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(Johannesburg) - Southern African leaders should adopt the proposed Gender and Development Protocol at their upcoming summit after amending it to include crucial provisions deleted in 2007, Human Rights Watch said today. One of the most important provisions that should be put back in to the protocol would commit states to criminalize marital rape.

Heads of state and government from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are to meet in Johannesburg on August 16-17, 2008 to launch the SADC Free Trade Area and discuss regional issues including political developments in the region, particularly the crisis in Zimbabwe, and will consider adopting the draft Gender and Development Protocol.

“Developments in the region, including the crisis in Zimbabwe and food insecurity, can have devastating effects on the lives of women,” said Nada Ali, Africa researcher in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Governments serious about development, democracy and the fight against HIV in southern Africa should adopt and implement the gender protocol with the necessary amendments.”

The draft Gender and Development Protocol is the result of a process that started in 2005, with the audit of SADC’s Declaration on Gender and Development and its addendum on Preventing and Eradicating Gender-Based Violence. If adopted, it would oblige member states to amend their laws to ensure equal rights for women across a wide range of issues, including constitutional and legal reform, governance, education, productive resources, gender-based violence, health, HIV/AIDS, peace-building and conflict resolution. But the current draft does not refer explicitly to sexual violence in the home, and that is likely to harm efforts to combat the devastating effects of AIDS in a region with the highest HIV prevalence worldwide.

“Domestic violence, including marital rape, puts women at increased risk of HIV infection and seriously undermines their ability to get effective treatment,” said Ali. “Southern African heads of state should commit to preventing and punishing domestic violence and to gender equality if they are serious about curbing the spread of HIV.”

Since 2005, women’s rights organizations in Southern Africa have urged the SADC to turn its Declaration on Gender and Development into a legally binding protocol. The draft protocol should have been adopted in Zambia at the 2007 SADC heads of state and government summit, but was deferred for “further consultation at national level.” The draft protocol has been reviewed by the region’s gender and justice ministers, and will be considered by the SADC Council of Ministers before presentation for adoption at the summit.

The draft protocol contains concrete, time-bound commitments aimed at protecting women’s rights and ensuring equality between women and men. It requires member states to: enshrine gender equality and equity in their constitutions; review, amend and repeal laws that discriminate on the ground of sex or gender; reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent; develop gender-sensitive strategies to prevent new HIV infections and ensure universal access to HIV and AIDS treatment; ensure gender parity in political representation; adopt policies and enact laws that would ensure equal access to economic resources by women and men; enact and enforce legislation prohibiting all forms of gender-based violence; and review and reform criminal laws applicable to cases of sexual offenses and gender-based violence by 2015.

The protocol requires state parties to report on the progress achieved in implementing its measures every two years.

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