From the Editor’s Keyboard

Women’s rights: A tale of two National Assemblies in Africa

17 June 2006 at 13:44 | 335 views

"The recent decision of the Gambian National Assembly to lift four controversial reservations to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s rights on the Rights of women in Africa on the eve of the upcoming July Assembly of the AU Summit was a remarkable victory for Gambian women’s rights campaigners. "

By Faith Cheruiyot

Ahead of the important July AU Summit to be held from 25 June -2 July in Banjul, The Gambia, contrasting experiences from two largely Islamic West African countries reveal the cutting edge importance of the AU Protocol on Women’s Rights in Africa.

In the Gambia, Parliamentarians blaze the trail for women’s rights and gender equality by reversing earlier reservations on the Protocol, while in Niger their counterparts vote against its ratification. Faith Cheruiyot in Nairobi interviewed leaders of women’s organisations in the two countries and wrote this article.

The recent decision of the Gambian National Assembly to lift four controversial reservations to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s rights on the Rights of women in Africa on the eve of the upcoming July Assembly of the AU Summit was a remarkable victory for Gambian women’s rights campaigners.

Two years after the Protocol was adopted by the AU Heads of States meeting in July, 2003, the National Assembly of the Gambia approved the Protocol for ratification on 11 March 2005. The Gambian National Assembly debated and approved its ratification with reservations on Articles 5,6,7 and 14.

Article 5 of the Protocol relates to the elimination of harmful practices. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is widely practised and deeply entrenched in the Gambia. An estimated 50% to 90% of women in the Gambia have undergone this practice. Many citizens think that this practice is consistent with the Islamic faith and preserves tradition and certain beliefs like increasing the chances of marriageability for girls. Many are also oblivious of the health and reproductive risks involved in continuing with FGM. Consequently, there is no local law prohibiting the practice of FGM as it is not considered a criminal act.

Articles 6 & 7 are the provisions relating to Marriage Separation and Divorce. Due to the significant Islamic population in the Gambia, the majority of the marriages are performed under Islamic law. According to a recent survey, 66% of women respondents disclosed that they were married under 17 years. A further 27% married while under 15 years old. [1] Arranged, forced marriages and child betrothal are common practice in the Gambia.

Sharia law has been applied in divorce and inheritance matters. Women normally have received a lower proportion of assets distributed through marriage than the males. Most divorce cases never reach the courts but in these few cases women often only receive their removal expenses, maintenance allowances for three months and a token amount for the maintenance of the children if they are assigned to the women.

Polygamy is fully allowed under Sharia law and is very common. There is a tendency for women to lose out in modern polygamous relationships. In some cases proper cause and financial support is not given to the woman and her children especially if she is not the favourite of the husband. In other circumstances, men cannot afford to provide the support because of their meagre earnings. Invariably, there is a direct link between polygamy and financial difficulties in marriage. [2]

The Married Women’s Property Act gives married women the right to own property and an equal capacity to enter into contract, customs and traditions. While an important safeguard for women, most proceeds end up belonging to the husband even though the wife is always expected to contribute to the family’s farming or business.

The provision of Article 14 of the Protocol relates to reproductive rights of women. This is a critical issue for women. The high rate of maternal mortality (10/1000) live births is related to the lack of access to adequate health services including pre-natal care, safe contraception and safe abortion. Young women do not have access to family planning services and the level of unwanted teenage pregnancies are high. [3]

Abortion is a criminal offence, except to preserve the life of the mother. Binte Sidbe, the Executive Director of the Association for the Promotion of Girls and Women’s Advancement (APGWAC) speaks on this problem: “Recently baby dumping has become a very big problem in the Gambia. It is illegal here to commit an abortion even though the mother to be cannot take care of the child. We had hoped that with the ratification of the Protocol such activities would only be in the past.”

Following the “dirty” ratification on March 11th 2005, many civil society groups in the Gambia, including the Africa Centre for Human Rights and Democracy studies (ACDHRS), Child Protection Alliance (CPA), Institute for Human Rights & Development (IHRD), UNICEF, lecturers from the University of Gambia, GAMCOTRAP, Management Development Institute (MDI), and Association for the Promotion of Girls and Women’s Advancement (APGWAC), embarked on a long battle and dialogue with policy makers to remove the reservations placed.

Hannah Forster, ACHRS Executive Director reflected recently: “ We embarked on a long process that involved government officials. We set up a Gender Action team with many organisations to target the Justice and Women’s Affairs Department, the African Commission in Banjul. We wrote many articles in the newspapers, did many TV interviews, planned and implemented protest marches directed at the National Assembly. We split the heavy tasks among our organisations. We were few but worked very hard with the National Assembly Members (NAMS). Their support was very crucial to the passing of the Bill. One of the major activities we carried out was to distribute copies of the Protocol to each NAM, after an initial discovery that the NAMS were really ignorant of most of the laws and different Human Rights Instruments.”

Working with grassroots women was one other important strategy. Once they sensitised the women they used their collective voice to put pressure on their NAMs. “The NAMs need votes from these women therefore pay special attention to their constituency members, ” said Binta Sidibe.

The advocates faced many challenges including gross ignorance and resistance to change. The NAMs were hesitant to intellectually engage and build their capacity on issues that are of concern to females and youth. [4] They thought that any instrument stressing the rights of women was a western ideology being imposed on the Africans. Islamic scholar groups and rural men were against the Protocol who saw the full ratification of the Protocol as giving the women more rights that were equivalent to theirs. Hannah Forster further stated: “We did a thankless job, a very difficult and calculated task, but in the end, the results were very satisfying.”

The women’s organisations were convinced that reversing reservations was very important as Gambian laws have huge gaps with special regard to personal laws. The Constitution of the Gambia does have provisions, which includes the right to equality and non-discrimination. However, the Constitution specifically exempts from these provisions laws relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance. [5]

The reversal of the reservations and full ratification of the Protocol by the Gambia on April 25th 2006 was a big breakthrough on advocacy around the Maputo Protocol with the support of all organisations involved in the process. [6] Dr. Isatou Touray the Secretary General of GAMCOTRAP and others commended the National Assembly Members for ratifying the Protocol and expressed appreciation to the Government for taking the bold step to give the women’s bill full ratification.

With a major milestone having been reached in the full ratification of the Protocol by the Gambia, the question turns to how to turn laws into reality on the ground. As it is, there is a wide gap between the Gambia’s international obligations, its stated policies and reality. One of the main factors that impede the effective protection of human rights is the dominance of customary and religious laws and a range of traditional, cultural and religious beliefs that perpetuate discriminatory and harmful practices. [7]

To this end there is a need for increased education, both formal and informal, to all grassroots of the Gambia on the risks involved on FGM practices. The Government ought to demonstrate its full commitment and collaborate with NGO’s that are already working in these areas by providing both technical and financial support to them. The Gambia must take all measures to put an end to the practice of FGM, discourage its proponents and enforce punishments for its perpetrators.

The Protocol has now set that men and women shall be regarded as equal partners in marriage and there should be national laws that guarantee the minimum age to be 18 years. Public awareness on the possibilities for an educated, secure and empowered population must follow.

There is definitely a ray of hope towards reversing the trends and the statistics, however it has to take time. Attention must turn in the Gambia towards the measures and strategies that the government will put in place to domesticate all the provisions of the women’s Protocol. On domestication of the Protocol Binta Sidibe further said: “ The bulk of the work still rests on us the NGO’s. We need to continue the lobbying of our government to prioritise the domestication process. We are positive that once we intensify the pressure towards the upcoming Presidential and National Assembly elections in September and January respectively, we could make headway.”

While Gambian men and women can look forward to a time when the Protocol will be a lived reality, the women of Niger might never come close to realising the benefits of the Protocol. On June 3rd 2006, the male dominated Parliament of Niger voted down the ratification of the Protocol. The Government spokesman Mr Mohamed Ben Ahmed told the state newspaper The Sahel: “The rejection of the motion is a serious set back for Niger, but this is a proper application of domestic principles.” [8]

Many MPs expressed concerns of passing the Protocol on issues of reproductive rights, the freedom for women to choose how many children to have, the abortion debate and inheritance. Niger shares similar religious and cultural practices with the Gambia. It is a predominantly Muslim country where practices like FGM, forced early marriages and polygamy are common in many parts of the country. Many women aged 15-49 have undergone some form of FGM in Niger. This number varies significantly along ethnic, religious, regional and educational status lines. This practice in Niger is an extreme example of discrimination based on sex. It is often used as a way of controlling women’s sexuality and is closely associated with the girls’ marriageability. Mothers choose to protect them from being ostracized, beaten shunned or disgraced. [9]

The Niger is the first African country to refuse to ratify the Protocol in its entirety. Yet, women’s organisations are convinced they can turn this around. Madame Djataou Oussa, le presidente du conseil d’Administration of the Co-ordinators of Women’s NGO’s of Niger (CONGAFEN) said: “It’s a step behind for us and we are demoralised about this. However, we are planning the next step. Our aim is to work towards ensuring that this bill comes back to parliament for fresh debate in three months time.”

The struggle continues for the women of Niger. CONGAFEN and other organisations working at the forefront say that they shall now accelerate further sensitisation of the Parliamentarians. Perhaps the advocates in Niger ought to borrow a leaf or two from their Gambian counterparts.

* Faith Cheruiyot is a Kenyan woman lawyer currently attached to the Pan African programme of Oxfam GB.

Photo: Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy, Gambia’s Vice President

Comments