Women’s Human Rights
It seems evident from the direction of political developments in Africa that public consciousness about the negative implications of gender based discrimination is slowly rising. The United Nation’s path defining Convention on Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has been endorsed by West African governments, and quite a number of political leaders in the region are making commitments to enhancing and protectingtherightsofwomen. Ontheirpart,anincreasinglyvocalnumber of specialized women groups are working collaboratively to ensure improvements in the general well being of women. But modest gains on women’s rights have not yet dislodged anti-emancipation forces that are culturally embedded.
The news and analysis in this edition place the issues and problems of gender relations in their national and cultural contexts. Insightfully, an attempt by Mali President Amadou Toure (August last year) to introduce laws protecting women’s rights of inheritance was instantly rejected by angry leaders of Muslim associations who called the new family code the “handiwork of the devil and anti-Islam.” The law was eventually withdrawn, according to the president, “to ensure calm and a peaceful society — and for the sake of national unity.” In this particular case, distorted notions about the inferior status of women in society fueled raw conservative emotions against positive change. Additionally, biased standards of inheritance in the region exclude women from equal share of family wealth; for example, poverty stricken parents in Togo and Burkina Faso are known to force their female children into early marriage for bride-wealth; and illiteracy rate is extremely high among girls, given the prevailing cultural preference of educating the male children.
For most West African women, the realities of life are defined by the range of conflicting political and cultural experiences, including war. Thus, in Sierra Leone, post conflict rehabilitation must include programs specifically designed to help women cope with the psychological trauma of forced war- time pregnancies and of raising children born from the violence of rape. Speaking positively, it is shown that Liberian women learned and acquired many survival skills that are serving them well as their country makes the transition from war to peace: organized groups of Liberian women contributed to peace and conflict resolution by directly intervening among warring factions, and forced peace talks and mediation among combatants. Liberia’s Women in Peace Network (WIPNET) is contributing enormously to ongoing disarmament efforts; it played a critical role in the 2005 elections by registering thousands of women to vote, and continues to provide workshops to educate women about their rights, duties, and responsibilities in a democratic milieu.
Lessonsdrawingfromallthisareasfollows: women’sactivismisexpanding and attracting enormous international and domestic support; in war torn societies, professional female groups are helping to advance peacebuilding efforts, and most members are involved in programs designed to empower women. But problems loom large in the male dominant societies, and so much more work is required to transform cultural attitudes against women inWestAfrica. OkonAkiba