UNITED NATIONS -- African women have made significant progress including higher female participation in many legislatures than in Britain and the United States -- but women on the continent also face “daunting” challenges in high rates of sexual violence, maternal mortality and HIV infections, said a report released Tuesday.
Across the continent, the report said, constitutions, laws and policies enshrine the principle of equality and non-discrimination and economic, social and cultural rights for women.
However, gaps in legislation and policies as well as a lack of implementation and enforcement reinforce discrimination against women, it said.
For example, the report said Burundi, Guinea, Congo, Kenya, Mali, Sudan and Tanzania “all have family and personal codes that discriminate against women in issues of marriage” and only five countries in Africa have an absolute prohibition on marriage for girls under age 18.
Released ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, the report by the U.N. human rights office, UN Women and the African Union special investigator on women’s rights makes a series of recommendations to promote gender equality.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned in a message Tuesday that “in too many countries, we are now seeing a backlash against women’s rights, a backlash that hurts us all.”
He pointed to recent rollbacks on legislation in many parts of the world aimed at “controlling and limiting women’s decisions over their bodies and lives,” fueled by a view that a woman’s role should be limited to reproduction and the family.
In Burundi, Zeid said, “a law on violence against women is progressive in many ways as it criminalizes marital rape and prohibits harmful practices. However, the law also pins the blame on a woman who suffers gender-based violence for her “indecent dress” or “immoral behavior.”
On the plus side, the report on “Women’s Rights in Africa” said that “women are more economically active in Africa particularly as farmers, workers and entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the world.”
“They perform the majority of agricultural activities, and in some countries make up some 70 percent of employees,” it said.
In legislatures, women have a higher rate of participation, with Rwanda ranked No. 1 in the world at 63.8 percent, and Senegal and South Africa in the top 10, the report said.
“Fifteen African countries rank ahead of France and the United Kingdom, 24 rank ahead of the United States and 42 rank ahead of Japan,” it said.
On the minus said, the report said more than one in three women in Africa have experienced either physical or sexual violence, or both, from an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lifetime.
“On the continent, in six countries there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence,” it said, citing Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Lesotho, Mali and Niger.
In 2013, the report said African women and girls accounted for 62 percent, or 179,000, of all global deaths from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. But it also cited newer World Health Organization statistics, which say 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced maternal death rates to just under 550 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015 from about 999 deaths in 1990.
While African countries have made “significant progress” in combatting new HIV infections, the report said, the continent is still dealing with high numbers of women who are living with HIV, the report said. “Statistics indicate that women have remained at a much higher risk of HIV infection than men, the highest rates of new infections are among young women,” it said.