In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations began celebrating 8 March as International Women’s Day. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.
Why dedicate a day exclusively to the celebration of the world’s women? In adopting its resolution on the observance of Women’s Day, the General Assembly cited two reasons: to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. For the women of the world, the Day’s symbolism has a wider meaning: It is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for meaningful change. International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men.
Few causes promoted by the United Nations have generated more intense and widespread support than the campaign to promote and protect the equal rights of women. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the Organization has helped create a historic legacy of internationally agreed strategies, standards, programmes and goals to advance the status of women worldwide.
The United Nations identifies a global theme every year, and this year, the UN theme is “EQUAL ACCESS TO EDUCATION, TRAINING AND SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY: PATHWAY TO DECENT WORK FOR WOMEN”.
The Constitution of The republic of the Gambia 1997, guarantees the right to equal educational opportunities and facilities for all persons. To that effect, it provides that basic education shall be free, compulsory and available to all. It also provides that secondary education shall be generally accessible to all and higher education accessible to all based on capacity, with a view to progressively realise free education for all at all levels.
In addition Section 26 of the Women’s Act 2010 specifically guarantees to women the right to basic education and training for self development. Subsection (2) in particular imposes specific obligation on Government in pursuance of the right guaranteed in subsection (1) as follows;
“(2) Pursuant to subsection (1), the Government shall take all appropriate measures to-
(a) eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and guarantee equal opportunity and access in the sphere of education and training;
(b) eliminate all stereotypes in textbooks, syllabuses and the media, that perpetuate such discrimination;
(c) protect women, especially the girl-child from all forms of abuse, including sexual harassment in schools and other educational institutions and provide for sanctions against the perpetrators of such practices;
(d) provide access to counselling and rehabilitation services to women who suffer abuses and sexual harassment;
(e) integrate gender sensitisation and human rights education at all levels of education curricula, including teacher training;
(f) promote literacy among women;
(g) promote education and training for women at all levels and in all disciplines, particularly in the fields of science and technology; and
(h) promote the enrolment and retention of girl-children in schools and other training institutions and the organisation of programmes for women who leave school prematurely.
It would seem that there is indeed an adequate legal framework in The Gambia to address the concerns raised in the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. The Women’s Act as highlighted earlier imposes an obligation on government to promote education and training for women at all levels and in all discipline, particularly in the field of science and technology. These laws recognise the fact that education and training are essential preconditions and key to emancipation of women. With the relevant skills and know how, including scientific skills, women will be better prepared to face the challenges of the modern world, and thus contribute to nation building on an equal footing with men. The world today is confronted with multi faceted and complex crisis, ranging from economic, environment, security and national disasters, and men and women should be adequately prepared and trained to meet the challenges posed by such crisis. Government must however note that the educational obligations in the relevant sections of the Women’s Act are legally enforceable, and that compliance is mandatory.
In a dramatic and ground-breaking decision, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja has declared that all Nigerians are entitled to education as a legal and human right.
The Court ruled that the right to education can be enforced before the Court and it dismissed all objections brought by the Federal Government (FG), through the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), that education is “a mere directive policy of the government and not a legal entitlement of the citizens.”
The ECOWAS Court’s decision, made public on 19 November 2009, followed a suit instituted by the Registered Trustees of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) against the Federal Government and UBEC, alleging the violation of the right to quality education, the right to dignity, the right of peoples to their wealth and natural resources and to economic and social development guaranteed by Articles 1, 2, 17, 21 and 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples ‘ Rights. This was the first time an international court had recognised citizens’ legal right to education, and sends a clear message to ECOWAS member states, that the denial of this human right to millions of African citizens will not be tolerated.
Here in The Gambia, the realities on the ground are a far cry from the aspirations of the Constitution and the Women’s Act. Even though the Constitution provides that basic education is compulsory, it is obvious that this provision is not being enforced in The Gambia. Even though the education statistics indicates an increase in enrolment ratio, there are still pockets of communities, in both the urban and rural areas, where children, especially the girl-children, are denied access to any form of education. The retention of girls at the upper basic, senior secondary and tertiary levels still remains a challenge due to a number of factors including early and forced marriages, teenage pregnancy, poverty, and preference for continued education of boys at the higher level. The theme for this year’s celebration should therefore pose a challenge for us to go beyond the rhetoric of the law and ensure actual implementation of the obligations enshrined in the Constitution and other relevant laws. Laws cannot serve any useful purpose unless they are effectively implemented.
International Women’s day is indeed both a day to celebrate and a day to draw attention to the challenges that remain before gender equality is truly attained.