'Deaths caused by pregnancy in Africa are more than all the deaths from AIDS, TB and malaria combined,' says Marie-Claire Faray. Faray, the vice president of UK WILPF (Women's' International League for Peace and Freedom), is speaking to a group of women from all over the diaspora who have gathered in London to mark the UK launch of African Women's Decade.
The decade is the African Union's (AU) new 10-year campaign to deliver gender equality, women's advancement and the respect of women's rights in Africa. 'Women have a right to survive, to be alive,' says Faray. 'It's time to identify our right, claim it and take control of it.'
2010 is already a prominent year for gender issues in Africa. It marks 25 years since the UN World Conference on Women, 15 years since the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the 10th anniversary of the UN Millennium Development Goals and six years since the adoption of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. Uganda finally ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa at the African Union summit three weeks ago, five years after it entered into force. Despite the progress carved out over the past few decades, there is still room for improvement.
Initiated by the AU's Women and Gender Development Directorate, African Women's' Decade was adopted in October 2009 by the African Union, giving member states up to 2020 to achieve 50/50 representation of women and men in politics and decision-making, in line with article 5 of the declaration and the protocol.
The decade's objectives include the ratification and setting aside of resources for the implementation of existing instruments; raising awareness, capacity building and gender mainstreaming to promote and accelerate the implementation and attainment of the goals stated in the declarations, protocols and conventions the AU has adopted; preventing gender issues from being dropped from member states' budget lines; and promoting the ability of African governments to generate funds to address gender from women's economic empowerment and increased access to agricultural land, farm inputs, credit, technology, markets and water to improved women's health to reduce maternal mortality and to address HIV/AIDS.
What is different about African Women's Decade is that it 'officially put[s] women at the centre of every initiative or work that will be undertaken in Africa by the African Union, its member states, the UN, the EU, international or local NGOs as well as all institutions, public and private companies,' Faray tells Pambazuka, with a focus on using the rule of law and accountability for enhancing the respect and protection of women's rights.
'It is up to women now to own this decade by empowering themselves and each other to act and to request an end to impunity and to ask for accountability that will initiate change because nobody will bring it to them. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity,' says Faray.
The 2009 African Women's Report of the evaluation of the Beijing Platform for Action (Beijing +15) 'paints a grim picture of African countries failing to meet their commitments on gender equality and particularly women's rights', says Faray.
Maternal mortality rates, for example, are disproportionately high: Deaths caused by pregnancy are more than all the deaths from AIDS, TB and malaria combined. 'The shocking lack of readily available health services for women in Africa is endangering women's wellbeing and resulting in tragically high numbers of women dying in childbirth,' says Faray. In 2007, while 35 per cent of HIV infections and 38 per cent of AIDS deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, women accounted for nearly 60 per cent of HIV infections in the region. 'There are serious gendered causes and impacts that governments need to address to save women's lives in Africa,' says Faray.
Harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) continue; the law to end FGM in Sudan has even been reversed and decriminalised, putting millions of lives of Sudanese young girls and women in danger. Despite the high representation of women and the various international and regional legal frameworks signed by Rwanda, the country's parliament has introduced a bill for forced sterilisation of women. 'It's a crime against humanity', says Faray, 'undermining reproductive health goals and undoing decades of work by women around the world, to ensure respect for reproductive rights.'
'In recent years, due to conflicts, oppressive regimes and poverty, there's been a horrible increase in the rate of sexual violence,' says Faray. In 2006, there were close to 55,000 reported rape cases in South Africa, while an estimated 450,000 cases went unreported. In contrast, official statistics suggest annual rape figures of just 16,000 in the 1980s. Meanwhile, in the DR Congo, around 1 million women have been raped since armed conflict began in 1997. Faray cites other examples from across the continent: Eritrean women raped and condemned to die in prison for refusing to serve in the army, or killed trying to seek refuge out of the country; sexual violence against Sudanese women as a tool of war.
Moreover, the perpetrators of this violence often go unpunished. The thousands of women and girls who were sexually assaulted and raped during the post-election chaos that ravaged Kenya 'have to look to the Hague for justice as their male-dominated government cannot even offer them justice or reparation,' rails Faray. In some cases, the violence appears to be officially sanctioned: In 2008, Guinean women were raped 'as a warning and tool of political intimidation', while opposing political parties in Zimbabwe's elections unleashed 'sexual terror' against women who supported the other political parties.
'Millions of African women victims of rape are too fearful - or too sceptical of getting any redress against their attackers - to come forward, so many are dying in silence from diseases sexually transmitted by force; other are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies,' Faray laments. 'African women's bodies continue to be a battleground for African men to wage their senseless wars over political power owned by many neocolonialist multinational corporations who are only too pleased to test their arms while illegally exploiting natural resources in Africa.'
What isn't clear is what the strategy is for making the decade's goals a reality. Certainly governments will not achieve the objectives on their own - past gains demonstrate the need for action by all sectors of society, at a local, national and international level. UK WILPF is one among many civil society organisations rallying behind the decade. Its involvement stems from its 'Voices of African Women Campaign' and is 'an act of solidarity' by British women with women in the diaspora.
The organisation will focus on tackling violence against women. 'It's an issue of peace and security,' says Faray, 'which needs a specific budget allocated to it.' In addition to 'working to raise awareness among grassroots women and empower them, UK WILPF will ask for greater accountability and urge the UK government, African and other governments' leaders to act on its 'Voices of African Women Declaration.'
Securing women's rights in Africa, however, is no easy task. Lack of implementation is the central factor slowing the progress, Faray believes. 'It stems from 'a lack of respect for the rule of law'. She lays the blame for this failure squarely at the feet of the African men 'in charge of leadership', who dominate 'the corridors and offices of power across the continent'.
'By failing to serve women...they are failing their duty of being a servant of their nations and its citizens...African men should feel empathy and solidarity with their sisters, mothers and daughters and act because the scale of pain and suffering of African women is simply unacceptable,' says Faray.
Yet 'male-dominant attitudes' and 'so-called traditions' prevail. 'This position of power that they think they hold over women's lives through retrograde patriarchal mentality and abusive violent masculinity is actually one that will destroy men in Africa,' Faray warns. 'By educating, instructing and protecting women, a whole nation will be preserved for future generations.'
Faray doesn't blame this malaise entirely on African men; commerce too has played a role, she suggests. 'There are various oppressive regimes in Africa that are supported by various external powers (countries or big multinational companies) for economic benefit that does not benefit Africa.'
Whatever the cause, however, Faray is clear: 'Lack of respect for women's or children rights is an absolute lack of respect of human rights, full stop. Lack of education, healthcare and adequate nutrition condemn women and men to poverty and death. Oppressive regimes and legitimisation of armed violence as a way to access power has led to a circle of impunity and violence which is a challenge to promoting and protecting the rights of women; due to their reproductive heath needs they fall in a category of vulnerable.'
Bringing about social transformation in the face of such obstacles is a daunting task. 'Women have to know their rights, and take action to demand accountability,' says Faray. '[E]lite educated and conscientious African women' have a responsibility to enable grassroots women to access information, she adds, acknowledging that 'many are kept in ignorance due to lack of education and instruction' on 'how the systems/institutions/laws that are supposed to run their nations should work.'
'Grassroots women...should not be used as a propaganda tool, dancing, welcoming or voting for leaders who offer them a hat, a piece of wax wrapping material and drinks during elections but fail to deliver on the rights of women to human security to live. Women should not be jubilant for leaders who extend their stay in power living in luxury without delivering their promises to serve their nation.'
Women must 'urge governments to publicly announce the decisions taken on advancing gender equality and women's rights in the annual budget' and 'evaluate their government's progress', says Faray. 'Women should refuse to die or live in abject poverty or endure violence: They should be angry, mobilising and taking to the streets to demand concrete actions which will improve their lives and the wellbeing of their children. No more promises!'
'The African Union and its member states have to walk the talk on women's rights,' says Faray. 'The target for gender equality and women's rights in Africa by 2020 is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound,' says Faray, but it 'requires a political will from decision makers who are often male...strong ownership by women and commitment by women to get results is pivotal.'
'Accountability for women's rights is accountability for human rights in general,' asserts Faray. 'Gender equality and effective participation of women will lead to real participatory democracy and social justice for all, hence peace and sustainable development, food security and better healthcare for many Africans.'
But if the goal is social justice for all, isn't there need for an African Men's Decade too? 'Indeed, we need one - however an African Men's Decade of sharing, self-evaluation of their role and responsibility in the governance, protection of the environment and human security in Africa,' Faray retorts. 'We need several organisations of African men aiming to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women. Too many men are participating, standing and watching women dying or being abused in silence. It's now time for this to change.'
It is a long road to guaranteeing the promotion and protection of women's rights. Asked what motivates her to continue the struggle, Faray replies:
'Women all over the world - particularly grassroots African women struggling for survival and always mobilising for peace, giving life and raising their children regardless of hardship - have always motivated my voluntary work. The lives and struggle of Congolese women, including my own mother, are dear to my heart, particularly when thinking of centuries of abuses from the 17th century heroine Kimpa Vita, to the raped and amputated women of the 18-19th century colonial era to this modern day of 21st century of high IT, women murdered and scarred for the exploitation of natural resources and gains by vicious capitalist multinational corporations.'
'Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Emily Pankhurst and Jane Adams and so many of my fellow women's rights activist colleagues all over the world are amongst women that are a great source of inspiration and admiration,' she adds.
'Although it is a long road to guaranteeing the promotion and protection of women's rights, it is one that we will walk to freedom, never unbowed no matter what as we are responsible for the future of young generations of African girls,' says Faray.
All African women from the continent and the diaspora need to know and own their countries' constitutions as well as the various legal frameworks signed or ratified by their countries, says Faray. 'Women have to be together to ask to set the example in their own lives by not living any form of oppression, by good governance and accountability for their action during their work. I would also ask men to join our struggle, as it is that for future generations of African children and that of their own survival on the continent.'
Marie-Claire Faray is a research scientist and vice president of UK WILPF (Women's' International League for Peace and Freedom). Interview conducted by Z. Rodrigues.
 Rape Statistics-South Africa and World Wide (2008)