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

  • Speedhakoo

    Thank you for a wonderful perspective on this, and I agree with you that it would be very useful to form a broad as possibly based solidarity , but I do not agree with you on your point that we need to first have discussions amongst ourselves and then only make demands on our leaders, especially on a feminist leader like president Sirleaf about the inclusion of LGBTQI rights.

    Hers is a powerful voice that I have much respect for, not to mention all she has achieved and the impossibly difficult job she is doing, which is exactly why I think that she is the right person to reason with and demand a statement from on the inclusion of our rights too. Reports are coming in that more LGBTQI people and those people perceived to be are being targeted in Monrovia, which makes it more urgent for us to be even more vocal and demanding about this. The Guardian newspaper too needs to be taken to task for misreporting and directly creating the kind of furor that is not helpful to us queer Africans at all.

    The African Union refused even observer status to the Coalition of African Lesbians, so our battle to have our rights included is going to be an uphill one. Furthermore, many women’s groups in Africa are very much against the promotion of LGBTQI rights, so how do we convince them to include our concerns and rights if they see our very existence as problematic? Do we now spend our time trying to convince women’s rights groups to include our (very urgent) concerns and
    rights, or do we spend our time to make LGBTQI people and their
    concerns more visible? Both?

    As you rightly point out in another article of yours gender performance is often more the issue than sexuality, so how do we get our sisters to include our trans brothers and sisters in their agendas as they are the ones who are most often facing the most challenges in terms of harassment, violence and lack of support?

    Clearly, I have many more questions than answers….

    • Spectra Speaks

      Thanks so much for your comment. It’s great to hear from you :)

      I need to point out something first; I think my meaning was misread (or I wasn’t clear enough) from the last paragraph and I don’t want the conversation derailed from *broadening *strategy to creating an hierarchy that prioritizes one over the other. I am certainly *not *proposing that it’s a waste of time to demand justice from our leaders. *Not at all.* I agree that there are urgent matters at hand and that African women who are most affected by this / already on board with the issue of including protections for LGBT people speak up. African women need to speak up, period. My point is that *more *African women — not just self-identified LGBT people — need to speak up. And that if we don’t do the work necessary to start real conversations with our straight African ally sisters, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to re-brand African women’s issues as inclusive of sexuality/LGBT issues. Pushing for political recognition without societial/cultural buy-in (at the same time) doesn’t make sense to me. Not saying one or the other.

      “Furthermore, many women’s groups in Africa are very much against the promotion of LGBTQI rights, so how do we convince them to include our concerns and rights if they see our very existence as problematic? Do we now spend our time trying to convince women’s rights groups to include our (very urgent) concerns and rights, or do we spend our time to make LGBTQI people and their concerns more visible? Both?”

      I have these same questions, and I’m still exploring answers. We need
      several heads, no? And different perspectives. I want to know what my
      straight African ally sisters (there are many! we just haven’t engaged
      them) feel like my best strategy is, given that I want recognition and
      their political support. Just as we are willing to engage president Sirleaf
      on a controversial issue which she sees as problematic, I believe in the
      importance of engaging my African sisters who are straight — friends,
      family, aunties etc. I’ve seen this work very well at a community level.
      I’d like to see us give it a shot in this arena.

      In the work I’ve done community-building LGBTQ diaspora, one of the most
      common causes for depression, poor health, suicide, etc is “isolation” from
      one’s community. For many, it will not be enough to win protections; we
      need to think long term so that after we earn recognition by state and are
      protected under law, we are integrated into society. South Africa is an
      example for me about how laws can be present but people still feel
      isolated/ like outcasts because there hasn’t been as much work done to
      create a cultural shift. (Look at how long it has taken for people to even
      uphold the currently existing protective laws in the cases of corrective
      rape). The west (US, I know first-hand) is very good at creating laws, and
      not as good at tackling societal issues socially. I don’t want Africa to
      repeat this mistake. So my main point here is that while we can use the
      protocol to the African Charter as a tool of accountability, as well as
      argue for inclusion, we definitely need to chat among each other as African
      sisters, however uncomfortable/challenging. This kind of political
      undertaking needs more than one kind of strategy and I’m strongly against
      choosing one over the other. Prioritization won’t help; but we can each
      spend our efforts in avenues that we have most capacity and make sense for
      the common goal from different angles.

      To concede, my last paragraph about all of us needing to chat with each
      other before making demands was more about how I’ve seen “African Women”
      take a stand, and how I want that to include more straight African
      allies/advocates involved so that we’re stronger in numbers and can present
      a unified front to our leaders. President Sirleaf’s hands are tied, whether
      or not we want to admit it. She’s done a lot for women’s rights and as you
      say commands respect. If we’re going to engage her, I would caution that
      we do it strategically, making sure that we have as much of “Africa”
      represented (straight, LGBT, religious etc) so that we can maximize chances
      of political sway. That’s what I meant. Hope this clarifies my position.

  • Speedhakoo

    I think I understand your position better now, thanks for clearing up. I especially like your comment about issues around isolation, you are so very right about that. Thanks for making me think more and in a different way about this…

  • Msafropolitan

    All so true. Whilst reading/observing work by all too many African feminists/womanists etc. I often find myself suddenly slapped in the face with such incredibly heteronormative and traditional rhetoric that is extremely disheartening,as in the case of ESJ. It’s not simply that I feel offended by unquestioned narrow-minded views (which I do) but what’s truly discouraging is that it’s just no way that we can be progressive whilst simultaneously preserving and gatekeeping homophobic and patriarchal values and traditions. 
    Keep us posted on any responses regarding the Maputo protocol. 

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