LOUD WHISPERS: Maputo Protocol At Twenty

Recently, I was invited by the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) to give a Keynote Address at their Africa Regional Congress which took place in Abuja. The theme was ‘MAPUTO PROTOCOL AND WOMEN IN AFRICA: DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AS A VITAL TOOL FOR ACCELERATION’. This is an abridged version of my speech.

In July 2003, the Protocol on Women’s Rights to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights was adopted by African Heads of State in Maputo, Mozambique. This document is famously known as the ‘Maputo Protocol’, and is one of the world’s most comprehensive and progressive women’s human rights instruments. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations, and was meant to be a global Bill of Rights for Women. In 1981, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights was adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Between the slow ratification of the 1979 CEDAW and the glaring absence of a reference to women’s rights in the African Charter, the long march began for an African-owned agenda for the rights of women. This struggle was led by African women’s rights activists, lawyers, policy-makers, academics and political leaders.

The Maputo Protocol was a watershed moment for the women’s movement in Africa. The African Union had just formally emerged from the former Organisation of African Unity, and there were African Heads of State at the time who were eager to be seen in a more transformative light. Championing gender equality and women’s empowerment was seen as an example of providing progressive leadership and was good for the brand of the new African Union. At the time of the adoption of the Maputo Protocol, Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were in power. They helped steer the debates which led to the unprecedented gains for African women. The Maputo Protocol guarantees comprehensive rights for women including the right to take part in political processes, to social and political equality, improved autonomy in their reproductive health decisions, and an end to female genital mutilation. The Protocol contains 32 Articles to promote the rights of women. The African Union solidified their commitment to the Maputo Protocol through the adoption of the 2004 Solemn Declaration on Gender in Africa, which affirmed their willingness to accede, ratify, domesticate and implement the Maputo Protocol. The Maputo Protocol meant a lot to African women because this was an instrument agreed by African leaders and not ‘imported’ into the continent, which was a sentiment often expressed about CEDAW, Beijing Platform for Action and other international agreements.

According to a recent report, ‘Twenty Years of the Maputo Protocol: Where are we now? written by Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR), Make Every Woman Count and Equality Now, the Maputo Protocol has been ratified by 44 out of 55 AU member States. Even with the high number of ratifications, there are still huge gaps such as harmonization with local laws, ambiguous legal systems, timely reporting, allocation of financial, human, material and technical resources for implementation, institutional memory and continuity, insecurity and the impact of Covid-19 to name a few. It is therefore no surprise that the Maputo at Twenty report summarises that, ‘Women and girls continue to face significant barriers to participation in education and decision-making, and a general lack of awareness of economic and social rights hinders financial equality. Meanwhile, deeply entrenched societal beliefs about women continue to legitimize cultural and religious practices that harm women’. In short, twenty years after Maputo, twenty-eight years after Beijing and forty-four years after CEDAW, African women are still struggling for rights, voice and space.

Digital Technology broadly defined, entails the use of electronic tools, devices, systems, and resources to process or store data. Examples include mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras, personal computers, and all devices that utilize increasingly fast data transmission speeds and that store or process data using digital signals. New digital tools are empowering, and can serve to support inclusive global economic growth. To seize this opportunity, it is essential that no one, especially women, is held back in trying to achieve their aspirations. As we reflect on where we are twenty years after Maputo, now is the time to step up efforts and take advantage of the digital age to ensure that it represents opportunities for women and a chance to bridge the many gaps that hinder our progress. As is the case with all male dominated structures and systems, a gender gap will continue in the digital space if we do not make a concerted effort to address the challenges.

 There are however a number of opportunities for African women and girls that have emerged and that need to be explored and scaled up, examples include:

Skills acquisition: The digital economy presents an opportunity for women to acquire skills that can make them marketable and in high demand across the private, public and social sectors. Ranging from coding to software design to digital project management, data analytics, multimedia production, cyber-security, website development to online learning, online marketing, and artificial intelligence, there are many opportunities for career development and growth that can aid women. It is also hoped that formal and informal learning opportunities can speed up access in all these areas.

Entrepreneurship development: In these days of living with the fall out of COVID19, entrepreneurs are heavily reliant on the use of ICTs. Women will be able to scale up their enterprises if given access and training in appropriate digital tools. There are currently many women running thriving businesses online in fashion, food, make-up and agri-business on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Women entrepreneurs in grassroots local communities have also been able to take advantage of digital applications to stay engaged with their customers.

Amplifying voices: The digital age has facilitated the amplification of women’s voices in significant ways. Social movements around women’s rights, sexual and gender-based violence, youth movements, peace networks, good governance, thought leadership, are all ways in which women have exercised agency and mobilized for change, using digital tools.

Community Building: Digital tools have played a key role in community building. With the rise in social networking sites (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Tik Tok, people find common interests and women are able to take advantage of this to share views and concerns. It also facilitates the creation of networks that can provide the basis for community development and local philanthropy through alumni associations, Town Associations, family gatherings and so on, and there is a preponderance of women involved in anchoring these activities. There is a limitless amount of social and political capital that can be earned from the use of these opportunities, if one is able to look beyond all the unnecessary drama and ‘clout chasing’.

So, what does all this mean for a network like FIDA? I would like to recommend that FIDA should build on the gains we have made as an African women’s movement post Maputo, taking advantage of the availability of digital technology.

Advocacy for inclusive policies in digital technology: FIDA can play a role to advocate for the removal of obstacles in the way of women and girls taking advantage of digital technology. National and local policies on digital technologies should be as gender inclusive as possible in order to bridge knowledge and opportunity gaps. Digital tools (mobile devices, applications, laptops, tablets, blue-tooth devices, smart watches) should be more affordable, functional and accessible. It is also important that telecommunications companies be encouraged to keep their services as accessible as possible.

Sensitisation and awareness raising: Many people do not know what the Maputo Protocol is all about. FIDA has a role to play in sensitisation and awareness about the protocol and how it can be used by different stakeholders. We cannot expect to make progress if people do not know what we are talking about. Digital technology can make the task of information dissemination a lot easier.

Make the case for legislative and policy frameworks: One of the major challenges we have faced with the Maputo Protocol is the lack of adequate national domestication. The implications of this are dire. For example, in the past four electoral cycles, Nigerian women have gone from bad to worse. Without concrete and proactive measures such as affirmative action and quotas, we will continue to see dismal statistics of women in business, politics and decision-making. The proposed Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill is meant to address the domestication of the Maputo Protocol and CEDAW. FIDA can popularise the advantages of relevant Bills using digital tools to appeal to a wider audience of young people who can help put pressure on lawmakers.

Intensify efforts to accelerate article x11 of the Maputo protocol on education and training: Considering the vast number of girls out of school in Africa, we have a serious problem on our hands. The ongoing efforts to send girls to school and keep them there for as long as possible also needs to be complemented with encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in schools for girls. There should be an ICTs lab or its equivalent in every school where young people can learn and explore the world they live in, and every Local Government Area in each country should have an ICT hub where young people can use and learn relevant tools. More investments are also needed to enable women take more advantage of the use of ICTs for enterprise development.

Digital technology and gender violence: FIDA can use digital technology to protect women from violence by creating safe spaces online for women and girls who have access, and by scaling up the use of technology to stem sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. FIDA can also develop a roadmap for local interventions that can protect women and girls from the alarming rise in cyber-violence. We also need more awareness raising on the dangers of some of these technologies and how it is creating security risks for women and girls in particular – kidnapping, pornography, sexual violence, sexploitation, cyber stalking, toxic online conversations and so on. All these have serious implications for well-being, self-esteem, confidence and mental health.

Digital technology and story-telling: FIDA can use digital technology to tell the stories of the long journeys that have been undertaken over the years to achieve gender justice. A lot of effort went into securing the Maputo Protocol.  There are many women’s rights activists in all the countries where you have FIDA branches who were involved in the process. You can set up databases, track these women, interview them, make videos, post online, teach about them, invite them to share their experiences. There is so much that has been done but comparatively little has been recorded for posterity.

Learn and teach about patriarchal power and privilege: The reason why we keep making so little progress is because we continue to underestimate patriarchal power. We cannot achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment without questioning the institutions, norms and values that disempower women. We can use short videos, cartoons, animations, podcasts, music and so on to pass on messages to our target audiences.

The digital revolution can provide women with access to educational opportunities, business development, participation in the global economy, mentoring, and a platform to share their stories and experiences and make their voices heard in policy and advocacy. We all have a role to play in consciously creating a world of limitless opportunities for women and girls. We have tools at our disposal now that we did not have years ago when we started this journey. Let us take advantage of this, it will make our journey quicker.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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One Response to LOUD WHISPERS: Maputo Protocol At Twenty

  1. Ogunniyi Modupe September 4, 2023 at 9:49 pm

    A well- researched and succinctly put exposition. Very enlightening and Instructive, especially for women. Thanks,Ma’am


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