Examining women’s Socio-Economic Rights in SADC through Protocols and Treaties

Many of these instruments and frameworks place emphasis on women’s economic advancement. This paper discusses the extent to which these protocols intersect across the 14 SADC countries, the Africa region and the internationally

March 26th, 2015

Women’s economic development, participation and positioning are key anchors of the targets set by the numerous global and regional protocols and agreements that have emerged over the past 20 years. Many of these instruments and frameworks place emphasis on women’s economic advancement. This paper discusses the extent to which these protocols intersect across the 14 SADC countries, the Africa region and the international arena and to what extent they advance women’s economic development. This is important since the treaties often duplicate state commitments, have gaps in their provisions and, in some cases, even push back the advances made in the agenda for improving women’s socioeconomic status in the region and on the continent.

The article discusses the economic situation of women in the SADC and provides an overview of existing frameworks and protocols that pertain to women’s economic advancement. It also scans the SADC countries and their ratification of gender enabling instruments, highlighting the strengths and gaps of these instruments and offering a feminist appraisal of these frameworks in the era of globalisation.

The author contends that gender-aligned agreements can potentially catalyse economic transformation and enhance or enable women’s access to economic and social resources such as land, technology and credit. However, with a lack of commitment to implementation and a poor analytical understanding of feminism as a standpoint for socioeconomic development, these agreements may fail.

Do frameworks matter?

For the past 40 years and, notably, since the Mexico Conference, 2 feminist activists, feminist economists and NGOs have continuously urged states and the UN to utilise international treaties and declarations on women to investigate and act on abuses of women’s human and economic rights. Several feminist groups have used these instruments to lobby national governments on the ratification and enforcement of appropriate legislation to protect women’s rights and economic positioning (Mekonen, 2010). Other groups have pressured the World Bank and similar institutions to provide financial resources for women’s development projects. In addition, sustainable development has been conceptualised and championed by feminist scholars and activists (Randriamaro, 2005). 

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund continue to suggest that the most effective mode of economic expansion and growth for the global South should be export (Randriamaro, 2005). Such a model necessitates a larger labour force which includes women as pillars of productive labour. Despite this, there is a large gender gap in employment patterns with a nearly 25 percent employment differential between women and men, according to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report (UN Online, 2013). A great deal of feminist analysis over the past 30 years has made the connection between women’s human rights, the socioeconomic status of women and the cost of committing state and international resources to women’s economic advancement. One might characterise this as the second wave of the women’s suffrage. 

It is important to note that most sources of development finance for women are contingent on national economic performance as well as global governance priorities. These include countries’ responses to pricing, income, GDP figures, employment patterns and other economic trends and shocks (Jain, 2011). However, many African countries have not incorporated women’s economic development into national policy while concurrently signing onto international and regional agreements on trade and women. As a result, while local trade expansion may enhance the employment of women and increase household incomes, this does not necessarily indicate compliance with protocols and instruments (Grown, Gupta & Kes, 2006). 

Protection for innovation, ideas and forms of new knowledge generated by women, for example, requires more stringent patent legislation. The emerging and existing gender protocols and international trade agreements may often work at cross purposes and are hampered by local governance and expenditure priorities. The financing of interventions for gender equality requires cognition of individual household contributions (through payment for services such as health care and education), government direct and sectoral allocations, domestically mobilised resources and external resources obtained primarily through development cooperation (Grown et al., 2006).

Sixty-four percent of Eastern Asian women participate in the economy through paid work which is the highest global percentage (UN Online, 2013). This is compared to only 18 percent of North African women and the global average of 48 percent (ibid). The North African statistics seem largely related to Arabic cultural and religious mores on women in public life. The figures for the rest of Africa stand at 59 percent, although 80 percent of those are in parallel, vulnerable or ‘informal’ economies (ibid). 

The last 20 years have seen some laudable progress on women’s status in the SADC region, notably in the realm of political participation. At least three countries have achieved the 30 percent threshold, far above global averages (Dube, Makamure, Robinson & Morna, 2014). Although these gains have not always been maintained, the sub-Saharan region has become accustomed to women’s appointments in path-breaking, high-level posts such as deputy president, prime minister, speaker of parliament, cabinet minister and former President Joyce Banda of Malawi. 

All the SADC countries have ratified the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and most have articulated on gender policies and gender reform. Whether this has resulted in shifting discourses on women’s economic status and participation is a subject of on-going debate. This paper argues that women’s economic advancement is not facilitated primarily by the various protocols and agreements but by the state’s capacity to weave them into measureable, national development priorities that shift structural inhibitors to women’s participation in the economy. The paper further contends that this requires a strong and clear feminist frame of reference. Despite an increased understanding of the connection between gender equity, economic indicators and various commitments that the SADC states have signed, most still consider the question of women to be superfluous to economic planning, state budgets, business practise or related development arenas (Dube et al., 2014).

The Economic Situation of Women in SADC 

The region has witnessed attempts to enhance women’s financial position using a variety of interventions including women’s banks, development funds, credit unions and entrepreneurship programmes (Dube et al., 2014). In addition, several trade policies have been amended to facilitate women’s credit access and many countries are attempting the difficult task of improving women’s land access. To date, six countries have brought their national gender action plans into line with the SADC Gender Protocol. These are the DRC, Lesotho, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland and Zambia. The Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework in the region has arisen from the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development Part Five, Articles 15 to 19, which deals with Productive Resources and Employment, the SADC Protocol on Trade and the anticipated formation of the SADC Free Trade Area (Dube et al., 2014).

However, despite women’s increased presence in decision-making processes, they continue to work both in the formal and parallel economies. (The parallel economy is often described as informal. The term is contested due to its blanket use and often inaccurate characterisation of women’s consistent and structured contribution to the economy albeit regulated.) Across Southern Africa, most women’s economic activity takes place in microenterprise and parallel sectors such as agriculture, cross-border trade and as market traders. Structural constraints such as a lack of collateral, limited access to an independent asset base (beyond the reach of marital, family or community control) and violence against women continue to influence the economic landscape. This is despite evidence that shows that women are more reliable in paying back loans, have better networking and marketing skills and a greater ability to recapitalise their businesses (Williams, 2007).

There is very limited legislation to support such economic activity and, instead, state machinery such as border control and police often victimise, bribe and violate women without. These and other sectors contribute to a dynamic and challenging collation of networks, industry data, market trends, innovations, market access, product diversification and business skills for the women in these sectors. These ought to form part of a repository of knowledge to be recorded and drawn on. It should be mentioned that not all economic activity conducted by women is micro- or small-scale and even within that ambit there are variances in volume and reach. For example, some women from the SADC fly to Dubai, China and Thailand to procure goods for resale (Dube et al., 2014). 

Some of the impediments to women’s economic participation are inadequate financial and economic literacy that often prevent greater and more qualitative participation in the mainstream or formal economy (Dube et al., 2014). Even where statistics on economic development are available, these are limited because most national economic indicators are not gender disaggregated. Accordingly, it is imperative not only to assist women to gain greater confidence in engaging with economic and financial data but also to capacitate policymakers to do the same using a feminist analysis or gendered lens. Most trade protocols and policies are gender blind and very few consciously reference women’s development.

That said, many women are highly conversant with their rights and some cross-border traders have organised themselves and developed an understanding of trade and economic policy such as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) while also challenging tax and border authorities on illegal confiscations and exorbitant taxes and fines (Dube et al., 2014). 

Across the region, families and communities benefit from women’s investment into education, health and housing which amounts to as much as 90 percent of their income in some cases (Jain, 2007). The system of national accounts, GDP and other indicators of a country’s economic performance largely ignore this. The popular response of microcredit, income-generating loans and small loans has not necessarily removed women from intergenerational cycles of poverty (Williams, 2007).

A Gendered/Feminist Analysis of Selected World Trade Organisation Agreements 

Global frameworks such as those under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have had significant impacts on economic justice for women in the region and on the continent. All the SADC countries are full members and signatories of these WTO agreements. One of the objectives of the WTO is to align development objectives and market-driven imperatives (Williams, 2007). Four key instruments have emerged in the past 20 years as objects of concern and much feminist analysis, namely, the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (Trips), Trade Related Investment Measures (Trims) and the General Agreement on Trade in Goods and Services (GAT) (ibid). These also significantly affect women in the global South.

 Regarding women’s economic rights, the new trade rules are neither beneficial to women nor ‘gender-neutral’. Gender inequality still persists, especially in rural areas where women’s work, both in the productive and social reproductive spheres, is inadequately recognised and is also not appropriately remunerated. Women comprise nearly 70 percent of the economically active population in the agricultural sector and are recognised as the key providers of food and income for their families and communities (Parekh & Wilcox, 2014). The WTO regime does not sufficiently recognise that women are the most economically marginalised despite representing 70 percent of the poorest global population with disproportionately low levels of ownership, control and access to productive resources, an asset base and markets (ibid).

Loss of livelihoods, decreased farm incomes and a withdrawal of government support for production and social services as a result of trade liberalisation have had a disproportionate impact on women and rural household food security. Despite government commitments in the Beijing Platform for Action and the prevailing economic and trade policies, the investment and finance architecture and multilateral or bilateral prescripts by trade and financial superpowers tend to nullify or restrict government efforts to provide a conducive economic environment (Williams, 2007; Unifem, 2004).

In the SADC countries, there are a number of barriers, gaps and also opportunities for implementing some of the instruments and frameworks. For instance, each SADC country’s gender rights obligations under international law and regional protocols should be located within economic policy and embedded in national processes. There is very limited domestication of international instruments at national levels and this is a missed opportunity by SADC countries. Where countries have put in place national machineries for women’s economic empowerment, these have not been supported by legislation and in turn budgetary commitments that allow them to deliver on the promises that subsequently remain on paper. 

The ambit of national women’s machineries should therefore be specified and supported by legislation, including the power to conduct gender audits and enable gender budgets. The state fiscus should ideally have adequate and gender-specific allocations. Additionally, corresponding instruments need to be reinforced and/or established in order to bolster women’s economic rights under the law. These include trade unions, parliament, the legal system, the private sector and ombuds offices or their equivalent (such as the Public Protector in South Africa). Further investment in understanding international and domestic needs and the implications of compliance and ratification at the national level is critical. This includes capacity building for lawyers, parliamentarians, legal drafters, state and non-state actors. It also requires greater conscientisation of the public through more deliberate and inclusive processes.

A Feminist Appraisal of Women’s Rights in Globalisation Era

Various protocols to enable women’s optimal participation in all spheres of life, including the economy, are often posited as a shield against the effects of globalisation and the new market-led paradigm. These protocols have been drafted within the global context in which neo-liberal priorities are increasingly accepted as normative. The role of the state is facing redefinition and disturbing push back by capital, which typically suggests that the state is corrupt and inefficient. 

Although the African nation state had a problematic construction of the women’s question at independence – and largely obfuscated that question under ‘more important’ national priorities – the last 40 years have seen a new form of assault on countries’ economic sovereignty. Accordingly, the deleterious impact of globalisation on women has increased concurrently with the intensification of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) and now the role of multinational capital and exogenous financial governance such as the WTO architecture and EPAs. 

Nonetheless, there remains an imperative for feminists to continue to lobby at the national, regional and international level to influence the processes that govern and enable the progress of women in the economy. This is despite what Winter (2002) says on women’s rights and the nation-state:

The State appears, in fact, as simultaneously feminists’ greatest enemy and greatest ally. It is an enemy in that, as a masculinist structure, it codifies and formalises male domination through its constitutional, legislative and judiciary systems. Moreover, the idea of ‘national sovereignty’ is mobilised to deflect international criticism of individual States’ treatment of women. 

Global capital continues to recreate itself and weaves its way into the development discourse, including the MDGs. Even while purporting a progressive global imagination, these are premised on the market-led model of capital movement which is a fundamental cause of women’s economic impoverishment. It is an extremely complex domain, particularly because of the profound dearth of radical feminist organising and analysing activities. This complexity is compounded by the many streams within the feminist movement, the conservatism that has occupied significant spaces including UN bodies and the polarisation between the various streams. 

The result is that undertakings such as the Beijing Platform of Action are arguably a de-radicalised locus of concessions far removed from popular aspirations. Many feminist and women’s rights NGOs have become more anchored in engaging with the processes of organisations such as the World Bank, WTO or UN. This often occurs in isolation from grass-roots, working-class, mass-based movements. 

Winter (2002) further contends: 

It would thus be counterproductive for feminists to abandon international lobbying strategies within such fora as the UN, however imperfect and limited human rights treaties may be and however many contradictions working within such structures may present. 


The UN MDGs Agenda is concluding and with it the extremely checkered progress towards developing greater global equilibrium. The UN system, member states and civil society organisations have already begun to discuss imperatives for a Post-2015 Development Agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals). In addition to this important juncture, the Beijing Plus 20 and WTO Plus 20 are key advocacy moments within which to frame the contradictions of the past 20 years (Mekonen, 2010).

Activism surrounding the Post-2015 Development Agenda is opportune for women’s rights and economic justice groupings, think tanks and NGOs to tangibly shape a development framework that can potentially change the economic prospects for socially excluded communities including women. From this perspective, various feminist and women’s groups have attempted to analyse the conflation between economic empowerment, women’s rights and locate it within a broader social justice frame. These linkages are more readily accepted although tremendous pressure is required for governments to shift their praxis. 

During this discussion, a feminist ethos for gender equality and economic justice has been mentioned but not explicated as part of a broader rights framework. This necessitates an important framing of economic rights, human rights, the construction of the state, women’s agency and their relationship with the state. Human wellbeing and dignity are fundamental to all other articulations of rights. These protocols attempt to frame them around economic justice while understanding that economic sovereignty is a critical marker of self-determination both at state and individual level. For women, economic autonomy is a particular iteration of productivity whether in the market place or in order to subsidise social reproduction. 

Most regional and international protocols and treaties that espouse women’s rights do not have an embedded economic discourse. For this reason, complementary state interventions and economic instruments are required such as banking regulations, employment legislation, private sector policy, reserve bank regulation and training and education systems. In addition, many of the instruments have not discussed environmental and ecological sustainability as a component of economic wellbeing. This is all the more salient given that women are custodians of the indigenous knowledge economy. Ultimately, these protocols and instruments need to further economic common good and correct economic imbalances in order to foster women’s economic position and improve both their starting point and their outcomes.

The author makes the following Recommendations for a way forward:

Every African country should foster a cross-sectoral strategy for engendering their development and economic policy.

Research needs to be conducted on enabling women’s market entry that encompasses a gendered analysis of women’s location in the economy and the ones most likely to be impacted by shifting economic trends. 

Trade negotiators should be mandated to consciously promote and insist on gender-aligned frameworks across sectors.

Protective measures must be put in place to negate the adverse impacts of socioeconomic policies on women.

Current conventions and protocols on women’s economic gender situation need to be costed and accompanied by specific and measureable targets and results. 

Structural factors that perpetuate crisis, inequality, insecurity and human rights violations should be addressed.

Robust mechanisms for accountability within countries and at the international level must be created.


Liepollo Lebohang Pheko s a feminist and political economist. She is an activist scholar, lecturer, writer and public intellectual and has written dozens of academic and conference papers on the political economy, international relations, trade, feminist economics, migration, citizenship and governance as well as contributing to several books on these topics. Currently a Senior Research Fellow at the think tank Trade Collective, Pheko grounds her work in a class, race and feminist analysis and connects her research with grass-roots struggles locally and internationally.


The 14 SADC countries are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The first global conference on women was convened in Mexico in 1975 by the UN. It is one of the most pivotal moments and contradictions of the global feminist movement in the last fifty years.


Dube S, Makamure L, Robinson V & Morna C (2014) SADC Gender Protocol 2014 Barometer. Genderlinks. From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.

Grown C, Gupta GR & Kes A (2006) Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women. Earthscan: London, UK.

Jain D (2011) Sexual Division of Labor: What transformative policies. Paper presented at the ECLAC Conference, 26 October, Santiago, Chile. From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.

Mekonen Y (2010) A 2015 Agenda for Africa: Development from a human perspective. IDS Bulletin, 41(1). 

Parekh S & Wilcox S (2014) Feminist Perspectives on Globalisation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition). Zalta E (ed.). From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.

Randriamaro Z (2005) Linking the Beijing Platform for Action, the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs in a Changing Context: Resources, Rights and Accountability. UN Division for the Advancement of Women Department of Economic and Social Affairs. From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.

UN Online (2013) MGD Report. From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.

Williams M (2007) ‘Why Feminist Economists Should Pay Attention to Coherence Between the World Bank and the WTO.’ In Kuiper E & Baker D (eds.) Feminist Economic Perspectives on the World Bank. London: Routledge. 

Winter B (2002) Women’s Rights, Globalisation and the Nation-State: Are Human Rights and Democracy Enough? Keynote address. Townsville International Women’s Conference, 3 to 7 July, James Cook University, Queensland, Australia. From: . Accessed: 1 September 2014.


  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099