By Gwain Colbert
It was President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia who said at the opening of the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance [IDEA] Seminar on ‘Women and Parliament’, 26 September 2006, in Accra, Ghana, that, “We are aware as a result of our fortitude and struggle that there are fortresses of political resistance to this new force of women leadership, but we are certain that the wind of change that has hit the west coast of Africa will blow strongly”. Although she might have been re-echoing what the former female French Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, said of women that: ‘If the woman is not the future of man, then, she is the man of the future’, it is a fact that 57 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, the voices of indigenous African women are still seldom heard and/or taken into consideration in decision-making. It was so with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is likely to be so with the new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Recognizing that for centuries indigenous African women have shown that they are pearls of wisdom, The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa [the African Women’s Rights Protocol] adopted in 2003 by the African Union (AU) took the bull by the horns and affirmed the principle of equal participation and the use of affirmative action to ensure equal and effective participation of women in politics and, by extension, development. If three years after the African Charter and 48 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ellen Johnson in 2006 was still talking of fortresses of political resistance to women leadership, then indigenous African women are and have been the real missing link in development. African indigenous knowledge and systems of development mostly articulated by women are, to say the least, hardly taken into consideration at the global level when designing development models, hence the backslash in MDGs.
Although the MDGs as established in the year 2000 sought to foster gender parity in decision-making both in public and private spheres, the proportion has remained disappointingly low. To instance the MDG framework, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments is one of the three indicators used to measure progress toward achieving Goal 3; that is, to promote gender equality and empower women. African Union commissions, Rwanda and Burundi show positive trends in women leadership, but given the potential women have a lot more would have been done in this domain.
Studies show that women’s representation has remained low in the private sector. The average representation rates of women in parliament, ministerial positions and senior management positions in private firms are approximately 16, 19 and 7.3 percent respectively in Sub-Saharan African countries. If the situation is disappointingly so for enlightened women, what more of indigenous African women who are expected to actively participate in development. If their voices are not heard in the planning process, how are they expected to be part of the implementation and evaluation process? It is more because of indigenous African women’s strength and resilience that our families and communities have been kept alive, not western development concepts and models. The MDGs hardly took this into consideration; and to succeed the SDGs need to do a better job than just be another dictated development model for Africa. One efficient and effective new thinking on ways to advance the UN development agenda beyond 2015 is to work to include African women’s indigenous knowledge and systems of development into the SDGs.
For the post-2015 development agenda to have any relevance in Africa, indigenous African women must have a say in the following already identified areas by the UN Development Group, UNDG: inequalities; health; education; governance; conflict and fragility; growth and employment; environmental sustainability; hunger, nutrition and food security; population dynamics; energy; and water. It should be recalled that the September 2013 UNDG survey codenamed: ‘A Million Voices: The World We Want’, did not sufficiently take into consideration the concerns of indigenous African women. The MDGs were not the development model African women wanted and their voices are still largely unheard in the ongoing consultations for the post-2015 development agenda.
From UN Women have it that: ‘The post-2015 Development Agenda is an ambitious global vision that seeks to tackle extreme poverty, curb climate change, and put the world on a more prosperous and sustainable path by 2030’. To have a grasp of moves toward SDGs, one needs to understand the four key components on which they are hinged: 1] The Declaration, 2] Goals and Targets, 3] Financing and Means of Implementation, and 4] Monitoring and Evaluation.
By The Declaration is meant the vision statement of what is expected to be achieved by the agenda. By Goals and Targets is meant a new set of goals and targets to build on and succeed the MDGs. By Financing and the Means of Implementation is meant the ‘how’ of delivering on the post-2015 development agenda. And last but not the least, by Monitoring and Evaluation, is meant defining the process to track progress on commitments made by all stakeholders.
Given that the Post-2015 Development Agenda, like its predecessor, is meant to address some of the world’s most pressing problems and that the SDGs would be ‘critical in mobilizing resources and driving real progress’ as ascertained by the UN, why is it that voices of indigenous African women who are the supposed beneficiaries of the Agenda, are not taken into consideration? Indigenous African women have proven that they can articulate the world they want be it in the domain of tackling extreme poverty, curbing climate change using indigenous approaches, and improving on their health conditions as well as the education of their offspring.
Truth be told, once indigenous African women and girls are given an opportunity to reach their full potential, they lift their families, communities and countries out of poverty faster. To unlock the power inside indigenous African women, the SDGs need to collaborate with them in the design, implantation and evaluation of the post-2015 development agenda.
Given that the foundation for SDGs is the Rio+20 Conference on climate change and environmental sustainability, indigenous African women’s indigenous approaches to mitigating climate change must be taken into consideration, not western models. Women’s access to land as well as their health should be key concerns for SDGs.
The SDGs will be an opportunity to reflect on the health challenges indigenous African women face. Various factors make it difficult for millions of women to preserve their own health, give birth to healthy babies, or ensure their children have a healthy beginning. In most parts of Africa, a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish secondary school. Education of the girl child and more importantly, her safety in school, should also be a key concern to the SDGs.
* Gwain Colbert is an award winning human rights journalist, blogger and radio host in Cameroon. He is also at the leading-edge of innovation with his Dignity Television project and data-driven journalism.