During a recent meeting in Ethiopia with lawyers and advocates working for women’s rights in East Africa, my colleagues and I were inspired to see how countries have made strides in advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality on a policy level. This progress, the fruit of productive collaboration between government and civil society, illustrates how legislation can create an environment where women can socially and economically advance.
Consider for example, Uganda, which this year passed a first-ever piece of legislation to combat domestic violence. According to the Honorable Miria Matembe, a former member of Uganda’s parliament, the new law has the potential to transform people’s perceptions of domestic violence as a “private matter” into a “criminal matter of great public concern.” In Ethiopia, where high rates of child marriage persist, a revised family code now establishes requirements for marriage, including a minimum marrying age of 18. While enforcing these laws remains a major challenge, getting them on the books is an important first step in protecting and fulfilling women’s rights.
And by endorsing such legislation, African countries also are inching closer to creating more equality between women and men as well as meeting international standards set in the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Women’s Rights Protocol in Africa.
Despite bold policy efforts, legislation alone cannot create sustainable change. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment requires education, increased economic opportunities and social norm change. All of these things take time. And patience. Still, we were extremely encouraged about the efforts that committed women and men at all levels of society are taking to promote progress. With the right investments in the education, health and economic status of women in this region, there is no limit to what they can do.