The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa: An Instrument for Advancing Reproductive and Sexual Rights


Download PDF

This briefing paper offers concrete suggestions for women’s health and rights advocates within and beyond Africa. It provides detailed information that can help African women use the protocol to exercise their reproductive rights, and suggests ways that governments can implement the protocol’s landmark provisions. The paper can also be useful to advocates outside Africa who are seeking to establish similar guarantees.

On November 25, 2005, the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa1 (the protocol) entered into force, after being ratified by 15 African governments.Two years earlier, in July of 2003, the African Union—the regional body that is charged with promoting unity and solidarity among its 53 member nations—adopted this landmark treaty to supplement the regional human rights charter, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter). The protocol provides broad protection for women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.

The significance and potential of the protocol go well beyond Africa. The treaty affirms reproductive choice and autonomy as a key human right and contains a number of global firsts. For example, it represents the first time that an international human rights instrument has explicitly articulated a woman’s right to abortion when pregnancy results from sexual assault, rape, or incest; when continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the pregnant woman; and in cases of grave fetal defects that are incompatible with life. Another first is the protocol’s call for the prohibition of harmful practices such as female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FC/FGM), which have ravaged the lives of countless young women in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst indicators of women’s health—particularly of reproductive health—of any world region. These indicators include the highest number of HIV-positive women and the highest infant, maternal, and HIV-related death rates worldwide. The ability of a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body and her reproductive life are key to improving these indicators. The protocol can help advocates pressure governments to address the underlying social, political, and health-care issues that contribute to the dismal state of women’s health throughout the continent.

Download PDF