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To empower African women, turn words into action

By Belinda Otas, Special to CNN
  • March 8 marks 100 years of International Women's Day
  • Otas: In Africa, urgent work needed to address gender inequality
  • Resolutions need to be translated into action, she says
  • African women must be empowered to become active political participants, says Otas

Editor's note: Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist, writer and blogger with a special focus on Africa. She contributes to The New African and New African Woman magazines, where she writes extensively on women's issues, most recently the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

(CNN) -- Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, a milestone centenary worthy of the celebrations bestowed upon it. Michelle Bachelet, the first executive director of U.N. Women and former Chilean president, has described the last century as one of progress and of "women using their collective voice to organize for change."

There is nothing wrong with celebrating women's achievements and contributions to society. A lot has happened since 1911, from the recognition of women's right to vote to more political participation and the election of female leaders like Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and most recently, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.

Women are mobilizing alongside their male counterparts for greater political freedom like we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia. Women are robustly active in the workforce and serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

However, on the African continent, urgent work is needed to address the ills of gender inequality, marginalization and social injustice currently endured by women in places like the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence against women is rife and rape has become a weapon of war. In addition, a rise in child trafficking has led to an increase in prostitution, domestic abuse, the continued practice of female genital mutilation and forced and early marriage of girls.

After 100 years and landmark resolutions, surely we should be closer to achieving the results of these various mandates.
--Belinda Otas

At the end of the civil war in Liberia, it is estimated that as many as 60% to 90% of the nation's women and girls had been raped. In Rwanda, an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 women suffered the same fate during the genocide of 1994. On that occasion, the world made the promise of "never again" -- the very same words used at the end of the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.

But as the days go by, the harder it is to uphold that promise, best demonstrated in the DRC, which a top U.N. official called the "rape capital of the world" last year.

In 1975, the first U.N. World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City, where three core objectives were identified: Full gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination; the integration and full participation of women in development; and an increased contribution by women towards strengthening world peace.

Since then, a slew of resolutions aimed at empowering women have been adopted. In 2000, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which calls for better protection of women and girls in conflict zones, and in 2008, it adopted Resolution 1820, which for the first time recognized rape as a weapon of war. In July 2010, U.N. Women, an organization that Bachelet calls "an ambitious international commitment to accelerate the realization of women's rights and gender equality," was created.

While these protocols exist, it cannot be claimed that Africa is closer to gender equality in the same proportion as its western counterparts. After 100 years and landmark resolutions, surely we should be closer to achieving the results of these various mandates.

In a recent interview with Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, a nonprofit that helps women in war-torn regions, I asked her if the U.N. had become complacent where the use of rape and violence against women is concerned.

She said there was a high level of tolerance because while the U.N. has laws, resolutions and guidelines about women's issues, it doesn't really "get the whole issue about the provision of security for women and children. There needs to be a complete protection plan. It's doable if there is political will."

That political will is absent at national levels on the African continent. No one denies that some progress is being made. The sentencing of Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware to 20 years in jail last month for the mass rape of women in the village of Fizi in the DRC is an overdue step in the right direction.

However, it is time African governments and the U.N. take radical action that ensures that resolutions gathering dust on the shelves are translated into action -- a process that would involve educating and investing in women and serving them through the creation and expansion of social, legal and health structures and services.

There must be economic empowerment by means of viable opportunities that give women financial freedom and ensure perpetrators of rape and violence against women are brought to justice.

More important, African women must be brought in from the cold and empowered to become active political participants from the grassroots to national government levels, where key peace negotiations and decisions that affect them are made.

This is an area where Rwanda currently leads the rest of the world, with its 56.3% of female parliamentarians. Until this happens, President Johnson-Sirleaf writes in the winter edition of the New African Woman magazine, "the job of full equality and total empowerment is incomplete."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Belinda Otas.

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