Very warm greetings to you all from the Chairperson, H.E. Professor Alpha Oumar Konare, Commissioners and officials of the Commission of the African Union. I also bring my special greetings and compliments to you all - Members of the Solidarity for Women's Rights Coalition and Ahfad University for Women here present, and the Government and people of The Sudan.
I would like to start by expressing my delight and pleasure to be in Khartoum once again, this historic and beautiful city of your great country, The Sudan. Let me also register my deep gratitude and sincere appreciation for the singular honour and privilege accorded to me to deliver a keynote address at the opening session of this Symposium on the African Union's Protocol on Women's Rights in Africa , with a focus on the relevance of the Protocol for the Continent and its peoples.
It is highly gratifying and encouraging to note that this Symposium is taking place at the same time that the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, our premier continental body is holding its Sixth Ordinary Session here in Khartoum. The coincidence of the two events is both historic and propitious and signifies good omen for the future of Africa, African women generally, and Sudanese women in particular. I wish to therefore to seize this opportunity to commend and congratulate the organizers of this Symposium – the Solidarity for African Women's Rights (SOAWR) Coalition, the Ahfad University for Women in The Sudan and the African Union Gender Directorate – for this great initiative, intended to promote and protect women's rights in Africa. I do hope that this Symposium would achieve its objectives of sharing continental progress on the ratification of the Protocol and current initiatives towards popularization across the Continent and implementation as well as inspiring Sudanese Civil Society Organisations to join the campaign with a view to advocating for its ratification.
In 1963, the founding fathers of our great Continent, in the historic Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), convinced that it is the inalienable right of all peoples to control their own destiny and conscious of the fact that freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples, agreed among others, to coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa.
Also in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, adopted in 1981 and which entered into force in 1986, the Heads of State and Government firmly convinced of their duty to promote and protect human and peoples' rights and freedoms taking into account the importance traditionally attached to these rights and freedoms in Africa, agreed that the Member States of the OAU parties to the Charter shall recognize the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined in the Charter and shall undertake to adopt legislative or other measures to give effect to them (Art. 1). They also agreed among other rights, that every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and
freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.
Furthermore, in the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), adopted in 2000 and which entered into force in 2001, the Heads of State and Government determined to promote and protect human and peoples' rights, consolidate democratic institutions and culture, and to ensure good governance and the rule of law, agreed to promote and protect human and peoples' rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other relevant human rights instruments (Art. 3).
It is in this context that about a decade ago, NGOs expressed concern about the abuses of women's rights on the Continent, which resulted in the initiation of work on a Protocol on the rights of women by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, at its 17th Session in 1995. In the same year, the OAU Assembly endorsed a recommendation by the African Commission on the elaboration of such a Protocol. The process was accelerated by the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Women's Rights and Civil Society Organizations that participated in the elaboration of the Protocol.
The Protocol was eventually adopted in Maputo in July 2003 and it entered into force on 25 th November 2005, thirty days after the deposit of the fifteenth instrument of ratification. The following seventeen countries have ratified the Protocol: Benin; Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, The Gambia, Libya, Lesotho, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal and Togo.
Today, it is gratifying to note that the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa has been adopted, signed and ratified through advocacy and publicity campaigns. In this regard, I wish to express my profound gratitude to all those who have contributed to these achievements – Member States, National Human Rights Institutions and Civil Society Organizations.
The Protocol, like the African Charter, takes into consideration African values, supplements the substantive provisions of the African Charter and even goes beyond the provisions of the Charter. It is a legally binding instrument and a vital lobbying tool for the protection and promotion of women's rights.
In its Preamble, concern is expressed about the women of Africa still being victims of discrimination and harmful practices despite the ratification of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other international human rights instruments by the majority of States Parties, and their solemn commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination and harmful practices against women.
This concern is accompanied by the expression of the conviction that any practice that hinders or endangers the normal growth and affects the physical and psychological
development of women and girls should be condemned and eliminated, coupled with the determination to ensure that the rights of women are promoted, realized and protected in order to enable them enjoy fully their human rights.
We all need to collaborate to ensure translation of this determination into reality. The entry into force of the Protocol is not an end in itself – it is part of a process which started with the drafting of the Protocol and will not end until appropriate policy and legislative measures are put in place by the 53 Member States of the African Union, to translate the provisions of the Protocol into practice at regional, national and community levels. The task ahead of us in 2006 and beyond is therefore to combine our efforts towards that ultimate goal. It is also to encourage those Member States that have not yet signed or ratified the Protocol to do so as an illustration of their commitment to gender equality and women's rights.
The African Continent is faced with enormous challenges to the realization of women's rights, including high illiteracy rate among women, harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, rape, child trafficking, poverty, conflicts, early marriage of girls, high population of women refugees, violence against women, discrimination against women (including elderly women, women with disabilities, and women in conflict situations). The full and effective participation of women in politics, government and the management of public affairs, as well as in business also remains a key challenge.
We need to end violence against women whether it is state perpetrated, or condoned or committed by individuals against individuals in everyday life. Women, and the children for whom they are responsible form a disproportionate number of the world's refugees, they must scramble to provide shelter and food, and protect themselves and their children from the violence of war.
Early marriage is still the norm in some countries closing women's opportunities for education and employment; pregnancy during adolescence exposes a young woman to much higher risks of illness or death than those faced by older women. The girl child faces discrimination from the earliest stages of life, through childhood and into adulthood. Harmful attitudes and practices and the lack of protective laws, or failure to enforce such laws, make girls more vulnerable to all kinds of violence, particularly sexual violence. In many regions, girls face discrimination in access to education and specialized training.
The great irony is that women have been charged with and have often found security in maintaining customs and tradition, thus institutionalizing the discrimination against them
through the education and socialization of children. Breaking tradition, defying customs and overcoming discrimination requires courage and leadership.
The implementation of human rights of women should include dissemination of women's human rights instruments and mechanisms through human rights education in the formal as well as the informal educational system. There is no way women can exercise their human rights if they do not know what they are.
Education provides the means for people to obtain knowledge and change such traditional value systems, which, in turn, enables women to gain independence and power in the society in order to ensure their rights. It is also vital for the establishment of a culture where human rights are understood, defended and respected. The development of a culture of human rights on our continent is one of the most important contributions that can be made to future generations.
It is however heartening to note that there is progress on the Continent in promoting gender equality including women's participation in decision-making positions, exemplified by the high percentage of women in government in countries like South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, and the elected first African female President in Liberia, but much needs to be done. Some countries have outlawed FGM, though it has not yet resulted in complete eradication of the practice - legislation however should be accompanied with awareness programmes, especially on the health related harmful effects of this practice. Girl child education is being promoted, but still needs improvement. In this respect, the presence of women's organizations on the continent should be exploited to its fullest being an opportunity to lobby at various levels, including national, regional, continental and international levels.
I am of the conviction that the Protocol would be of relevance to the Continent for 2006 and beyond. We have all worked for its coming into force because of our convictions of its relevance to the Continent. Making the Protocol a reality will be through our collective efforts – efforts deployed since the elaboration of the Protocol need to continue until it becomes a reality and the rights enshrined therein are enjoyed by the women of Africa. The coming into force of the Protocol is a laudable development, but we must not be complacent with it – we need to redouble our efforts, though our advocacy, campaigning, popularization strategies, so that the women of all the Member States of the African Union would enjoy the rights in the Protocol. This is an enormous challenge and I am of the opinion that we would at least see positive developments in those countries that have ratified the Protocol. I would like to use this platform therefore to call upon those Governments that have ratified the Protocol to take all necessary measures, including domestication and provision of resources for its effective implementation. I would like to encourage all States Parties to comply with their obligations under the Protocol in order to realize its provisions, including gender equality, right to dignity, elimination of harmful practices, eradication of all forms of discrimination against women, public education, ending violence against women in private and public, preventing trafficking in women, increased and effective participation of women in all organs of government including decision making,, access to justice, equal access to the employment, to name but a few. It also crucial that States provide appropriate remedies to any woman whose rights as recognized in the Protocol are violated and perpetrators of violence against women be punished. In accordance with Art. 62 of the African Charter, States should also indicate in their periodic reports, the legislative and other measures undertaken regarding the promotion and protection of women's rights. Let me take this opportunity to make an ardent appeal to the Government of The Sudan to ratify the Protocol in order to offer the Sudanese women - who are also women of Africa - the opportunity to enjoy the rights enshrined in the Protocol. Such ratification will also be a concrete demonstration of the commitment of the Government to gender equality and the promotion and protection of women's rights, both in The Sudan and on the African Continent.
The significance of initiatives such as the SOAWR campaign cannot be overemphasized. While the activities at continental level are very important, we also need to step up activities at national and regional levels to support this cause. Furthermore, there should be greater awareness about the Protocol at all levels of our Continent, including in rural areas, using diverse popularization techniques and strategies.
In this respect, I would like to encourage the SOAWR Coalition to continue the campaigning for the popularization, ratification and domestication of the Protocol.
As a way forward, we need to build upon the achievements made and redouble our efforts, including networking for more ratifications and domestication, in a bid to make the Protocol become a truly African instrument and the provisions therein enjoyed by the women of Africa. The progress that has been achieved so far should serve as an inspiration to forge ahead despite the political, social, economic and cultural challenges that we might face in our efforts to realizing the rights of women on the Continent.
Once more I wish to thank the organizers of this Symposium and wish you all every success in your deliberations.