"Empowering women is a moral imperative, a question of fundamental rights," Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro told an AU forum in Nairobi, Kenya, in a keynote address. "It is also sound policy. This is our chance to put principle into practice... Investing in women and girls is one of the greatest investments we can make.
"Gender equality and women"s empowerment are not add-ons " they are integral to development. Furthermore, they will have a multiplier effect on sustainable growth, and provide resilience to future challenges. Let us therefore work to empower Africa"s women and girls."
She recited a litany of discrimination faced by women, especially those in rural areas. They do most of the agricultural work, yet endure the worst working conditions, with low pay and little or no social protection. They produce most of the food, yet are often excluded from land tenure, credit and business services. They are the primary users and custodians of local natural resources, but seldom have a voice on the bodies that decide how these resources are managed.
"They are the care-givers and managers of households, but rarely share these responsibilities equally with men or have a say in major household decisions," Ms. Migiro declared. "We need to right these wrongs. We must ensure that rural women can access the legal, financial and technological tools they need to progress from subsistence agriculture to productive agriculture."
She called for better income-generating opportunities and education for women, noting that women make up over two thirds of the 800 million adults in Africa who cannot read and write.
"This is denying women the chance to work, to prosper, to assert their rights and take their place as equal participants in society," she said. "It also denies their countries an invaluable asset."
More than half of Africans infected of HIV/AIDS are women, up to three-quarters of those aged 15 to 24. "The statistics tell a shocking story," she added. "Young women are powerless in negotiating safer sex. Let us empower them. Healthy women and girls means healthy societies, healthy nations."
Turning to violence against women, she called it "a topic that pains me " that should pain us all" It is endemic in our societies. We must unite to end it. It comes in many forms: domestic violence; the abuse of vulnerable young girls; genital cutting; rape. Such crimes can never be rationalized as culture or tradition. Wherever they occur they should be condemned. They should be prosecuted. And most of all, they should be prevented."
African leaders must take their commitments seriously, Ms. Migiro underlined.
"We need national and local action to make women"s rights a reality, to end discriminatory traditional practices, and to end impunity for gender-based violence," she said. "Let us accept in our minds, and in our laws, that women are rightful and equal partners " to be protected, to be respected, and to be heard."