In 2003, African Union (AU) Member States adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Maputo Protocol”) in order to safeguard and advance women’s and girls’ rights across Africa.
Since then, 42 of the 55 African countries have ratified the Protocol, 10 are yet to ratify, while three have neither signed nor ratified it. Others have ratified the Protocol but entered reservations that continue to jeopardize the overall goal and intent of the Treaty’s applicability thereby derailing efforts designed to shield women and girls from further abuse.
The impact of COVID-19 on women’s rights across Africa
Although African governments had made notable progress in enhancing women’s and girls’ rights, COVID-19 has deepened the pre-existing gender inequalities and exposed them to a series of human rights violations. An upsurge in sexual violence, domestic violence, child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been recorded in various countries across Africa while other African governments have failed to cushion women from the socio-economic shocks that emerge as a result of such crises, for example:
- In Cameroon, the government imposed lockdowns and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This made it difficult for women, who constitute nearly 80 percent of informal sector workers, to fend for themselves and support their families.
- In Kenya, there been increasing reports of sexual and gender-based violence with cases of FGM and child marriage also reported. The Kenyan government needs to ensure that there is a timely and responsive support system for survivors of domestic violence particularly at the police stations which seems to be the weakest and is usually the first point of call.
- In Liberia, a series of attacks on women in their homes or as they ventured out for food during the lockdown were recorded. The women were attacked by young men patrolling the streets during the lockdown which started on April 11, 2020. The country has also noted an increase in maternal mortality with some health workers afraid of contracting the disease declining to attend to women in labor because they lack the requisite protective gear.
- In Nigeria, there has been a surge in defilement and abuse of minors, domestic violence, and abuse of the rights of widows since a partial lockdown was imposed.
- In South Africa, from the first week of COVID-19 lockdown, there has been a spike in gender-based violence with many women and girls trapped at home with their abusers.
- In Uganda, numerous cases of police brutality have been reported. Access to maternal care has also been curtailed by the travel restrictions imposed by the government and several pregnant women are reported to have lost their lives.
- In Zimbabwe, three women rights defenders were arrested following a peaceful protest demonstrating the government of Zimbabwe’s failure to address hunger facing vulnerable communities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They were held incommunicado for 36 hours during which time they underwent torture, rape, and physical assault. They were eventually released on bail, but the violence against them has yet to be properly investigated, they still need proper medical attention for their injuries, and they still face charges.
These violations are pushing back on the gains made by the continent in the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights.
States must take action to protect the rights of women and girls across Africa
We continue to call on the AU Member States to honor their commitments and obligations under the Maputo Protocol by ensuring that appropriate and effective measures including access to safe spaces and shelters, psychological support, routine health services, financial support, and food security are put in place to protect women and girls during the COVID-19 period.
We further reiterate our calls to Botswana, Egypt, and Morocco to sign and ratify the Maputo Protocol and also call upon Burundi, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan to ratify the Maputo Protocol.