Whoever said that if you want to destroy a society, oppress its women was a very wise person. The status of women and their participation in society are among the UN’s most important criteria for ranking a country’s development or underdevelopment.
In the 1970s, the UN formed an Expert Group on Establishing Women’s Development Institutions, of which to my surprise I was elected chair. The group was tasked with studying the status of women and their roles in peace and development.
After completing our work, we submitted a report to the UN General Assembly, which resolved to establish organisations that would have the following four main aims.
The first was to create the legal and legislative frameworks that would guarantee women’s rights to equality and participation.
The second was to develop women’s capacities by providing them with the education, healthcare, cultural and other services they need to empower them both inside and outside the home.
The third was to promote equal opportunities for women such that they can fully participate and exercise their rights. And the fourth was to rectify the prevailing image of women in society (perhaps the hardest of all).
Achieving such aims is contingent on a number of conditions, among them the necessary political will and effective cooperation and coordination among all the organisations involved in women’s affairs.
As far as African women are concerned in relation to these aims, it will be immediately clear that they have an honourable record and a bright future, but that they also experience painful realities that vary considerably from one African society to the next and also within the same society.
In many countries in the continent, women have made excellent progress, reaching the highest political offices. Catherine Samba-Panza, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim have served, respectively, as the presidents of the Central African Republic, Liberia and Mauritius. Elisabeth Domitien served as prime minister of the Central African Republic and then played an important role in the Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie. Gertrude Mongella was elected president of the Pan-African Parliament, 25 per cent of whose members are women. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chaired the African Union Commission in 2016.
Algerian women fought in their country’s war of liberation, and today they constitute 70 per cent of Algeria’s lawyers and 60 per cent of its judges.
The women’s movement in Egypt also has a long and distinguished history. Egyptian women were the first in the region to win their political rights.
Since the 1952 Revolution, they have served in parliament and in government, and today there are around 100 women in parliament and eight female ministers. In Tunisia, polygamy and arbitrary divorce have been banned.
Throughout Africa, thousands of women now serve as ministers, ambassadors, judges, governors and in other high offices. Women were highly instrumental in achieving peace in the Rwanda-Burundi conflict.
Recently, the German Minister for Economy and Development Gerd Müller lauded the role that African women play in the fight against illegal migration.
Fifty-one of the 54 member states of the African Union have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Yet, in glaring contradiction to such successes, the vast majority of ordinary African women still suffer marginalisation and exclusion. Their opportunities to serve in public office remain limited.
They are deprived of property and inheritance rights, yet they bear the brunt of agricultural work and other types of manual labour. They are often deprived of health and educational rights.
They are frequently the victims of physical abuse, and the rates of sexual assaults on women have been climbing in tandem with the proliferation of terrorist groups in Africa.
In Nigeria, families often keep their daughters at home for fear that they could be kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. In many African countries, women are still too often forced to marry at a very early age and girls may be subjected to cruel or violent traditional sexual practices.
According to a recent WHO report, in one Nile Valley country 59 per cent of women suffer sexual and bodily harm and 54 per cent are the victims of genital mutilation.
The problems are innumerable, the hardships and suffering horrifying, and the deprivation often overwhelming and tragic.
This brings us to the question of the organisations concerned with African women. Despite the aims of the African Union’s Africa Agenda, there is still no African commission for women.
There is just an office attached to the chair of the AU Commission, and it has little influence. But there are fortunately quite a few other organisations concerned with women, some of the most important being the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), the National Council of African Women, the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, the East African Centre for the Empowerment of Women and Children, the Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD), the Carrefour Emploi Développement (CED-TOGO) and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).
All these organisations are useful and, indeed, essential. However, the problem is that they only focus on a single problem or on a single geographical area.
What is needed is a single organisation, an African Women’s Organisation, that will bring together all African women and their various organisations and open avenues for them to work together for their collective benefit regardless of the differing aims of their individual organisations or the differences between African governments.
Such an umbrella organisation would be independent and would operate in the framework of AU principles, so that it can remain aloof from political squabbles and unencumbered by government red tape.
A successful initiative of this sort that could be drawn upon is the Arab Women Organisation, which Bahiya Al-Hariri and I helped to found and which has organised many well-attended and productive conferences in Arab capitals.
However, it should be borne in mind that after it was subsumed under the Arab League the Arab Women Organisation became bogged down in the same bureaucracy and inertia that plagues the League itself.
Every member state of the proposed organisation would have two female representatives, one a government official responsible for women’s affairs and the other a representative of a civil society organisation such as the ones mentioned above.
The chair would rotate between member states, and it would organise an annual African women’s summit conference.
It might be possible to benefit from the expertise and diplomatic relations of African affairs expert Marwa Salem and of Egyptian ambassadors Moushira Khattab, Mona Omar and Naila Gabr in the new organisation.
Others who could make important contributions are the dean of the Faculty of Managerial Sciences in Cairo, Inas Ezz and the academic Hoda Badran.
I also believe that it would be both appropriate and acceptable for the wife of the late Boutros Boutros Ghali to serve as honourary president of the organisation.
Maria Ghali accompanied her husband on his long struggle for the sake of peace, justice and rights in Africa, and he is still remembered with great fondness and respect throughout the continent.
There are 600 million hardworking, struggling women on this continent that is itself so rich in resources. These women are a source of immense energy and potential that should not be allowed to go to waste. As long as the essential ingredient of political will exists, the new organisation will have the support and encouragement of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, a man of vision and achievement who believes in the potential that women have to offer and the role they can and should play in progress and development.
His call to “respect women” has been echoed by Western countries. He has stood by the people he has called “the great women of Egypt” and encouraged them to take part in public life.
I am certain that as current chair of the AU, he will do his utmost to advance a comprehensive drive to protect the women of Africa, ensure their rights, enable their effective participation and realise their empowerment as the “great women of Africa.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An organisation for African women