A review of the book Promises and Realities: Taking Stock of the 3rd International Women's Conference.
By Kathambi Kinoti
The third United Nations International Women’s Conference took place in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985, at the end of the UN Decade for Women. Twenty one years later a project called Nairobi +21 took stock of the progress made towards achieving the goals agreed upon at the Nairobi conference. These goals were contained in the first ever international global plan of action to advance women's rights, the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (NFLS). This week, Promises and Realities,* a book that examines different aspects of the lives of women vis-à-vis the NFLS was launched. The publication of the book was one of the activities of the Nairobi + 21 project, which was supported by the Ford Foundation. Almost four years have elapsed since the 21st anniversary of the NFLS, but the analysis and recommendations in Promises and Realities remains acutely relevant.
Promises and Realities is a collection of papers by several women in academia or active in women’s and other human rights movements in East Africa. Given that Nairobi was the first UN women’s conference organised in Africa, and East Africa in particular, the people behind the book thought it appropriate that the book contained voices of East African women taking stock of the impact of Nairobi.
The writers assess the impact of the NFLS from different angles such as the portrayal of women in the media, the status of young women, women and education and the link between women and the environment. On the whole, the book demonstrates that there has been progress on many fronts, for example increased access to education for girls, an increase in the presence of women in decision-making positions, and some degree of erasure of negative images of women in arts and the media.
Wanjiku Mbugua writes that governments ‘have made tremendous strides in recognizing women’s rights as human rights’ but there are ongoing clashes between values touted as traditional and internationally recognised human rights. Often, advocates of traditional values justify a restriction of women’s rights. Mbugua assesses progress made since Nairobi and Beijing and cites some challenges facing the human rights and justice sector such as the over-extension of NGOs and donor-set agendas.
Maria Nasssali shows that women’s access to decision-making spaces increased after Nairobi, but since the implementation of the NFLS was done within the Women in Development (WID) framework, male systemic privileges or relations of power that sustain patriarchy were not addressed. She notes that Nairobi triggered the birth of numerous women’s rights organisations.
Sara Ruto says that in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, the most impressive progress that has been made is in improving access to education for girls and women. Girls’ access to education has on the whole increased, and there are higher levels of young women entering tertiary institutions. However there are still high illiteracy rates for older women and many unreached girls in poor and rural communities.
Patricia Kameri-Mbote highlights the chasm between women’s rights and environmental movements and calls for more synergy between them. She notes that there has been increased acknowledgement of women’s roles in environmental management and attempts to involve them in sustainable development, and argues for the need for concrete plans of action to be derived from the NFLS and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA).
Using the case of Uganda, Sarah Mukasa explores the progress made in securing women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), an area that used to be addressed in the context of population control. She says that feminist activists and scholars have worked to bring SRHR the forefront of public policy and rights discourse. There have been strides in addressing HIV and AIDS as well as increasing women’s access to contraception. However there are a number of challenges to fully realising girls’ and women’s SRHR such as the interface between culture and rights, and the institutional weakness of many women’s rights organisations.
Women in the arts is discussed by Grace M. Musila and Binyavanga Wainaina. There has been an increase in the number of Kenyan women writers, voicing women’s perspectives and critiquing patriarchy. There have also been a few films exploring Kenyan women’s experiences from their own perspective and more positive portrayals of women in art. Still, there is a long way to go and the prohibitive costs of producing some art forms, such as film, is a barrier for women.
Colleen Lowe-Morna writes on gender and the media in East and Southern Africa. She analyses the portrayal of women by the media in the region and discusses the different forms that activism has taken. Lowe-Morna examines different aspects of the media’s interaction with women such as relative numbers of female presenters or the way rape is reported. She profiles some organisations and initiatives doing pioneering work in the area, but argues that there is still a huge gender imbalance.
Saida Ali focuses on the role of young women in advancing women’s rights. From the perspective of Kenya, she traces the participation of young women in different movements; the Mau Mau struggle for liberation from colonial rule, the pro-democracy movement and the women’s movement. She profiles a number of NGOs working with and for young people, and highlights some of the challenges they face such as careerism, and the problematising of young people.
The concluding chapter of Promises and Realities is written by L.Muthoni Wanyeki who presents an overview of all the analysis, gender mainstreaming and measurement tools referred to throughout the book. She writes that while there is a wide range of tools available, there is limited knowledge about them, and so they are applied in limited ways or not at all. She argues for the need to collect more data and statistics on women’s rights and to ensure the consistent application and use of existing tools in framing all women’s rights policies and programmes.
* Kameri-Mbote, P., Muteshi-Strachan, J., Ruto, Sara J. (Eds.) Promises and Realities: Taking Stock of the 3rd UN International Women’s Conference. 2009: African Woman and Child Feature Service and African Centre for Technology Studies. Nairobi.
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