East Africa / Horn of Africa - civil society: women / gender

A workshop conducted by one of the Heinrich Böll Foundation project partners "Save Somali Women and Children" (SSWC).

September 23, 2008
The situation of women in East Africa / Horn of Africa is characterised by a great deal of diversity, both between and within the various countries of the region. But women in the region all have in common a subordinate position in society and the family. This is sanctioned by both tradition and religion, and includes discrimination based on traditional rites (for example, genital mutilation).

Control over economic resources, and often access to them as well, are in the hands of men. Women’s legal opportunities are restricted by discriminatory laws and judgements (property law, inheritance law), traditional structures of conflict regulation, and also by lack of knowledge and societal constraints with regard to their use of existing legal and political instruments. Compared with men, women are disadvantaged in the areas of health care, education and labour; due to their position in society and in the family, they have fewer opportunities to participate in political decision-making processes.

Slowly but surely, civil-society actors in the region are enhancing their profile. With their self-understanding as beneficiaries of external aid and actors in emergency relief, civil-society organisations are beginning to position themselves on civil and human rights issues, and are actively influencing developments in the region. But the civil-society discussion on women’s and gender issues is still in its infancy. The same is true of the structures that carry these discussion processes – they do not network adequately among themselves or with state structures.

The goal of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s "Program to Promote Civil Society in East Africa and the Horn of Africa" is to foster the peace and democratisation process in the region. The focus is on strengthening civil society, which will pay a crucial role in the future political development of the region. The component "Promotion of Women" aims to strengthen women’s rights as well as improve their opportunities to take advantage of these rights in society and state institutions. This also involves implementation and inclusion into national law of international agreements on women’s rights.

Highlights of the women’s component of the program are the gender forums in Kenya, Somaliland, southern Somalia (Mogadishu) and Ethiopia, initiated by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and implemented by national NGOs. These include monthly lectures and discussions on issues of women’s rights and gender theory. In additional to national and regional women’s associations and experts, participants include representatives of relevant specialist areas of the international donor community. The results of the discussions are made accessible to the public. The positive effects of the gender forums on the work of women’s organisations lie in both increased networking and in strategic action with regard to the common goal of equal rights for both genders.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s project partners in the women’s promotion component are:

  • organisations that are committed to women’s rights ("Save Somali Women and Children" – SSWC),
  • provide legal counselling and assistance ("Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association" – EWLA),
  • and fight against violence against women ("Coalition on Violence against Women" – COVAW).

Various women’s networks and NGO umbrella associations are also provided with support, e.g., FEMNET in Kenya, PANOS in Ethiopia and NAGAAD in Somaliland. NAGAAD is active in environmental issues and regularly implements gender forums with the goal of improving the social, economic and political situation of women in Somaliland.

Active participation by civil-society actors on the political level is a decisive element in the democratisation process in the countries of East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Women play a central role in this process, so that the establishment of a gender-just social order represents a necessary precondition for peace and development in the region. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is contributing to that development by supporting women’s organisations and their networking, as well as spurring on discussion of gender issues.