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AU summit: Women, wars, and money




Sunday July 11 2004 - Leaders stress that implementation of new African Union policies is vital to break from the lethargy of the past, writes S'thembiso Msomi


Botswana's President Festus Mogae amused African leaders this week when he recalled a female delegate saying a male-dominated meeting on the status of women in Tanzania 12 years ago had been like "a congress of cats to discuss the well-being

 Text Box: ..a male-dominated meeting on the status of women had been like "a congress of cats to discuss the well-being and upliftment of rats".and upliftment of rats".

Mogae's anecdote came as the discussion at this week's African Union   (AU) heads of state summit in Addis Ababa turned to women's empowerment.


Only one woman spoke at the meeting - and she was smuggled onto the speakers' list by Senegalese Presi dent Abdoulaye Wade to talk on behalf of youth organisations.

Yet the absence of a larger female presence did not stop the continent's leaders from denouncing the oppressive practices against women still prevalent in many parts of Africa.

The newly elected AU chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, spoke out against female geni tal mutilation, forced marriages and discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids.

He told of how, in one region of Nigeria, women suspected of killing their husbands were forced to drink the dirty water used to wash their spouse's corpse before burial.

"If the man died suspiciously, the wife is forced to bath with and then drink the same water used to wash the dead body.

"If she dies within 14 days of drinking the water, the belief is that she killed her husband.

"If she survives, she is then cleared of all suspicions. We must make sure that such practices come to an end," Obasanjo said.

Even Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose government stands accused of sponsoring a rapist youth militia, championed the rights of women on the day.

He told the summit how his mother had been prevented from learning English because, at the time, her community feared that women who spoke English "would run away from their homes to become nannies for whites, or prostitutes".

The continent's leaders unanimously endorsed an ambitious gender parity policy aimed at ensuring women eventually hold 50% of all positions of power in government, civil society and the private sector.

At the urging of South African Presi dent Thabo Mbeki, the AU member countries agreed to submit annual reports on each country's progress on gender parity.

This, Mbeki argued, would ensure that the 50:50 policy became a reality throughout the African continent.

A year ago, at a similar summit in Maputo, African leaders adopted the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa which was hailed at the time as a "progressive programme" for the emancipation of women.

So far, however, only 29 of the AU's 53 member states have signed the charter.

Mbeki hopes to avoid a similar situation in the 50:50 policy with the yearly reports from member countries.

Although he no longer holds an official position in the AU, Mbeki remains one of the key drivers of the body.

And he made it clear on the first day of the summit that he had come to Addis Ababa to change the AU culture of adopting resolutions that are never carried through.

For Mbeki, Obasanjo, outgoing AU chairman Joaquim Chissano and other leading AU figures, the Addis Ababa summit was about implementation.

The Durban and Maputo summits, in 2002 and 2003 respectively, laid the foundation for this by adopting the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and other policies to guide the AU.

Important organs such as the AU Commission, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation, and the Pan African Parliament are also now fully functional.

The leaders in Addis Ababa wanted the adoption of a clear programme of action to guide AU structures over the next three years.

Addressing journalists at the end of the three-day meeting, Mbeki described the summit as "very successful".

He pointed to the adoption of the 2004-07 strategic framework designed to guide the AU Commission, the adoption of the gender parity policy and the approval of the statutes governing the creation of the AU's Economic, Social and Cultural Council (Ecosocc) as some of the summit's milestones.

The strategic framework, among other things, details the major projects the AU will have to carry out over the next three years. It also contains a break-down of the body's proposed $1.8-billion budget.

Ecosocc, expected to come into being later this year, will be an advisory body made up of social movements and professional groups.

Its creation would afford civil society a recognised voice in AU discussions and processes, Mbeki said.

And there were other successes for Mbeki.

South Africa was unanimously chosen to host the continental parliament after Egypt withdrew from the race.

The country also took over the chairmanship of the Peace and Security Council, whose job will be to bring about peace and stability in military hotspots around the continent.

And Mbeki's brainchild, Nepad, was boosted at the summit when five additional countries signed up for the African peer review mechanism.

The five countries, Lesotho, Malawi, Angola, Tanzania and Sierra Leone, bring to 23 the number of African countries participating in a mechanism that allows their policies and practices to be scrutinised by their peers.

In all, only a few would accuse this week's summit of being yet another talk shop reminiscent of the Organisation of African Unity era.

Despite the fact that the heads of state did not discuss a damning report on human-rights violations in Zimbabwe, the fact that the report was adopted by the AU's Executive Council of Foreign Ministers can be seen as a major step forward.

In the days of the OAU, it is doubtful that the report would have made it to the council meeting at all.

But despite the AU's progress since its establishment, the body continues to be plagued by two major problems - wars and a shortage of money.

Much of this week's proceedings was delayed by side meetings on resolving the conflict in Sudan's Darfur and Ivory Coast, the tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The conflicts were also discussed extensively at the summit.

Conflicts are a major stumbling block to Africa's development.

"It is an established fact that in order to achieve socioeconomic integration, political stability and peace and security are necessary conditions," Obasanjo said.

But peace enforcement is expensive and, with the AU battling to raise enough funds for its own functioning, many believe the body is incapable of ending conflicts.

The summit this week refused to approve a budget of $600-million a year, or $1.8-billion over three years, to fund the AU's activities.

This includes a $200-million a year peace fund.

Mbeki said the budget would now be decided on at a meeting of foreign affairs ministers later this year.

But many believe the AU will not be able to approve the budget as member countries are unable to raise that much money.

Last year, when the AU's budget was about $43-million, member states contributed only around $13-million.

Some countries are too poor to raise the annual membership contributions, not to mention the additional "soli darity funds" that would be needed to support an expanded AU programme.

AU spokesman Desmond Orjiako says the AU is considering a number of ways to raise the required funds.

Among these is a suggestion that each member state allocate about 0.5% of its national budget to the AU.

"The appeal is for member countries not to see the money they give to AU as money given away but as part of their national budgets," Orjiako said.

Another proposal on the table, he said, is the introduction of an AU tax on all flights within the continent.

Mbeki said African countries wanted to rely on their own resources.

"With the detailed work done between now and November, I hope it will be possible to find a solution," he said.

Failure to find a solution to the funding problem would not only turn this week's summit into yet another meaningless conference, but would severely weaken a young organisation trying to make a break with the lethargic past of its predecessor. Sunday Times