The Eastern African region has made great strides in the last decade in advancing the rights of women. Women’s status in social, political and economic spheres has improved considerably.
The number of women holding political positions has increased significantly, with more women participating at local, national and international levels. According to the latest report by the World Bank, Rwanda leads globally with 64% female representation in parliament. Tanzania is at 37%, Sudan at 31%, South Sudan 29%, Uganda at 34%, Kenya at 20%, Ethiopia 39%, and Burundi 36%. At the same time, women are increasingly holding ministerial positions and portfolios that have previously been the preserve of men including foreign affairs, defence, finance and in some countries the vice presidency. In Kenya for instance, the defence and foreign affairs portfolios are currently held by women.
At the same time, most countries in the region have constitutions which guarantee equality, and election laws that provide for affirmative action measures. Others like Kenya have institutional frameworks such as the Gender and Equality Commission, which oversees the implementation of these measures.
The Commission has been at the forefront in advocating for the implementation of the one-third gender rule in appointments in public offices. Kenya also has economic empowerment programs aimed at advancing the economic well-being of women. Rwanda has made great progress in promoting gender equality, largely driven by government commitment. This progress has put Rwanda second in the global gender equity index, behind Sweden. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution and Rwanda was the first country in the world to have more than 50% female members of Parliament. In recent years, there has been a strong emphasis on fighting gender-based violence in Rwanda.
Despite this progress, challenges abound. The region still grapples with deeply rooted structural inequality which negatively impacts on women and girls. The political space is riddled with increasing militarization which prevents women from seeking electoral office due to high levels of violence. For example, according to the Social Institute and Gender Index- 2014, the situation and role of women in Sudan is influenced by the history of conflict in which they are subjected to extremely high levels of violence from state and non-state actors.
In Uganda, women still face discrimination, low social status, and lack of economic self-sufficiency. According to UN Women, violence against women remains endemic in the region due to negative cultural norms and practices. Available data indicates that one in four women in the region has experienced physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.
At the same time, the political will to protect the rights of women still remains wanting. Many of the legal and policy provisions remain unimplemented. For example, despite the constitutional provisions on one-third gender rule in Kenya, the law is yet to be implemented fully. This also applies to Rwanda where despite legislation and programs to promote equality, the gender gap still remains in the public sector, a situation that is replicated across Eastern African countries.
On the economic front, debate continues on the neo-liberal free market economic policies adopted by governments in the region. The growing inequality between rich and poor is largely determined by gender. For instance, the commoditization of essential goods and services such as water, and food negatively impacts women and girls.In addition, years of underinvestment in agriculture has had devastating consequences on small-holder farmers, majority of who are women. Whilst it is laudable to increase the efforts to mobilise local resources generated through taxation, the policies to do so must be just and based on the ability to pay (a key tax principle). The current practice of taxing essential goods and services, places a greater burden on the poorest in society especially women, as it does not take into account this principle of taxation.
In addition, the discovery of gas, oil and extractive resources has compounded the existing challenges on land rights and access, environmental protection and food security, with the fortunes of women and girls from affected communities clearly bearing the disproportionate burden of the negative impacts.
In the area of social rights, the region continues to witness devastating effects of child marriage, female genital mutilation, violence against women, the burden of ill health, illiteracy, poverty and social exclusion, all disproportionately falling on women and girls. There are also heightened concerns about the closing civic space for women’s rights activists in the region. The control of women’s organizations, associations and voices are practices that have severely affected their ability to engage in the civic space as equal citizens for many years. Governments such as Sudan and Uganda have used a number of public order laws against women, controlling their dress, and their rights to associate freely, and thus limiting their ability to engage in the civic space. Increasingly, these laws are broadening to include political association and civil society engagement. The Public Order Management Act in Uganda and various proposals for control of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region stand out as the most dangerous of these laws. The continual erosion of the state as a secular space has compounded the process in which these discriminatory laws are developed.
Similarly, the efforts by women’s groups, cooperatives, associations, NGOs, alliances and coalitions to advance women’s rights have been eroded by a severe decline in funding. In 2013, for example, only a paltry 0.5% of the overseas development assistance (ODA) from OECD countries* meant for gender equality and women’s rights reached women’s organizations globally. This is a drop from 1.2% in 2002. This drop in support for women’s rights organizations illustrates a consistent trend in which these organizations have persistently and systematically been underfunded, constraining their ability to deliver on the agenda to advance the rights of women in the region. Yet it is critical to maintain this support for women’s rights organisations, who have been at the forefront of the efforts to transform our societies for greater inclusion. Furthermore, realization of development goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), depends largely on the realization of rights of women including equality, elimination of violence against women, and economic empowerment amongst others.
Though the region has registered tremendous growth in advancing women’s rights, focus must now shift to the existing challenges that continue to face women in the region. We thus must make concerted efforts at all levels to redress the imbalance, not just for the region’s women, but for our society as a whole. Implementation of the constitutional provisions, policy measures and programs that seek to advance the rights of women is critical.
Sarah Mukasa is the Deputy Director at OSIEA.
*Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), comprising the world’s major donor countries.