- At least 60 organisations and individuals convening for Southern African Development Community (SADC) in South Africa would push for adoption of a draft protocol on Gender and Development.
A week long Summit due next week which is coinciding with South Africa's women's month, is expected to put women on top of the agenda, with SA President Thabo Mbeki playing a leading role to showcase SA's progressive stance on gender equality.
Gender activists around the region are also said to be busy making final moves to lobby for what could be successful culmination of a campaign launched in 2005 to see a legally binding Protocol on Gender and Development approved by Southern African leaders.
Although SADC has made strides to address women's rights concerns ranging from gender policies to gender sensitive legislation, SADC member's states are far from realising equality between women and men at many levels, gender activists have said.
Women's organisations said new forms of abuse are emerging with surge in human trafficking apart from the longstanding brutalities of domestic violence and widespread sexual assaults, saying women remain the poorest of the poor, as hunger and food insecurity hit women and children the hardest, while the number of women in leadership positions at all levels remains unreasonably low.
Although there are a number of regional and national commitments to addressing gender issues, policies and laws on paper are not enough, there is need to shift toward delivery to make them work for women.
Once adopted, Gender Protocol would make it necessary for all forms of regional cooperation to take gender on board in all processes supporting development, democracy and human rights in the region.
Moreover, the Protocol would require states to not only report on progress periodically, but also places issues at the centre of regional cooperation agenda.
The anxious wait by activists is understandable. Not only is the Protocol an important step for equality in the region, but it also represents tremendous efforts of people of the region. At least seven drafts have been negotiated at senior technical and political levels by SADC governments, text removed and reincorporated, and issues agreed and disagreed upon.
Region is a step closer towards adoption after recent review of the draft by SADC Ministers of Justice in Lusaka, end of June 2008. Yet, perhaps uppermost in most gender activists' minds is whether, after its deferment last year at the Lusaka SADC Summit.
In order to minimise possibility of another deferment, women's organisations have been elevating their game, implementing pro-active political strategies at national and regional levels. One of the more visible lobby coalitions, the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, has been leading this process.
The Alliance, made up of more than 16 organisations and individual activists, developed a roadmap in January 2008 towards SADC Summit that mirrors official regional body's roadmap. Alliance members focused their energies in different spheres of influence, including at ministerial level in different countries and participated in key technical meetings either individually or as part of government delegations.
Their goal is to ensure that minimum agreed standards they have set are not compromised. This has resulted in varying degrees of success in maintaining key issues and text in successive drafts; some fundamental ones such as marital rape, protecting the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups, the rights of women to control their fertility, and the rights of cohabiting couples still hang in the balance.
At this stage of the game, the critical issue is that the draft presented to the Council of Ministers, and subsequently to the Heads of State or Government, retains the fundamental provisions without which the Protocol would lose meaning for women of the region.
Summit host, South Africa, have a relatively good record of addressing issues that matter to women, and, is in fact a regional leader in ensuring women's representation in decision making. It thus has direct influence in the outcome of this gender equality agenda during the SADC Summit. Will it deliver? A question has been left hanging, with gender activists saying adoption of Gender Protocol at Summit this month would surely represent this region's finest hour.
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