Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives

Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)

Edited by Niamh Reilly

Women Taking Action to Advance Their Human Rights: The Case of Africa

By Florence Butegwa

It gives me a lot of pleasure to be here and to see the enthusiasm in your faces. I think that just to know that in one country alone you have so many women, so many men, who are determined to make women’s human rights a strategy for progress in their own country is exciting.

I would like to present my contribution as a regional case study and deal with some of the issues that Charlotte has raised, but from the point of view of African women. Talking about women’s human rights is something that has made a lot of people – globally and regionally and at national level – question whether we are actually saying that "women are not human." In other words, that we are claiming to be a category that is different from the "human" that we find in international human rights instruments. But these arguments are raised by both men and women because of a lack of understanding about what it is to talk about women’s human rights.

Within the African context, for example, we found that the laws that have been passed by African countries actually have a lot of the principles that you find within the human rights instruments. Also our constitutions contain bills of rights that guarantee many of the rights that you will find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the other conventions. However, the manner in which these laws are applied in practise excludes women. So talking about women’s human rights has made women say, "wait a minute, all these laws and human rights principles apply to women." That has meant taking on the challenge to articulate the issues that concern us as African women at the national, regional and international level and showing how those issues have not been covered by the practises of states and especially in the way that the laws of states are implemented.

So what are the major issues in this context which have concerned women? The first issue I want to highlight is the question of violence against women in its different forms. This includes violence in the family, particularly battery and incest, and violence of a sexual nature, such as rape and the defilement of girls who are below the age of maturity. Added to that, although somewhat different because of the context, is the violence against women that is occurring in situations of conflict. Over twenty African countries are undergoing internal armed conflict and increasingly it is clear that sexual violence, and physical violence which is gender-specific, is prevalent either as a instrument of war or as an offshoot to the conflict situations.

The second issue which has been a priority for African women is the the area of economic and social rights. The social and economic aspects of human rights are important to women because we are starting from a situation where women are disadvantaged by cultural practices and customary laws which are still applicable, and, at the same time, we have yet to define very clearly how we work on these issues within the human rights framework. While we have been very concerned that the issues are real and urgent, we are still grappling with how to proceed. For example, how do we define the inadequacy of a health care system and the lack of access to health care as denials of human rights?

Another related critical issue for African women is the whole question of property rights. Property rights are important, not only in the context of social and economic rights, but because they determine the options for women in many other areas. For example, when a woman is trying to flee from a violent situation, whether she has her own economic means or is economically dependant on another person will dictate the options open to her. Ownership of property is also definitive in political participation (another area we have been working on to a significant degree) because running for election is something that requires money and resources, and access to property and credit would assist women who want to stand. In sum, the issues of violence against women, social and economic rights – including property rights – and political participation have been major areas of concern for the women’s human rights movement in Africa.

Now I’d like to address why the human rights framework per se has been valuable to women in Africa as a tool in tackling these and other concerns. For several years, women have been working around legal rights in the domestic law context. But as we have gained experience in that area there has been a feeling that we are calling upon the benevolence of the state and the men who are in powerful positions – in the parliament and in the cabinet and therefore able to pass laws – to allow women to enjoy such rights. The fundamental difference with working within a human rights framework is the fact that you are starting from a position of entitlement – that you are not begging or calling upon someone’s benevolence, that you are demanding something that you are entitled to by virtue being a human being. That recognition is extremely empowering for the women who are activists and facilitating the process, but it is also transformative for the women they are talking to and working with on a daily basis. When a woman starts to reflect on what it might be like to have freedom from violence in the home and in the community, the idea that we are entitled to that freedom can provide great motivation and energy to get through a difficult situation.

Secondly, by using the human rights framework women have been able to transcend national boundaries. It is possible to access the strategies of the women’s rights movement in other regions and in other countries, and to adapt them to the human rights concerns in our own context. This can happen because the underlying human rights principles are the same. The way they have been translated to the national level may differ, but the basic principles remain the same. So this common human rights framework has facilitated networking, mutual support, and so on. Another reason why working within this framework has been important is that it has offered real opportunities for women to influence policy. In particular, the UN World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993) saw the presence of a very strong movement for women’s inclusion in human rights agendas. For the first time governments were forced to pause and listen and to see what is wrong with the current system from a the perspective of women. Since then, women have worked to convert the momentum created around Vienna into opportunities for more gains, whether at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) or the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. And that momentum at the international level has been played out at the national level too. Organisations and women’s rights activists have seized the opportunity to take advantage of the international momentum to make demands for changes in national policy and legislation in areas such as domestic violence and property rights.

As women in Africa have been utilising the human rights framework, they have also been redefining it and challenging traditional approaches to human rights. Firstly, the actors have been different. Traditionally, the actors have been states and then mainstream human rights NGOs (non-governmental organisations) who have tended to move on civil and political rights – but even in that context, very narrowly, ignoring ways in which gender specificity is a factor in civil and political rights abused or enjoyed. The first step has been to show how women can be actors and how in fact they are actors – that when they organise as women’s rights groups they are also human rights groups and should be recognised as such both by officials and by the traditional human rights organisations. The other challenge to traditional human rights has been in trying to develop new methodologies for investigating, documenting and reporting abuses of women’s human rights. Many of the instruments and methods used by organisations like Amnesty International and some of the other traditional groups don’t work when you are investigating gender-specific abuses, so the challenge has been to those organisations to develop new tools for investigating and monitoring abuses of women’s human rights. The challenge has also been on us – women’s human rights advocates – to develop those tools so that we can use them as well. The third challenge has been in developing new interpretations of what certain human rights principles mean in the context of women. This is a challenge for academics, feminists and practitioners in the field. What does it mean, for example, when we say "personal integrity" – does the concept have different meanings when used in reference to woman or a man? While we don’t have final answers in each of these areas, these challenges to traditional human rights thinking and practice are being taken on in Africa and some of the other regions.

Finally, I’d like to look at the ways that African women have participated in and shaped the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights and how this has it been useful to the region. The participation of African women dates back to before the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights was launched in preparation for the Vienna conference. The fact that in Africa, in the different countries, there was already an awakened movement of individual women and organisations working on legal rights in the domestic sphere meant there was a constituency ready to participate in the Global Campaign when it was launched. Secondly, there were women like myself and others who were involved in designing the campaign itself and working on the petition, which was the first activity in the Global Campaign, and in strategizing on how we are going to build on the petition and how we are going to use it, not only to collect the signatures, but also how we were going to use it as an organising tool in our own local situations.* Thirdly, at the height of the Global Campaign itself, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, there were indeed women from Africa whose input was very valuable and crucial because they were bringing a unique perspective. The issues were the same, but the way they looked at them and the kinds of solutions they were demanding from the international community had a lot to do with the circumstances in Africa.

The Global Campaign has been useful in many ways. One example already mentioned is the case of the petition, which we used for advocacy at the national as well as the international level. Many of the organizations that participated used it in education sessions at the community level, explaining what human rights were all about, what the main human rights instruments are and how they apply to local situations, and what demands women were making on the UN system. These sessions ended with the participants signing the petition if they agreed with its goals.

Secondly, other activities like the annual "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" campaign has been key to the Global Campaign and has also become a national tool for mobilizing around the issues of violence against women. Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania, and Uganda, for example, have all commemorated the "16 Days of Activism" since 1992. It is amazing to see how people have been able to adapt and develop other tools like training videos and education materials as part of the "16 Days" campaign.

Thirdly, the Global Campaign has strengthened networking not only within regions but also internationally. The relationship among the key players in the Global Campaign in the different regions has strengthened its advocacy and lobbying role. Advocacy, particularly at the international level, requires mutuality – the fact that you can support each others issues, you can listen to each other, and maybe come to a consensus way of articulating the demands. But it hasn’t stopped there. It has also strengthened the work at local level because when there are instances or threats of abuses of women’s human rights, it is possible to call upon the network in the different regions to gain support even through the issue may be very local and confined to the national level.

There are a number of important reasons why African women have been able to link with women in other regions. Perhaps it is obvious, but it is important to emphasise the act of physically being there. One of the things I made a priority as coordinator of WiLDAF was mobilising resources so that African women can be present at international and regional meetings so they can create personal linkages and articulate their own issues – that I think will remain very crucial. Another dimension has been, of course, using modern communication technologies – the fax, the telephone and email, for those who have them – to access information. One of the biggest problems for African NGOs is the lack of information about what is going on at the UN, what resources are available, and so on. So having some of these communications technologies has enabled, at least some of the key organisations, to access the information needed and to then disseminate it within Africa. All of the local, regional, global links I have mentioned are very important for the women’s movement. Furthermore it is a two-way process. Those working at the global level need the links at the regional and the local level so that there is an element of legitimacy to what they are talking about and what they are advocating for.

Florence Butegwa was a founder and co-ordinator of the network Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) and currently directs Associates for Change in Uganda.


*The world wide petition calling upon the UN to comprehensively address women’s human rights ran from 1991 until the fourth world conference on women (Beijing, 1995). By 1995 well over one million signatures had been gathered in 148 countries.

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