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A new report, the State of Civil Society Report 2020, published by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, sets out the major trends and events involving civil society over the past year.

The report describes the massive people’s mobilisations that swept the globe and led to breakthroughs for democracy and human rights.

In Africa, people spilled onto the streets to demand better democracies, fairer economic policies and an end to corruption.

This year the people of Sudan raised their voices and demanded change. What started out as discontent about everyday goods and prices quickly spiralled into calls for political reform that eventually led to the ousting of President Al-Bashir and the refusal to submit to military rule:

“The mass street protests had been the decisive element in bringing about change, and those many voices simply refused to fall silent.” (State of Civil Society Report 2020)

The leading role played by women, particularly young women, became a hallmark of the Sudan protests. Women took to the streets to demand a different future in a country where they have systematically been denied rights:

“The message was that everyone must take part in building the new Sudan…Sudan’s people have come to understand their own power, and those who seek to rule their country can expect to hear the many voices of protest again if they fail to deliver on the expectations of a hard-won revolution.” (State of Civil Society Report 2020)

Protests also erupted across Egypt this year, sparked by allegations of corruption, repression and economic instability. Despite severe consequences meted out to those who protest – such as violence and jail time – protesters still took to the streets to demand an end to President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s reign.

Despite opposition, President al-Sisi pushed ahead with a controversial referendum that extended his term and enabled him to run again, perhaps until 2030. In the run-up to the referendum, independent media was silenced and there were numerous reports of voting irregularities:

“The pseudo-referendum marked another addition to the dismal history of authoritarian leaders holding votes in closed democratic spaces purely to add a legitimising seal to the perpetuation of their power.” (State of Civil Society Report 2020)

In Zimbabwe, a sudden and sharp rise in fuel prices, more than doubling the cost of petrol and diesel, triggered protests. A scarcity of essential items like food and medicine fuelled the unrest. Protesters were violently repressed and some were killed. Civil servants also took to the streets to protest over pay, while doctors went on strike. Despite a change in leadership after long-time dictator Robert Mugabe was outed in 2017, little has changed:

“There is still neither an economy that works for Zimbabwe’s people nor democratic and civic freedoms. Their dreams of true progress still thwarted by a self-serving ruling elite, people will continue to call for a fresh start and a break with the tragic history of Zimbabwe’s misgovernance.”

There was some progress on the continent in laws pertaining to the rights of girls. After years of civil society advocacy, Mozambique passed a law to criminalise child marriage. In Tanzania, the Supreme Court upheld a 2016 ruling that prohibited child marriage, establishing a ban on the marriage of girls under 15 and directing lawmakers to raise the age of marriage to 18 within a year.

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