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Setting and funding agendas for Women’s Human Rights in the Eastern Africa Region

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Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
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There have been a number of considerable achievements in the Eastern Africa Region for the advancement of women. Rwanda ranks the highest in the world for female representation in parliament at 64%. Across the region, the participation of women in politics has increased at local, national and regional levels in all countries of the region – with a cross section reflecting greater class, age, and disability, religious and ethnic diversity.  In addition, women are increasingly holding political office with ministerial portfolios in those areas traditionally considered the domain of the male elite such as Vice Presidency, Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Finance. In general, public perceptions and attitudes to women in politics have dramatically shifted largely to acceptance of women’s legitimate right to participate in the decision making processes that affect their lives. Most of the countries in the region have equality rights and guarantees enshrined in their constitutions and at normative levels, measures are being taken to address the specificity of women’s subordination. In 2009 Kenya passed the Sexual Offences Act, addressing in part the very vexed question of gender based sexual violence. Others such as Rwanda have also passed laws on equal inheritance rights for women. Generally speaking, across the board, in terms of women’s rights, we see a marked improvement in the status of women in political, social and economic spheres. These advancements have been spearheaded by women’s groups, cooperatives, associations, NGOs, alliances and coalitions, more often than not with disproportionately fewer funds from mainstream donors and funders.

The greatest leaps have been made in the sphere of political participation, leadership and the development of normative frameworks. Significant improvements were also seen in areas such as girls’ access to education, health status particularly in maternal health and child survival.

These achievements whilst significant and important, still leave much to be done in order to advance the rights of women in Eastern Africa. Women’s rights are recognized as key to attaining sustainable and meaningful development.

Global Policy and Local Implications

The 90s heralded a sea change in the conceptualization, understanding and implementation of women’s rights. International global policy was framed within the ambit of human rights in which the role of the state was conceptualized primarily as promoting and protecting the rights of citizens. Women’s rights were mainstreamed into the main body of human rights principles at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights where it was recognized that women’s rights are human rights. Followed shortly by the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 (which recognized women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights), and the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, China (1995), women’s rights gained momentum. At international, regional, national and local levels, programmes and resources were redirected to strengthen the efforts to promote and protect the rights of all women.  In Africa and elsewhere, women’s rights groups and NGOs (which very much were the primary drivers of this agenda on the continent), were invested with financial and technical resources to advocate for the rights of women.  These resources though disproportionately fewer than other sectors saw a flurry of action on the continent at local and national levels with women’s rights movements holding governments and other strategic players accountable for the protection of women’s rights. Government institutions which hitherto had taken at best a cursory glance at ‘women’s issues’ were taking measures to include gendered analysis, programming and resource allocation in all aspects of development planning and implementation. The same applied to global institutions such as the United Nations. Whilst these measures were challenged by activists and others as inadequate technical inputs to address deeply entrenched and complex structural and systemic inequalities, there were some benefits accrued especially in creating greater access for women in spaces they had hitherto been denied.

At micro levels of organizing, the emphasis was on addressing the structural causes of women’s subordination and transforming the power relations that underpinned this subordination, primarily by harnessing the individual and collective power and agency of African women to speak for themselves on matters of key concern. African feminist leadership development programmes were established by African women for African women, as were programmes to document the contributions that women in Africa have made to development from colonial struggles to struggles for democracy and social justice – these stories are largely missing from our historical narratives. In addition women asserted their right to shape new identities; rooted in their ‘Africaness’ but at the same time affirming the personhood and autonomy of African women. African women challenged patriarchal notions of womanhood and identified this as key to dismantling these systems of oppression and exclusion.  This lay at the heart of many of the struggles for social, cultural and economic rights in such aspects as sexual and reproductive health and rights, marriage, divorce and separation, inheritance,  land rights and so on. These rights are often violated and undermined by the existence of multiple legal systems: statutory, religious and cultural. These struggles were often deeply contested and threw up many contradictions within the women’s movements themselves. Difference on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, and ethnicity and so on, often left women within these marginalized groups feeling excluded from the discourse. Nevertheless it provided the foundation for many of the gains we celebrate today. In civil society, the emergence of Women’s Funds on the continent such as the African Women’s Development Fund and Urgent Action Fund-Africa  were of historical importance.

In the East Africa region, most of the groups and organisations addressing strategic issues and  advocacy, are struggling to protect the gains made. Many, in order to survive the funding drought have drifted so far away from their missions, which in turn has resulted in a crisis for the women’s collective engagement. Whilst women organized to achieve change at national and local levels, the significant shifts came as a result of the impetus set in the international and continental space. Thus most of the women-led women’s rights organisations worked with a broad lens that ensured engagements at these critical points of decision-making. Sadly, we have seen a move away from that broad based funding support (especially at international and continental levels), which in turn has left many of the key drivers of this agenda less effective in their operations. The international decision-making space is in danger once again of representation of southern women’s voices, by northern led international organisations. This model of partnership and collaboration has always been problematic. What is required is collaborative efforts in which global movements can leverage space in which each constituency speaks for itself of its specific challenges and builds alliances on common interests.


A key concern of women’s movements in Eastern Africa, is the consolidation of gains that have been made over the years.  Women’s organisations, donor partners, governments and agencies concerned with promoting gender equality and women’s rights in the region all need to commit to a process in which constant learning, monitoring, review and adjustments where necessary will be made. At the heart of the strategy will be the aim to build and nurture strong women’s movements in Eastern Africa as the most effective means by which to hold the state and other key strategic actors to account for gender equality and sustainable development. In the first instance it will be a process in which women’s rights will be mainstreamed through special measures, as well as greater incorporation in all donor strategic plans.  Each of these will require budgetary commitment and steering at the most senior levels. The overarching goal should be to strengthen women’s movements in the region in order to amplify their voices and ensure that they are able to achieve greater accountability for their needs and interests.

Second, there needs to be a focus on  feminist leadership development in the region. There should be  support for feminist movement building and mobilizing efforts at national and regional levels.

Third, investments in the development of knowledge and learning about feminist organizing in the region are critical. This will not only enable East African women add their powerful insights to that of others, but will also foster mentoring and inter-generational exchanges.

Donors in the region should develop specific goals and budgetary allocation as well as set priorities in consultation with leaders in the region.  Their success should be evaluated as follows:



  • How many groups and constituencies have been reached through this approach.


  • The extent to which movements have been strengthened to influence policy and legislative spaces at national and regional levels.
  • The extent to which these movements reflect the diversity of women in the region especially those from marginalized constituencies.
  • The extent to which feminist leadership is represented in key decision-making in civil society
  • The extent to which the knowledge developed influences thinking and praxis in the region.


Finally, I strongly advise that for these strategies to work, the following will be required:


  • Training and orientation of donor staff on women’s rights and gender equality
  • Periodic reflection for donor staff for assessment of the achievements, challenges and learning.
  • Commitment from leadership of the institution to ensure that the strategy is implemented.


Actors in the African women’s movement have always been clear about their vision and agendas. They want to be able to use their voices and spaces to shift existing paradigms that have not served them well. Those who are in a position to support these agendas should listen more, learn from them and work with them more respectfully.


Sarah Mukasa, a non-profit and donor relations specialist, feminist activist and policy advocate, served as Director of Programs at the African Women’s Development Fund, a pan-African grantmaking foundation for African women’s organisations for almost ten years. Sarah is currently Deputy Director, Open Society Institute for Eastern Africa.









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