African Women's Engagement With The UN
An interview with Dr Jacinta Muteshi of Kenya's National Commission for Gender and Development. By Kathambi Kinoti, June 2006
AWID: What real impact has the United Nations and its processes had on women in Africa?
Jacinta Muteshi: The United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has delivered resources for a lot of our work. By resources I do not mean just financial resources but also technical assistance and capacity building. We need the work of UNIFEM, the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and other such structures to continue. However they should be strengthened, their profiles raised and their resources increased.
When the UN organized its first World Conference for Women in Mexico in 1975 it set in motion a process by bringing together for the first time women from all over the world, a process that was continued by the subsequent meetings in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing in 1980, 1985 and 1995 respectively. What this process did was to put governments on notice with regard to their obligations towards women.
The Nairobi meeting, the UN 3rd World Conference on Women was the first largest international women's meeting held in Africa. It provided the space for women from the South to put their voices on the global agenda. For the first time African women were able to say: 'We can and must speak on international issues.' We were able to show how international issues have impacted us.
The UN has facilitated the development of several international treaties on women's rights including the most important Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW set out commitments that women can hold their governments accountable for and it was at the Nairobi Confrence in 1985 that the domestication of CEDAW was seen as an important step towards the implementation of the rights for women. Kenya has ratified CEDAW and it is therefore a legally binding treaty. However, Kenya does not have an automatic domestication clause in respect of ratified international conventions such as CEDAW. Therefore domestication must be done through reforming or creating new individuals pieces of legislation; and this has not been fully realized. CEDAW has provided us with a framework that would enable us to tell our governments: 'Gender justice would look would look like this.' Countries want to be part of an international community of nations therefore they want to be seen to be delivering on their commitments under the treaties they sign.
The challenge is that the commitment to women's equality is not a shared commitment. Patriarchal influences are very strong, and even when governments know their obligations towards women, there is no real political will to fulfill their obligations to women.
AWID: How accessible are UN agencies and processes to women? Do women's organizations effectively engage with the UN?
JM: Most women's NGOs in Africa are hard pressed to deliver services and to deliver on the practical needs of women. They provide basic services that are a matter of life and death for women; food, interventions against violence, legal aid, HIV and AIDS awareness, health delivery and so on. They are serving basic needs that should ordinarily be met by governments, but governments have not had enough resources to deliver the services, and they have frequently made policy decisions with regards to utilization and distribution of resources that has impacted negatively on women's access to resources. Structural adjustment policies (SAPS), liberalization and other economic policies that were imposed upon governments in the South also took away the much needed resources that used to be directed at the basic social services provided by governments.
Because local women's NGOs are primarily providing basic services to women every day, very few of them are looking at the more complex strategic needs of women. They are not doing much strategic work because their resources in terms of people, money and time are stretched to the limit.
Women's organizations do commonly engage with the UN agencies with regards to accessing resources. Kenya's urban-based women's NGOs have better access in terms of knowledge about the availability of such resources and support from UNIFEM and other UN agencies. They also have better access in terms of location; for instance an organization in Nairobi would find it logistically easier to access UNIFEM than would one in a remote part of Kenya. On the other hand, there are several urban-based women's NGOs in Kenya that have a reach in rural areas and therefore the resources reach rural women and knowledge about CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) are also so spread.
Processes like CEDAW and BPFA have also become the lenses through which emerging development policies and practices are being scrutinized by gender equality advocates. For instance women's organizations have scrutinized the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through these lenses. All new processes can be strengthened by examining them against the background of the standards set by CEDAW and BPFA. We conducted some research recently that revealed that the work of most women's organizations in Kenya clearly reflects the strategies and ideals of the BPFA.
AWID: Does this mean that most organizations are aware of CEDAW and the BPFA or how is it that their work reflects these standards?
JM: There are some processes that consciously convey knowledge about these instruments. UNIFEM in collaboration with several women's organizations have done a lot of work around this. The National Commission on Gender and Development together with the Ministry of Gender, other key line Ministries and women's organizations have also developed a national policy on gender and development that was framed within these international UN processes.
Many of the individuals and organizations who participate in the processes that have led to CEDAW and the BPFA have shaped their organizations' work around the shared understanding of gender justice and women's equality. This shared understanding has arisen from global conversations that led up to the passing of such international standards. So while the work of some local women's organizations may not consciously be based on CEDAW or the BPFA, their work can often be seen as influenced by the ideals of these instruments.
AWID: What kind of reforms to the UN would women in Africa like to see?
JM: International treaties are negotiated and so the crucial question is: Who participates in the negotiations that take place? Women need to be an integral part of all decision making processes, not only those that primarily address women's rights, but others as well such as those that address global, regional and local governance issues, trade, macro-economic policies, peace and so forth. There are many processes from which women have been excluded. They have been present and heard within international conventions such as CEDAW, but such processes are weakened when governments make reservations, do not ratify other international treaties on women's rights, such as The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa- 2003; do not commit to the obligations set out in treaties, or try to retreat on their pledges as is often the case on matters touch upon culture and religion. Women's rights advocates constantly have to expend a lot of energy on constantly safeguarding the gains they make for women's equality and empowerment.
We need to ensure that women from the global South have a stronger voice in the UN. Since countries send representatives to negotiate for them at the UN processes this means ensuring that our governments practice affirmative action in appointative positions.
There are not enough women in decision-making positions in the UN and this under-representation of women in leadership means that the UN will continue to have problems delivering on its mandate to women of the world. Over the years more and more women have moved up in its ranks but they are not enough to make a real impact. The UN has for a long time had in place policies and practices to mainstream gender but these are not making a real change. We need more women in senior positions. This would require political will from the very top of the UN. There have been calls for a woman Secretary-General and this drive comes from not only from the fact that it is time that a woman was in that position, but also from the conviction that a woman may respond differently to the challenges of gender mainstreaming and may deliver better on the promise of women's equality.
Women see the UN as a body that has the power to greatly influence the achievement of gender equality. We need to see a recommitment to making the UN an effective body that occupies a place of respect in the world.