of economic opportunities for women remain major causes of gender disparities in secondary and tertiary education. Women are also excluded from employment opportunities. In 2011, 85% of women in sub-Saharan Africa were in vulnerable employment as compared to 69% of men. According to the 2013 UN MDG Report, the representation of women in decision-making positions in the ACP countries has improved since 2000. In 2013 North Africa moved from 3% to 18 %, sub-Saharan Africa from 13% to 21% and Latin America and the Caribbean from 15% to 25%.2 However, women continue to face socio-economic discrimination and oppression, while many are subjected to gender-based violence. Women are also disproportionately affected by the burden of violent conflicts in the developing world.
It is in this context of relative progress and lingering challenges that the partnership between the ACP and UN Women becomes relevant to efforts towards gender equality and the empowerment of women in Africa. A partnership of this nature can be very useful in overcoming the current challenges to gender equality and women empowerment. These challenges manifest themselves mainly in the form of weak political will to implement legislation and policies, as well as problematic cultural and religious practices. For example, in most African countries deep-rooted societal attitudes and institutional culture continue to encourage gender-based violence and discrimination against women. Thus, while women might have been accommodated in the political, social and economic spheres of government and private sectors but leadership, authority and decision-making still remains male dominated. Moreover, the practice of customary laws initiates forced and early marriages, while land and property rights reinforce patriarchy.3 The legal exercise of the Islamic Sharia law in many African countries also encourages a male dominant society with women being subordinates and dependent on their male counterparts. Child brides and cultural practices of polygamy still exist even in relatively advanced countries such as South Africa.
The combined effort of UN Women and the ACP Secretariat could be an important catalyst for interventions to overcome some of these challenges. As an agency of the UN, UN Women enjoys significant legitimacy among an array of international actors, including national governments, the donor community and transnational civil society organisations. It can therefore rally resources and diplomatic leverage for its activities. On its part, the ACP Secretariat, which represents some of the countries most affected by the scourge of gender inequality and the marginalisation of women, has access to the governments of these countries. Through dialogues, advocacy and joint programmes as contemplated in the partnership, both organisations are able to deploy their comparative advantages to influence the governments of ACP countries to be more proactive in the fight against gender inequality and the marginalisation of women, while also rallying support and resources from international development actors within the context of the MDGs. Additionally, as the world looks beyond the 2015 deadline of the MDGs, the partnership between UN Women and the ACP Secretariat will be a useful tool to promote and seek buy-in from ACP governments for the position of UN Women on the post-2015 development framework, which calls for decisive action to address the structural impediments to gender equality and the achievement of women's rights .
Building on the experience and challenges emerging from the implementation of MDG 3 and other international commitments to address the plight of women, UN Women calls for a two-prong approach to addressing gender inequality and the marginalisation of women within the post-2015 development framework. First, it advocates a specific commitment from world leaders and other development actors, in the form of a stand-alone goal, to achieving gender equality, women's rights and women's empowerment. Second, the position of UN Women makes a case for mainstreaming gender issues across all parts of the any future development framework. More importantly, and in line with the predominant theme of transformation underpinning the report of the High-Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda, UN Women believes that a transformative approach, which seeks to alter traditional gender relations, is required to effectively empower women and safeguard their fundamental human rights.4
1UN Women. 2014. New partnership between the Secretariat of the ACP Group of States and UN Women to enhance gender equality and women's empowerment. Accessed April 02, 2014. http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/4/acp-partnership
2MDG Report .2013. Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals: Food security in Africa: Issues, challenges and lessons. UNDP. Accessed May 14, 2014. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/mdg/mdg-reports/africa-collection/
3Nkomo, S & NGambi, H. 2013. "Women in Management and Leadership." In Management in Africa: Macro and Micro Perspectives, edited by Terri R. Lituchy, Betty Jane Punnett and Bill Buenar , 215. New York: Routledge. Accessed May 14, 2014. http://books.google.co.za/books?id=fBZRQQjR69MC
4UN Women. 2013. A Transformative Stand-Alone Goal on Achieving Gender Equality, Women's Rights and Women's Empowerment: Imperatives and Key Components. Accessed May 19, 2014. http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/~/media/F4AA23E30D8248B09A3E61283807A677.ashx