For a fleeting moment, American actress and United Nations ambassador Angelina Jolie Pitt stole the spotlight at the African Union summit last week in Johannesburg, with a speech calling for policies designed by women, focused on women, executed by women and championed by men as a solution to Africa’s many problems with violence and economic progress. But despite her star power and an ongoing vow from African leaders to focus on women’s issues, the summit, dominated by male leaders, largely ignored discussions on ensuring gender parity in the security, economic, political and health sectors and instead focused on war, terrorism, election scandals and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s outstanding warrant for alleged war crimes.
The discussion underscores how little attention is being paid to women’s issues across Africa, where women's voices are often ignored by predominately male leaders. While the African Union made the theme of this year’s summit Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Agenda 2063, the 54-member continental bloc has failed to fully implement pro-women policies, ensuring its goals are merely just words on paper, according to gender experts and advocates.
“There’s a lot of window draping around women’s issues. But when it comes down to it, very little is being achieved at the summit, and it really wasn’t a central focus,” said Romi Sigsworth, a gender specialist at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
The 25th summit of the African Union concluded June 15 with a declaration of commitments from the assembly of leaders toward mainstreaming women's issues by 2063, including advancing women's economic empowerment, increasing their participation in governance and enhancing access to health, education and technology. The assembly also pledged to translate these commitments into concrete results.
But the African Union has also been distracted from its stated goals to help women in recent days amid the controversy over whether leaders should crack down on their fellow head of state, Sudanese President Bashir. Last week, the International Criminal Court had its best shot in years to arrest Bashir, who is wanted for alleged war crimes, when he visited Johannesburg for the summit, which began June 7. South Africa had to choose between keeping its promise to the court or helping Bashir escape, and it chose the latter.
The conflict captured international headlines and overshadowed the summit’s planned focus on women's empowerment. That came as no surprise to experts, who said women’s issues have historically been put on the back burner during high-level talks.
“It’s extremely frustrating. But if it wasn’t Bashir, it would have been something else,” Sigsworth said during a telephone interview Monday. “Once again, women’s empowerment is seen as a softer issue.”
Women make up nearly 67 percent of Africa's total population, and they are a cornerstone of the region’s peacekeeping and economic development. They provide roughly 70 percent of Africa’s agricultural labor and produce about 90 percent of all food. However, a majority of African women lack access to vital resources such as education and health services, which inhibits their status in the formal economy, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, an international economic group of 34 nations.
African women are also predominately employed in the informal sector in jobs that are neither taxed nor monitored by the government, or work low-skill jobs, which excludes them from participating in political processes. But without more women participating in politics, it’s unlikely government leaders will make much progress on women’s issues while also working to achieve economic recovery, political legitimacy and sustainable security across the continent, activists said.
“Thousands of organizations are working on helping women achieve their potential, but it’s far from enough,” said Winifred Cox, co-founder of Women’s Empowerment International, which provides small, repayable business loans and services for low-income women to work their way out of poverty.
Activism for gender equality has helped increase African women's political participation since the mid-1990s. Today, African nations boast some of the world's highest rates of representation. Women in the United States hold 20 percent of seats in the Senate and 18 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. Rwandan women, however, hold 64 percent of the country’s legislative seats, while more than 40 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women in Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa. Over 35 percent of seats in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda are occupied by women, according to Aili Mari Tripp, professor of political science as well as gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But raising the numbers are not enough. Few African women hold high-power, decision-making positions that are essential for implementing the plans formulated at the African Union summits, experts said. There are only three female heads of state across an African continent made up of 54 countries.
"Including more women is not sufficient," said Cheryl Hendricks, head of the department of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg, who specializes in African gender issues. "We need to be asking different questions, center our discourse and practice on gender equality, which then requires a transformation of the structures themselves and not merely our inclusion into them."
Fostering the education of girls is a vital step toward women's empowerment, activists said. An educated girl is more likely to participate in political and economic decision-making, as schooling can also help increase women's earned income. But traditional gender roles in African nations mean that young girls are often removed from school to perform chores or care for their siblings. Many girls become brides before they have finished elementary school, according to the United Nations.
Last year, the African Union launched its first campaign to end child marriage. Each year, 14 million girls are married off before they reach the age of 18, which can take a devastating toll on their health and education. African countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali have some of the world's highest rates of child marriage. The two-year campaign focuses on mobilizing change across the continent by urging governments to develop strategies to raise awareness and address the consequences of child marriage. African leaders have attended discussions on the issue and made verbal commitments, but experts expressed doubt that any concrete action will emerge.
"A lot of lip service is paid to this. It doesn't mean anything," Sigsworth said. "It's so hard to make the leadership believe that if we actually put funding and political will behind these issues, we'd actually make strides in the other areas."
The African Union has also recommended that national governments and regional organizations reform their security sectors by including more women in the police, defense forces, courts and emergency services of African countries. But only 12 national governments so far have incorporated a stronger gender component in their reforms, and the African Union lacks real authority to enforce implementation of pro-women policies, according to the Institute for Security Studies' Peace and Security Council Report.
In northern Nigeria, Islamist militant group Boko Haram has kidnapped and raped thousands of women and girls in recent years. Many of those who survived are now displaced, with no husbands, family or means to earn an income, and some have turned to illicit trades just to get by. Women in Africa are also four times more likely than men to be targets of voter intimidation in fragile and transitional states, like Burundi and Ethiopia, where male African rulers have historically bullied their way through election cycles.
However, few women are part of the peacekeeping discussions to resolve these issues in Africa. They represent less than 10 percent of negotiators at peace tables, and less than 3 percent of signatories to peace agreements are women, according to the latest data from the United Nations.
Whether or not African governments increase opportunities for women to participate in public life, African women themselves must defend policy changes and demand their voices be heard, experts said.
"This takes political, human and financial commitment, but also an active citizenry that is not afraid to insist that governments act with integrity and deliver on the international and continental frameworks they so easily sign up to," Hendricks said in an email interview Monday.