FEMNET launches book on FOI and women’s rights

The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), a pan-African network working to promote women’s human rights in Africa launched, on 24/10/2010, a book on the freedom of information (FOI) and women’s rights in Africa at the third and final day of the African Union (AU) pre-summit on gender in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The chairperson of FEMENT Mama Koite Doumbia thanked all the guests for the time they took to join the Network in launching such an important book. Her thanks went as well to UNESCO that funded the book project. The director of the department of women, gender and development of the AU commission, Litha Musyimi-Ogana, said the book is a good resource of information and encouraged women to use it.

The director of UNESCO, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Luc Rukingama, reminded participants at the ceremony the words of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that ‘education is the road to development’. He reiterated UNESCO’s commitments to working with women in their campaigns to have access to information and education.

The special Rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa, Commissioner Soyata Maiga, was the chief guest of the event and officially launched the book by encouraging women’s civil society organisations and progressive governments on the continent to make freedom of information part of the discourse in consolidation of democracy and promotion of socio-economic justice.

The book comprises case studies from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Zambia and attempts to show how the lack of legislation on FOI has impeded women’s right to demand transparency and good governance.  Written in a clear and simple language, the book identifies ways women can benefit by demanding greater access to information from the government as well as the public sector.

Out of all the five countries studied, only South Africa has enacted the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in 2000. The act is part of more than 800 pieces of legislation since the fall of apartheid, mainly calculated to address inequities, imbalances and social injustices that had previously existed. In the countries profiled, the right to FOI was seen more like a domain for the media to demand and not the general population. In this case, women have not lobbied hard to have the FOI laws enacted.

While identifying the slow legislative mechanisms in most countries, the book identifies ways women can compel their governments to act. One legislative hiccup that may have hindered the speedy enactment is the constitutional provision on freedom of expression. In this regard, most countries define FOI as part of the wider constitutional guarantees, yet the countries may retain other repressive pieces of legislation.

For instance, in Kenya, the FOI bill is still pending in parliament; the government claims freedom of expression is well provided in the constitution, yet it maintains the archaic ‘Official Secrets Act’, which gives government institutions the discretion to decline information requests.

The book is an important resource for organisations that want to deepen their knowledge in advocacy and the nexus between women’s rights, FOI and development.