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NEPAD and AU Last update: 2020-11-27  

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NEPAD Reluctance to Address Gender Issues

2. Gender Issues Which NEPAD Needs to Address
Before we begin our analysis of how NEPAD treats gender issues, we should first consider the necessary importance of these issues to the overall programme. This importance arises first and foremost in NEPAD’s own declared central interest in issues of good governance, democracy and human rights, which are seen as the preconditions for development. Gender issues are also important, although perhaps secondarily, in the area of economic development. For the sake of brevity, we shall here confine ourselves mainly to the first area, of gender issues in democracy, good governance and human rights.

For good governance, it is axiomatic that all citizens should have equal rights in law and before the law. All publicly available opportunities and resources must be equally available to all, without discrimination. As far as women’s rights are concerned, this means that there must be no discrimination against women. Specifically, this means women should not be subjected to different treatment on the basis of sex. And yet, contrary to such principles of democracy and good governance, women throughout the continent of Africa live in extremely patriarchal societies, where men control the decision making process in the government and in the home. Male domination of the decision making process serves to ensure that women get most of the work, and men collect most of the rewards arising from this work.

The huge gender gaps in literacy, education, wealth and access to power are the result of discriminatory practices. These practices do not exist only at the social and traditional level. To different degrees, in all African countries, these discriminatory practices are entrenched in law, in the administration of the law, and in the general regulations governing government and corporate bureaucratic practice. It is governments who are the principle perpetrators of discrimination against women, and the enforcers of their continued oppression.

In my own country of Zambia, an article in the Constitution purports to protect women from discrimination in any law or public provision2, and yet one of the qualifying clauses in this same article exludes women from this protection in the areas of personal law, marriage law and customary law. These, of course, are precisely the areas of law where women are most discriminated against, and the areas which, by extension, legitimise discrimination in other areas. In other words the article which purports to protect women from discrimination in effect does the opposite, and legalises it.

This example illustrates a pattern which is common all over Africa, where statutory law apparently gives equality of status, but where customary law (or the local version of Sharia law) maintains and enforces women’s subordination. Typically the overall pattern is that women are treated as legal minors, cannot inherit property, and cannot own land. Rather than own property, they are part of the property which is owned by men, often in polygamous marriage. Under some interpretations of Sharia law, as with the recent sentencing to death of a woman in Northern Nigeria, the legal system may enforce ownership and control by a dead husband.

This brief overview of the situation of women’s oppression in Africa is presented here to remind the reader of the enormous gender issues which the African Union has to face up to if it is to claim any serious interest in democracy and human rights. Since the African Union’s activities will be mostly concerned with the co-ordination and harmonisation of national policies, it is the developmental programme of the Union – NEPAD – which provides the vehicle for political and socio-economic development, and therefore for action on women’s rights.


  1. See Article 23 of the 1991 Constitution of the Republic of Zambia, where Clause 4 effectively removes most of the protection against gender discrimination which was apparently provided in Clauses 1 and 2.
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