As feminists, academia, human rights activists, and their allies head to the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) taking place in Paris from 30th June to 2nd July 2021, questions on the state of gender equality in Africa continues to linger. This event of momentous significance provides yet another chance to take stock and plot the way forward.
In close to three decades, human rights activists and advocates have recorded some progress in gender equality in Africa.
However, women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities still belong to communities that exist on the margins of society and are often denied a voice within the states, markets, communities, and households in which they live, which are mostly dominated by patriarchal interests.
The structural stronghold of exclusion continues to be a thorn in the flesh and needs to be deposed for any meaningful advancement of gender equality to take place in Africa.
Structural inequalities in representation of women, girls, non-binary people and women with disabilities in all spheres of influence is an age-long debate.
To tackle this issue among other women’s human rights limitations, the United Nations (UN) 189-members adopted the Beijing Declaration for women empowerment to the tune of 35%. This declaration required government institutions to take action to increase the number of women in decision-making at all levels.
Many governments in Africa have signed and ratified this international instrument. Some have domesticated it, but implementation is less than impressive across the board. To be clear, there are prime examples of success in this area when governments have taken interest in the matter.
For instance, Rwanda uses a legislated quota system to ensure the active participation of women in politics. It created women-only seats to be voted for by only women while requiring that 30% of all representatives must be women. Consequently, the presence of the female gender in the parliament rose to over 60%, the highest in the African continent.
Similarly, Senegal adopted a national policy called the gender parity law of 50/50. This required political parties to nominate an equal number of women for elective positions. By 2012, the number of women increased to over 40%.
In Nigeria, the picture is bleak with 469 representatives at both the upper and lower chambers of the National Assembly, yet the Parliament cannot boast of 20% of female presence, with the representation of women with disabilities and non-binary groups almost non-existent.
The challenges are more profound than just political representation. Women, girls, non-binary people and women with disabilities in Africa face significant barriers in political, economic and social leadership.
They are consistently denied access to leadership and power within agenda-setting spaces where some of the most consequential decisions are made about their lives.
This is mostly due to discriminatory attitudes, gender-based stereotypes, weak institutional support, lack of information and education, cultural values, and religious norms, that militate against their inclusion in spaces that matter to them.
This situation contributes to the invisibility of women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities as public actors and constitutes a negation of their rights to equal participation.
Furthermore, women, young people, non-binary groups and women with disabilities who seek equal participation and leadership positions in political, economic, and social spaces are faced with prejudices about their role in society and their lack of suitability for leadership roles and decision-making, which becomes a significant barrier to their representation and contribution to society in many African countries.
The actions of African governments onwards must be rooted in bridging these gaps and forging systems and spaces where women, girls and non-binary people are provided the opportunity to participate and be included in decision making spaces based on the merit of their qualifications and capabilities.
To create systems and leadership that is open and progressive in advancing the rights of all, African governments must tackle the systemic barriers that severely restrict the power of women, girls, and non- binary groups and women with disabilities to realize a truly inclusive vision of gender justice, always taking their perspectives into cognizance.
Through the Generation Equality Forum, global decision-makers have a chance to throw new light on the participation of structurally excluded people in African society, as well as emphasize the problem. To reshape society rapidly and radically, women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities must take the seat at the table where they can contribute to agenda setting processes and the creation of key policies that claim to help them.
They deserve to be given equal opportunity for representation and participation in society. Their voices must be heard. They are in a better position to bring attention to issues that are unique to them. The cost of lack of representation at all levels, is enormous.
As the Generation Equality Forum leaders and the Action Coalitions catalyse collective actions toward gender equality, they need to ensure that African governments end widespread structural exclusion, paving the way for more women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities in power at all levels. They must adopt national policies that can be closely monitored, with clear time frames for reaching milestones.
It is essential that they prioritize mechanisms to monitor progress in the coming years beginning from the national to the local tiers of government. They should develop a framework that facilitates assessment of the potential impacts of policies, programmes, and initiatives on structurally excluded groups in Africa.
With adequate support, women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities in decision-making positions can generally advocate for laws that advances human rights of all; creating spaces that is deeply relational, collaborative, and supportive, in recognition that building community is a requisite foundation for building a better society.
Through inclusion, groups at the margins of society such as women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities can facilitate the involvement of all groups of people in decision-making, thus, paving the way for a model of leadership that identify injustices and oppressions and facilitate the development of inspiring and more inclusive, holistic communities.
Global decision-makers must do all within their power to encourage investment in feminist leadership and movements. Adopting intersectional feminist approach to leadership is key to securing the participation of all groups of people in society without prejudice. Increased financial and policy commitments toward gender equality is necessary for any meaningful change to take place.
Paucity of funds and favourable policies for advancing the work of intersectional feminists has been recognised as a major barrier to women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities’ participation in spaces that matter.
Ahead of the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, it is critical that global leaders recommit to fully support feminist movements in Africa in their fight against structural exclusion and support women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities’ participation in all spheres of society.
They should send a profound message that the continued institutional marginalization of women, girls, non-binary groups and women with disabilities is not acceptable.
African Governments should be told in no uncertain terms that excluding half of their population from equitable and full participation in society is a practice that must come to an end. Advancing gender equality on the Continent requires that everyone have a seat at the table.
Jean Kemitare is an African feminist and advocate for women’s human rights. She writes from Kampala Uganda.