No Rights without Remedies: GENDER EQUALITY AND SECULARISM IN AFRICA

By Lichuma, Winfred | Conscience, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

No Rights without Remedies: GENDER EQUALITY AND SECULARISM IN AFRICA


Lichuma, Winfred, Conscience


GENDER EQUALITY IS A HUMAN right. It refers to equal rights and access to responsibilities and opportunities by men and women, boys and girls and among all people. It does not mean sameness. Instead, it demands that opportunities and services are available for all, taking care of their interests, needs and priorities and recognizing their diversity and intersectionality. Therefore, equality is understood to include both formal equality and substantive equality.

State obligations under international and regional treaties include duties to respect, protect and fulfill human rights upon ratification of the relevant treaties. These obligations require taking positive steps on legal, policy and administrative procedures. So, the era of human rights brings with it obligations, duties and responsibilities for the state. It presents restrictions and limitations on how the state deals with its citizens and provides remedies for violations through judicial or other mechanisms.

Secularism, meanwhile, is a concept that separates religion and the state. It is said to be the best way to guarantee the human rights of freedom of religion and belief. But the relationship among gender equality, religion and secularism is problematic.

Gender roles and their associated responsibilities oppress women and further perpetuate discrimination. It is inevitable that the social construction of particular roles for men and women will permit discriminatory biases that subordinate women to men or place women in inferior positions. The United Nations recognized in a 1998 report from the Secretary General that "every occurrence of a human rights violation has a gender dimension." You cannot talk about secularism without looking at the gender connotations.

The equality principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) continue to receive challenges relating to culture and religion, CEDAW is supposed to promote universal rights for all women, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Yet a review of CEDAW reveals that many Islamic nations have entered reservations on articles dealing with a range of human rights issues. Most notably, nations have lodged reservations with the requirement for the very promotion of gender equality. Islamic nations have also stated reservations with requirements for equality before the law and for elimination of discrimination against women in all matters of marriage and family relations, which includes the rights to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of children and to have access to the information, education and means to exercise such rights. The reason cited for these reservations was that they would interfere with a right to practice Sharia law.

Gender inequality in Africa is compounded by both religious beliefs and dogmas and the non-appreciation of women's rights. Some religious beliefs reinforce discrimination of women. Some African states still have constitutions or legal provisions that discriminate against women based on personal laws which favor men.

Makau wa Mutua, in his paper "Limitation of Religious Rights," says that religious freedom at the point of contract between Messianic faiths and African religion resulted in a phenomenon akin to cultural genocide. Fie further argues that in societies such as African ones in which religion is woven into virtually every aspect of life, legitimization of colonial religious beliefs can easily lead to the collapse of social norms and cultural identities.

Barriers in cultural and traditional practices that have prevented women from enjoying their human rights include such harmful cultural practices as early child marriages, female genital mutilation, gender-based violence and sexual abuses, denial of the right to education and limited leadership positions, among others. Customary laws are still recognized in most African countries' legal frameworks, and courts also take judicial notice of customary laws in dealing with matters of a social nature. …

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