The African Women's Decade (2010-2020) is a bold political initiative that aims to put women at the centre of development on the continent. Launched in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2010, with roots traceable to the UN First World Conference on Women, held in Mexico city in 1975, this initiative aims to create conditions under which the participation of all African women in the continent's socio-economic development can be guaranteed.
The Women's Decade was established on the basis of ten thematic areas that would be treated at the local, national, regional and continental levels. The ten thematic areas are: fighting poverty and promoting economic empowerment of women and entrepreneurship; agricultural and food security; health, maternal mortality and HIV and Aids; education, science and technology; environment, climate change and sustainable development; peace, security and violence against women; governance and legal protection; finance and gender budgeting; women in decision-making positions; and the promotion of young women's movements.
However, while all these focus areas may seem responsive to the real issues facing women on the continent, the disheartening reality is that very few women in Africa actually know about the Women's Decade and the policies set out to be implemented during this decade. Moreover, how it relates to them at whatever socio-economic level of society to which they may belong has not trickled down to reach the ordinary women in many African societies. While this may appear to be a harsh judgement for an initiative that has only been around for a year and a half, the principles responsible for its implementation would be well advise to engage in a vigorous awareness-rasing campaign in various African countries, particularly in rural areas.
Also, the implementation of the goals articulated in the thematic areas may be hindered by the reliance on what appears to be a weak machinery, namely the national gender arm of various African states.
At the continental level, the role of the AU Women, Gender and Development Directorate (AU WGDD) is to promote gender equality through gender mainstreaming within the organs of the AU, as well as within Member States, by ensuring that policy agents and instruments come into action. At the national level, the national ministries for women and children responsible for driving the implementation of the initiative and other development programmes generally receive the smallest piece of the pie in governments' budget allocations. In an analysis carried out by the AU Commission in 2010, it was found that although 70 per cent of the AU Member States have official policies geared toward addressing gender issues and promoting women's interests and needs, particularly in development, these ministries are generally understaffed and under-resourced.
Based on the above, there are legitimate fears concerning the impact of the ongoing global economic meltdown on the funds set aside for the implementation of programmes identified under this initaitive, as ministries responsible for this may suffer from budget cuts. In fact, Tanzania was the first African country to make such cuts in 2009 by reducing the national budget for the ministry responsible for promoting gender equality and women's empowerment by 25 per cent.
Another issue of concern with regard to the African Women's Decade relates to the inaction about its popularisation. Many women, particularly the illiterate and rural ones, are not informed about this initiative or similar ones. Yet, this speaks to the issues of power and control of information, which deprive them of the opportunity to engage with some of the issues addressed by the initaitive. It could be argue that one of the reasons for the lack of publicity around the Women's Decade is that in many African countries, the attitudes of many people towards women's development and empowerment issues are still either negative or misguided. Patriarchal ideas still inform the behaviour of some people.
In addition, there seems to be no cohesion of the policy targets that have been articulated in the AU's Women Decade with other departments of the AU. The strategic positioning of the Women's Directorate offices in Addis Ababa, located within the Commission, has not translated in practice as successfully as it had been envisaged. The reality is that despite the launch of the African Women's Decade, there has been very little to increase the capacity of the office in overseeing the programmes that are supposed to be rolled out at various levels. Furthermore, although the AU WGDD maintains that "the ideology behind the African Women's Decade is not that women are being left behind in development, but that development on the continent is slowed by the exclusion of women", very little has been done to highlight this focus on the inclusion and empowerment of women in other major programmes of the organisation. A clear indication of this is the lack of coherent indices for the monitoring of performances by individual countries or even proven methods for tracing the distibution of funds allocated for women empowerment and how they reach grassroots women.
The above notwithstanding, one should congratulate the AU directorate for the strides it has made within AU organs in lobbying for attention to women's empowerment, redressing gender inequity and mobilising governments to act in support of its objectives. Some of the successes of the AU WGDD's include the mobilisation around the ratification of the Maputo Protocol, which calls for wider economic and social welfare rights for women, the emphasis of the UNSC Resolution 1325 in security issues, the MDGs and promotiing a gendered analysis that explains the differences in the social, economic and political relations between men and woman as a means of understanding the experiences of men and women and the influence of age, race and location on these experiences. The WGDD is also involved in thematic reflections on women (and children) in armed conflict situations in Africa under the auspices of the AU Panel of the Wise.
Yet the gap between continental and national policy aspirations and norms remains wide. The challenge is to fill or lessen this gap.