Women’s rights in the developing world: Build it and it will come?

Mozambique is a land of contradictions.  

Women were active in the independence struggle.  Strong female civic leaders, like Graça Machel, participate actively in public life.  And the government unequivocally supports international norms on women’s equality, such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals. Even the UN Website in Mozambique proudly asserts “there is a juridical, political and institutional structure in Mozambique favourable to the promotion of gender issues and the empowerment of women.” 

Yet Mozambique remains a very difficult place for girls and women.  Female literacy rates, their education attainment and poverty levels, and their health outcomes are appalling.  Sexual and physical abuse is widespread.  It has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage.  Sexual assault in school is common, from boys as well as some teachers who demand sex as a condition for grade promotion.

Clearly the rights of women and girls are not respected, protected, or even properly understood.  

Recent actions by Mozambique’s Parliament underscore this point.  A revised Penal Code, clearly violating the fundamental rights of women and girls, passed through one reading in Parliament last December with no signs of dissent.  Most shocking: the Speaker and 39% of the Parliamentarians are women.

Article 223 of the proposed code is entitled “Effects of Marriage.”  It states that a rapist will not be prosecuted if he marries the girl or woman victim, provided he stays married to her for five years.  Other problematic elements include its failure to recognize marital rape, non-conformity to the international definition of a child as under 18 years, failure to acknowledge discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and incomplete definitions of sexual harassment.  

The offending article will hopefully not be in the final version of the Penal Code.  Civil society groups organized a protest.  Donors forcefully objected.  Parliamentarians visiting from Canada expressed their dismay. In response to this bad publicity, the chair of the Parliamentary Committee claimed it was a misunderstanding – the problematic elements of the Code had already been removed months ago.  Parliament just neglected to publicize these changes.  His response strains credulity, but shows that pressure works. 

Yet an important question remains: how could Parliament have even considered this Article?  Was it an oversight, where Parliamentarians missed it in a complex and lengthy piece of legislation?  Or a reflection of Mozambique’s culture that outsiders cannot understand?  Or an indictment of national and international efforts to promote gender equality? 

Retaining Article 223 was no mistake.  Mozambique’s Penal Code remains a relic from Portugal, the colonial power.  The colonial Code included Article 223, but it was not implemented.  Civil servants revised the code and sent it to Parliament in 2008.  Activists assured me that the civil servants’ version did not include Article 223.  Between 2008 and 2013, Parliament undertook discussions with community and religious leaders.  Only then did Article 223 reappear. 

But why add this clause?  Some Parliamentarians argued that Mozambique’s culture warrants Article 223.  Mozambique remains a patriarchal society where polygamy is common and girls and women are seen as the property of their family or husbands.  Rape victims – particularly girls - are frequently ostracized.  For cultural apologists, allowing the rapist to marry his victims provides them with some social and economic protection. 

What of Mozambique’s rhetorical commitment to gender equality?  Is this a signal of national indifference to gender equality?  Or does civil society’s opposition to the bill show the strength of this commitment?

Fighting patriarchy is grueling.  Mozambique’s civil society groups deserve much credit for leading the fight against Article 223. Activists have shoestring budgets and are roundly criticized for their efforts.  Their work is lonely and difficult, their battle is definitely uphill, and the outcome is not certain.  

But what of international efforts to promote women’s rights, and support this work?  In New York and Geneva, country representatives debate progressive norms that promote the equality of men and women, recognize the constraints to women’s empowerment, and acknowledge the ordeals of the girl child and adolescent girls. 

Yet in countries like Mozambique, the international community focuses on indicators: increasing the numbers of girls in school; pregnant women receiving medical care; breastfeeding mothers receiving anti-retrovirals; and the number of women in parliament.  In the era of the Paris Principles and the MDGS, funding is targeted to meet indicators, and resources are channeled through governments – even patriarchal ones.

This process builds a ‘gender equality skeleton.’ An institutional structure is created (e.g. women in Parliament), and targeted interventions work towards achieving outcomes of a more equal society (e.g. by meeting indicators on educating girls and maternal health).  The approach to gender equality is - build it, and it will come.

Yet this conveniently avoids confronting patriarchal structures and difficult conversations about gendered behaviours and roles.  In some Islamic countries where insurgent groups use the fight against women’s rights as a mobilizing tool, this approach may have strategic short-term benefits.  It also ensures accountability for development programs. 

But in Mozambique and many other countries around the world, cultural norms and traditional roles devalue and denigrate women and girls, and undermine and restrict their social status, livelihood opportunities, behaviours and freedoms.

Too often we avoid directly challenging these cultural norms for fear of being insensitive to local circumstances and disrespectful of national traditions.  But cultural norms are not sacred cows.  Particularly if they hurt women and girls.  Nor is culture homogenous or rigid – it can change.

So to truly promote gender equality, the international community must do more than preach the gospel in New York while quietly establishing checklists of technical indicators.  We must loudly and unequivocally promote the equality of men and women and the rights of girls and boys.  National groups should receive the financial support necessary to lead this advocacy and to facilitate debate on the implications of those rights.

Women’s rights have never been realized without a fight.  That fight may not be pleasant.  It will be uncomfortable.  And it cannot be encapsulated in a graph plotting progress on indicators.  But as Article 223 shows, without changing mindsets, we could so easily regress.  And that is something the women of Mozambique and other developing countries cannot afford.