Leave No one Behind: Will African women be “left behind” in the Post-2015?
By Catherine Nyambura and Lennox Yieke
There are two separate narratives running in parallel in Africa today. On one hand, the continent is firmly wedged in the middle of a great reawakening. The Continent continues to explore the prospect of new possibilities, politically, economically and socially. On the other hand, however, an unbelievably huge section of the African population is still grappling with the problems of yesterday. This section of Africans has been neglected and abandoned. They have been left to the malevolent and predatory devices of poverty, famine and war. And to paint an even darker shade of gloom to this deplorable picture, it is women and not men, who comprise the vast majority of this neglected population.
While the opening paragraph to this article comes off as a prelude to a stereotypical western novel on
1960’s Africa, the message it articulates is not only dated, but also the furthest thing from fiction. This is a painfully objective representation of the cold facts on the ground; the fact that African women are
paying a usuriously steep price for the sins of their motherland. This is a well documented assertion that is not only corroborated by a tremendous body of research from agencies such as the UN, but also by the echoing cries of millions of African women groaning under the big boot of an oppressive system.
There is no other time that the debate on women empowerment in Africa has been more momentous than now. This is because unlike before, today’s debate on African women empowerment is staged against the backdrop of the highly publicized Post-2015 development agenda; which is articulated in a set of 17 proposed global goals(Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs inspired by the need for sustainability that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 2015.
Leave no one behind
The central theme in the Post-2015 development agenda is sustainability. Under grand mantras such as “leave no one behind,” world nations have pledged to institutionalize sustainability in all facets of society and economy over the next several decades.
However, contextualizing the relationship between mantras such as “leave no one behind” and the woeful plight of African women is an uphill task if not borderline hypocritical. You cannot say that you “will leave no one behind’” when African women have already been left behind. There is no other fitting example that bears this out more accurately and compellingly than the infinitesimal progress that Africa has made on the MDG goal on gender equality and maternal health.
With the notable exception of Rwanda, which has received worldwide acclaim for making steady reform on women empowerment, including achieving 56 percent women representation in parliament, other African countries unabashedly lead from behind. Kenya, which never passes up an opportunity to display her liberal spirit, came under the spotlight recently after her conservative and intolerant side recently stripped women for supposedly dressing ‘indecently’. To make it worse, this happened in Nairobi, a city considered by many Africans to be the fountainhead of liberal ideals on the continent. It would suffice to point out that the infamous Kenyan stripping incidents inspired the #mydressmychoice Twitter campaign that has since gone global and enlisted the support of key women personalities such as renowned social entrepreneur, Esther Passaris.
Besides lagging behind in women empowerment, there are other factors that make it hard for Africa to successfully guide her women into the Post-2015 era. One of them is the fact that the motherland is lamentably vulnerable to climate change. This is despite the confrontation of climate change being a key area of focus in the Post-2015 era. Women in Africa are acutely affected by climate change because of their heavy and primary dependence on agriculture. Over 60 percent of employment for women in sub-Saharan Africa is agriculture based. This is according to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). If climate change persists unabated, the continent’s women could suffer a serious blow, worsening their situation.
Africa also has rickety environmental conservation policies that have provided ample leeway for the destruction of her forests and systematic plunder of her natural resources. The State of East Africa Report
2012, as an example, pointed out that the East African region had lost more than 22 million hectares of forest cover over the past two decades. As bad as it sounds, this is barely reflective of what is happening in the broader African continent.
How do poor environmental policies worsen the suffering of African women? A growing body of evidence from reputable agencies, including one damning report from United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), shows that armed conflict is being financed by illegal proceedings from logging and other environmental crimes. This conflict places women in a precarious position as it exposes them to displacement, rape, poverty and disease.
When viewed within the context of conflict and loss of economic opportunities, environmental crimes and climate change, respectively, have a disproportionately strong impact on the prosperity of African women. In this regard, what steps can Africa take to ensure that she not only implements the Post-2015 sustainable development agenda successfully, but does so in a fashion that presents nothing but value for her women?
African women and climate change
Valerie Ndaruzaniye, the president of the Global Water Institute, observed that African women were responsible for the provision of food, water, wood fuel, and were in some instances, the primary earners of income. “They (African women) produce crops and go to sell them in public markets in order to get some cash and be able to buy, for example, salt, soap, get school fees and buy note books for their children, and for their own clothing,” remarked Ndaruzaniye in a presentation in Brussels in 2013.
Because of the monumental role that African women play in the household, as well as these roles’ dependence on agriculture, it is conceivable that the adverse effects of climate change deeply affect women and their dependents in Africa.
In light of the overhanging threat that climate change presents for African women, policy makers need to come up with creative solutions. First, there is a dire need to broaden the capacity of African women and improve their skills. This will facilitate easier participation in other areas of the economy such as the corporate world. The dividends of including women in the corporate world were made abundantly clear by Christine Largade, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In a keynote address in Tokyo during the month of September, 2014, Largade made a point of noting that the Fortune 500 companies with the best records of promoting women had been shown to be 18 to 69 percent more profitable than the median firm in their area.
In order to get more women into the formal workforce and reduce their dependence on agriculture, there is a need for a multistep strategy. First off, there will be a need to introduced improved farming technology in order to offset the decline in food output attributable to more women leaving their farms for other opportunities in the formal sector. Secondly, there will be a need to invest in education and training to equip women with skills to prosper in the formal economy. Conceivably, the success of such strategies takes time and political will. In a continent where political alliances change faster than the seasons, there will be a need for major political reform in order to promote a common view on key issues such as gender equality across the political spectrum.
Before political reform is implemented, however, quick innovative solutions to climate change can be presented to women farmers in Africa. As an example, women farmers can be trained on ways of harvesting rain water as an insurance against drought. Similarly, and more urgently, law makers should review land laws and allow women in some African countries to own land. The inability to own land and property makes it hard for African women farmers to borrow funds to expand their farming.
Environmental crime = war crime = oppression of African women
There is a strong correlation between environmental crime and the tidal wave of terrorism and armed conflict that has plagued Africa. UNEP observes that Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-shabaab makes between $38 million and $56 million per year in illegal charcoal. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which has mercilessly meted out strong doses of terror in the Central African Republic, makes between $4 million and $12 million a year by trafficking elephant ivory, the UNEP report says.
By financing conflict around the continent, environmental crime inadvertently provides an avenue for African women to be exploited. Women displaced during times of war are usually compelled to seek shelter in refugee camps, where all manners of evils prey on them.
The harrowing narrative of how Somali women and girls suffered under the hands of African Union (AU) soldiers captures this problem. Internationally-funded AU troops in Somalia have gang raped women and girls as young as 12 and traded food aid for sex, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report in September, 2014.
“Some of the women who were raped said that the soldiers gave them food or money afterwards in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex,” the HRW report said. As sad as it may seem, this is the norm in conflict-hit areas. Besides being prone to illnesses due to overcrowding and poor sanitation at refugee camps, women affected by conflict have to be invariably wary of beastly sexual predators.
The blame of conflict in Africa cannot go solely on the unscrupulous dealers who provide terror groups and armed militia with natural resources. It can also be put on the big multinationals and governments which facilitate the purchase and sale of the illegal resources, respectively.
Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General UN DESA, remarked that there were efforts to share best practices, especially in the extractive industry. Gass, who spoke to the writers through a phone call, said that calls for more transparency will compel the private sector to apply ethics in the way they use natural resources as well as how they make declarations in terms of cost and revenue breakdowns in different countries.
Companies such as Intel have since announced that they use third party audits to audit their supply chains to ensure only conflict free minerals are used to make their products. The electronics industry has long been a target of human rights and environmental campaigners, who have accused leading manufacturers of sourcing gold, tantalum, tin, tungsten and other minerals from mines and smelters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that are known to help fund militia groups. Intel’s move is thereby seen as a key milestone in corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy among multinationals.
Gass believes that more multinationals will take a serious stance on CSR in the coming years. “There is much more pressure on multinationals to be more serious about CSR, which applies to safety, security and the social aspect,” remarked Gass.
If attempts to cut the funding of African militia groups by reducing environmental crime are successful, then it is conceivable that conflict will reduce, alleviating the unbearable strain on African women. Similarly, the environment will be spared from the reprehensible greed of a few people, leading to sustainable development for the overall African continent.
Inclusive peace process
Conflict is an almost natural component of human existence and is as old as history itself. History students can attest to the fact that history is a narrative of leaders who feud, ink treaties and spend times of peace building their arsenal and fattening coffers for the next feud. But this is in no way justification for the meaningless wars that lay waste to Africa. There is absolutely nothing that justifies the wholesale slaughter that is going on in areas such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Whether or not a war can be justified isn’t nearly as important as the ability for the affected nations to come up with sustainable way of resolving the conflict the second it breaks out. Unfortunately, most African peace processes are not inclusive. They are usually hastily done without any real consultation with stakeholders. And worse still, some leaders have come to believe that the swipe of a pen on a document and the publicized shaking your adversary’s hand pacifies all the hate in a warring nation. For the hate to be tamed and transformed into forgiveness, all aggrieved parties must be involved in conflict resolution, especially women; the one section of the population that bears the heaviest affliction from armed conflict.
In light of this, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution in 2000 that, among other things, informed the process of conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation. The resolution, which was adopted on 31 October 2000, expressed deep concern that women and children, particularly civilians, were the most hard hit and targeted by armed conflict and armed elements. In this regard, the UN recognized an urgent need to introduce an overarching gender perspective on peace keeping operations. This was in line with the Windhoek Declaration of Namibia that was passed in 2000. The declaration proposed that more efforts should be made to “select and appoint female Special Representatives of the Secretary-General and senior field staff for peace support operations.”
Involving African women in the peace keeping process allows them to articulate the interests of women in peace keeping, leading to stronger reconciliation and reducing the risk of future conflicts. This is more sustainable than the quick fixes that leaders charged with handling conflict in Africa have used before.
As Africa steps into the Post-2015 era of sustainable development, one thing that remains unmistakably clear is that the continent’s women have been left behind. In light of this, the writers ask: What will you do to address this unjust imbalance?
Article first published by the Business Monthly East Africa