Reflecting on two decades of the Maputo Protocol promoting women’s rights in Africa
Two decades ago, a huge milestone in promoting women’s rights in Africa was attained. Through the collective efforts of governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and women's rights defenders, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa was adopted on 11 July 2003. This first regional agreement of its kind – also known as the Maputo Protocol – marked a turning point in the advancement of women's rights across the African continent.
The protocol covers a wide range of issues, including the political, economic, social, and cultural rights of women. It guarantees women's rights to dignity, equality, and non-discrimination, as well as emphasises their right to participate in decision-making processes at all levels. The treaty also addresses human rights violations such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and gender-based violence (GBV). So far, 44 countries out of the 55 African Union (AU) member states have ratified the protocol – the latest being South Sudan on 7 June 2023.
Impact of the protocol
Over two decades, the Maputo Protocol has played a crucial role in accelerating positive change across Africa. Many of the countries that have ratified the protocol have taken steps to align their national laws with its provisions. This has resulted in significant advancements in women's rights. From the criminalization of harmful practices like FGM and GBV, to providing space for a galvanised community of women’s rights organizations to step into.
For instance, in December 2019, the ECOWAS Court of Justice made a ruling that pregnant schoolgirls in Sierra Leone should not be banned from going to school. The court found that this ban was in breach of the Maputo Protocol. Following the court’s ruling, the government of Sierra Leone lifted the ban in March 2020.
In Uganda, campaigners filed a case at the Constitutional Court of Uganda urging it to pronounce FGM illegal. The Court ruled that while the constitution guarantees the right to culture, this culture should not force anyone to endure any form of torture. The Court found FGM to be in breach of rights set out in the Ugandan Constitution, as well as other international treaties such as the Maputo Protocol. The ruling led to FGM being banned by the Ugandan Government in 2010.
Similarly, the Protocol also helps prevent inaction on protecting women’s rights. In 2020, Kenya’s High Court ruled that the Government of Kenya had failed to properly investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence after the 2007 post-election crisis. The court found the government was in violation of several human rights instruments, including the Maputo Protocol. Four petitioners were offered compensation during the judgement – announced on 10 December, International Human Rights Day – for harm suffered and the violation of their rights.
Challenges and gaps
While progress has been made, challenges remain in fully implementing the Maputo Protocol. To begin with, 11 Member States of the AU are yet to ratify it. This hinders the effective implementation of the Protocol across the continent.
Moreover, deep-rooted patriarchal systems and harmful cultural norms continue to impede progress in many countries. If we consider FGM for instance, an estimated 55 million girls under the age of 15 in 28 African countries have experienced or are at risk of experiencing FGM. This is despite 22 of the 28 countries having already criminalised the practice. Additionally, GBV, inequalities in access to education and healthcare, and economic disparities persist.
Gaps in the implementation of some of the clauses of the protocol present another challenge. For example, a report by Lawyers Circle and Oxfam sought to assess how compliant Kenya’s legal framework was with the Maputo Protocol. While the report highlights significant advances in areas such as education, it also highlighted worker’s rights as an area of concern. The report argued that while in theory certain rights were protected by domestic and international laws, the reality of implementation often did not filter through. The report raised concerns over a lack of protection for informal workers, of which women in Kenya are the majority.
“It is one thing to have the protocol accepted, it is another for it to be a tool that everyone is willing to work with and use across cultural divides within a nation.”
Ms. Falana’s statement underscores the importance of actively integrating and harmonising the rights and principles of the regional protocol into local contexts.
As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Maputo Protocol, it is crucial for all of us to come together and renew our commitment to advancing women's rights in Africa. Like elsewhere in the world, Africa is seeing a worrying trend where the rights of women and other marginalised groups are being rolled back. This trend risks jeopardising the progress that has been made in the last 20 years. We call on states and other democracy actors to keep emphasizing the importance of the Maputo Protocol; to defend and promote it wherever they can.
At WFD, we believe in and work towards promoting women’s equality, inclusion, and rights. We recently partnered with the Ondo State Agency Against Gender-Based Violence (OSAA-GBV) in Nigeria to ensure communities at grassroot level have an effective understanding of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) law. In Uganda, WFD inclusion champions (MPs) tabled a motion in parliament to address high education fees so that teenage mothers can afford better education. The motion was passed in December 2022. We also worked closely with the Gambian Parliament Select Committee on Gender to get women’s political representation on the national agenda. Just before the 2023 general elections in Sierra Leone, WFD trained members of the country’s Parliamentary Press Gallery Unit on gender sensitive reporting.
In line with our vision, WFD’s commitment is to a world where freedom and democracy thrive. Our dedication is to collaborate and work towards creating a future where women's rights are fully respected, protected, and fulfilled.
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