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Should women celebrate Africa Day?

- Wits University

Reports state that 78% of global conflicts take place in Africa and women bear the brunt of exploitation under conditions of fragility, war and conflict.

Former president Thabo Mbeki says African women cannot fully participate in celebrations to mark Africa Day due to the violence against women and children on the continent.

Mbeki was speaking at a debate, themed: The rights of women in peace and security in Africa, and examined whether women in Africa should celebrate Africa Day?  African countries annually celebrate Africa Day on 25 May to reflect on the continent’s progress and development.

Armed conflicts are a constant feature in certain parts of the continent and reports state that 78% of global conflicts take place in Africa. In times of conflict, women bear the brunt of exploitation under conditions of fragility, war and conflict, poverty and underdevelopment, and abusive cultural practices.

Mbeki said that although both the African Union (AU) and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity  have extensive policies, charters and programmes to address gender issues, the implementation of these policies and charters remains poor.

Governments and peacekeeping organisations need to pay careful attention to the value system that governs peacekeeping forces deployed to areas in distress.

“I think the major challenge that all of us as Africans need to answer is:  How do we build these forces to implement these policies, which are very good, which specifically address the matter of women in peace and security?

“How do we build these forces that will ensure the implementation of this so that women of Africa should not just celebrate Africa Day for the policies but should celebrate because of the outcomes of those policies.”

Mbeki was part of a four-member panel consisting of Judge Barnet Afako, Legal Advisor to the AU High Level Panel on Sudan; Dr Angelina Kithathu-Kiwekete, Wits School of Governance (WSG); and Emmanuelle Mukendi, a lawyer and activist from the Democractic Republic of the Conco (DRC) with an interest in military judiciary law and currently a PhD-candidate at the WSG. The discussion was facilitated by Dr Darlene Miller, Senior Lecturer at the WSG. View speaker profiles.

Mukendi said that there is a link between armed conflict and the status of women.

The eastern region of the DRC currently has over 70 conflicts raging and not so long ago, Kinshasa was named the rape capital of the world.

“In a state of such insecurity women live in extreme fear and the conditions make it difficult for them to engage in economic activities or any form of development,” Mukendi said.

Kithathu-Kiwete, who works to provide strategic linkages between vulnerable women in communities, policy and development processes, condemned the “business of peacekeeping” that are informed by selfish political and economic interests.

Reflecting on the efforts of women to bring peace to the continent, Kithathu-Kiwete said women across the continent are active in peacekeeping but their role is often marginalised.

Their power to mobilise and speak in one voice is underscored by the Women’s Peace Train that left Uganda on 16 August 2002 for Johannesburg, she said.

The train arrived in Johannesburg on 26 August 2002, carrying a peace torch from women of the Great Lakes Region, women of Africa, demanding a peaceful and healthy continent.

“The objective of the peace train was to pass a strong message against war and conflict,” Kithathu-Kiwete said.

She urged African leaders to redirect resources earmarked for military spending to be channelled towards infrastructure development and “upscaling the successes of the informal sector such as cross-border trading and artisan mining so that the African woman in the different spaces that she occupies shall not be seen as a victim but as a valuable stakeholder in society”.

The debate was hosted by the Wits School of Governance that houses the newly announced African Centre for Conflict Management, a partnership between the University and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

In his brief remarks to the audience, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib, said the theme of peace and security is of importance to the continent. 

The discussion reflects the recognition that the future of South Africa and that of Wits University is tied inextricably to the future of the African continent.  

Habib praised Mbeki for his role in bringing stability on the continent.

Under the leadership of Mbeki, conflict on the continent declined by two-thirds between 1992 and 2007 and “six of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa”, said Habib.

“This was effectively a product of a leadership and strategic engagement that rethought and restructured the institutional architecture of the African continent; (a leadership) that attracted investment onto the continent and brought down conflict and began to create and enable the revitalisation and the renaissance of this continent.”

Universities have a role to play in promoting peace and stability by leveraging their capacity and knowledge, Habib added.