Africa Union Protocol for Women's Rights: Progress or Pitfall?

The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women: Progress and Pitfalls for LGBT Rights

Given the recent news about Liberia’s president fence-sitting on the issue of current anti-gay Liberia law, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address gender bias within an African context.

(I maintain that “traditional” gender roles haven’t been adequately explored as the root cause of many intersecting societal problems, e.g. sexism and homophobia,  and that Africans — straight or gay — should work together towards their elimination if we stand for true progress. Here’s my explanation.)

My search for information on successful models for promoting gender equity in Africa led me to an article about The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women, the first comprehensive legal framework for women’s rights in Africa, and an international governing tool that seeks to “improve on the status of African women by bringing about gender equality and eliminating discrimination.”

From the UN Women West Africa’s blog:

The Protocol is the first human rights instrument to call on state parties to legislate against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices and also provides for the right to health and reproductive rights. The Protocol is also the first human rights instrument to explicitly provide for the right to a medical abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the health or life of the mother. It also provides for the right to property and inheritance, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and the rights of elderly and disabled women.

In the above summary, I noted almost instantly that there weren’t any explicit protections / provisions made to advocate for sexual minorities (i.e. LGBTQI Africans), which is unfortunate if true (Note: still waiting for comment from UN Women, and will update once I hear back) because the protocol seems to be working; to date, 32 out of 54 African states have taken steps in accordance with the provisions and have implemented strategies to combat the mistreatment of women.

For example, per the protocol, several countries including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania, have legally prohibited the practice of Female Genital Cutting, and  Zambia’s newly established Division of Gender in Development now reviews existing laws that discriminate against women.

In fact, the pace at which many African countries have embraced the opportunity to improve the conditions of women in their countries has been encouraging enough that UN Women and Equality Now (on behalf of pan-African organization SOAWR, Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition) have launched a new initiative to train lawyers across Africa on the protocol’s application using this manual.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if African lawyers were also trained in legal advocacy for non-heteronormative women who are mistreated or denied basic rights for not conforming to dogmatic gender roles? I think there is a case for this, as well as using this framework to hold governments in Africa accountable should they choose to promote or sanction the criminalization of LGBT African people.

For one, a clear stance against using culture as an excuse for the mistreatment of women is already included in this protocol. In fact, President Sirleaf of Liberia arguably earned her presidency on a platform that challenged tradition; her work advocating for the rights of women has even earned her a Nobel Peace prize. (Ironic, that this same position is what is keeping her from walking the talk when it comes to providing protections for LGBT Liberians.)

But, more importantly, as a media activist primarily concerned with movement building among African women, I believe that a push to include protections for sexual minorities within the protocol would provide a way for African women’s organizations (including those which are focused on LGBTQI issues) to work together, rather than in separate caucuses.

I foresee some resistance to this of course. In my experience, many African women (even those doing human rights work), much like Liberia President Sirleaf, still view discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as separate from women’s issues, often paralleling them when they should be discussing them as intrinsically connected. But the same “traditional” gender roles that keep women trapped in abusive relationships (even at the expense of their lives) are the same ones that cause men to view corrective rape of lesbians as a justifiable lesson in womanhood.

So, before we — as African women – can begin making demands of our leaders, perhaps we need to have more conversations among ourselves. Luckily, we don’t need a charter to do this.

“My sisters, my daughters, my friends – find your voice.” — President Sirleaf