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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

What progress have we made on realising the AU Protocol on the Rights of Women: A letter to the late

Opening Remarks by Irungu Houghton, Pan Africa Director, Oxfam Second Raising Her Voice Africa Projects Review, learning and planning meeting, July 12, Nairobi

I warmly welcome all the participants from Liberia, Nigeria, Gambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Equality Now, the pan African secretariat for the women’s rights coalition Solidarity for African Women’s Rights to Nairobi. Introducing ourselves I was struck by the introduction of founder members by new members. This reflects a moment of renewal within the community working on the campaign for the ratification and implementation of the African Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.

Two years ago, we met in Kigali, Rwanda and we spent three days trying to work through guidelines for baseline studies, funding mechanisms, partner contracts and delays in funding and expenditure. In 2011, we are in a different space. We are about to share practical experiences, breakthroughs, results and ideas for deepening and sustaining this work.

Allow me to step back a year to another SOAWR meeting that took place in Cairo in 2008. We concluded that meeting with this wisdom and declaration; “Human rights protocols, covenants and laws are powerless to change the lives of the majority of African women in the absence of an organised public demand for their implementation.” We committed to mobilise this organised public demand.

Three years on, the raising her voice programme is significant for both Oxfam and the other members of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights coalition. The programme is the single largest gender and governance programme. It spans 17 countries globally, 450 organisations and GBP1 million annually. It is the model framework for the Pan Africa Programme inspiring our work with other coalitions like the State of the Union coalition and Publish what you Pay.

For SOAWR, this programme demonstrates our capacity to go beyond securing ratifications to the implementation and realisation of the rights and freedoms contained in the Protocol. Our work is recognised at the highest level of organs of the Africa Union – the Pan African Parliament and the African Union Commission. Over the last year, we have directly influenced and accompanied the ratification of the protocol by the Governments of Uganda, Kenya and Equatorial Guinea.

This said, we have three new key challenges in 2011 and they are the consequence of our growing maturity as a movement.

Are we committed to providing information or facilitating transformation? Two years into the project, much of our work is still focused on awareness raising and publicity information. We are seeing this translate into reforming national laws and policies and even claims by women in line with the Protocol. We need to consider how to intentionally shift our focus to how and when women can fundamentally shift the context for their lives.

Are we able to clearly demonstrate our capacity to deliver on the ratifications and also the implementation of the Protocol? In just two years, the numbers of Governments that have ratified the Protocol have gone from 27 to 31. SOAWR has been directly involved in at least 3 out of the 4 of these cases. The pace of implementation is slower. Yet, we can point to new laws in Liberia and Mozambique, organised demands by women on their Governments and successful litigation in courts. Are we working with the public or with specific people, specific women and girls to empower them to change their own realities? July 13 marks one year since the passing away of Hannah Nasibwa. Members of the SOAWR coalition, ABANTU for Development and FEMNET met Hannah Nasibwa during the maternal health caravan as it travelled throughout East Africa before the AU Kampala Summit, 2010. On this occasion I wish to share a letter I have written in her memory. I hope it will inspire us to act with more urgency, power and resolve.

Dear Hannah,

Tomorrow marks one year since you died giving birth in Mbarara Hospital, Uganda on July 13th 2010. By the time you got to the hospital, you had lost a lot of blood the doctors say. They could have saved your life if the hospital had been closer. With your passing away, you joined the other 700 women and girls who die daily needlessly across Africa.

You died in the face of continental wide agreements, a range of policy standards and a slogan by our heads of states that “no women should die giving birth”. Yet we in civil society failed you also. We got to Mbarara too late. We were complicit in the absence of anger, sense of urgency and an organised public demand for the implementation of the Protocol. We have peace-keepers and rapid deployment forces but no brigades of nurses, midwives, doctors and lawyers. We must do more. Today I renew my resolve to bring the text of the Protocol into the reality of all our homes, workplaces, hospitals, law courts and communities.

No woman should die giving birth. No woman should die of neglect, full stop.

Remembering you on this day,


Before we reflect on sustaining and deepening the impact of our work, I invite all  of you to write and share with all of us your own letter to a living woman or man whose life embodies the need for the realisation of the rights and freedoms contained in the Protocol. Use that to measure the strategies we adopt this week are meaningful or not.

I thank you and look forward to working with you this week.


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