Women must be at the centre of Africa’s transformative free trade area

Kingsley Ighobor: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 April 2022:

As we celebrate Women’s Day this March, the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the UN Ambassador Mathu Joyini (Photo above) says Africa needs to be deliberate in creating opportunities for women.

Ambassador Mathu Joyini began her role as the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations in January 2021, becoming the first South African woman to hold the position. Representing the African States Group, she is the Chair of the Bureau for the 2022 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). She has championed causes related to Africa’s peace and security, human rights, women’s empowerment, among others. In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, Amb. Joyini discusses her work and career path. These are excerpts from the interview:

What has been your journey to this role? 

This place [United Nations] is a centre for global governance, and I think it provides an interesting space for any Permanent Representative to engage to promote their country’s interest, and to promote cooperation between their country and others.

My journey has been an interesting one. It started when I worked in social welfare. And I always go back there because it made me understand the needs of human beings at an individual level, at the community level, and so forth. Social work grounded me in understanding human needs around poverty, hunger, health—you deal with all these issues in that space. Now, when I look at the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], and what we’re trying to achieve, I pay my respects to the social workers out there.

Also, I spent a lot of time in the private sector, which helped me to understand how business and society intersect; how a business makes profits but to what extent are they making profits and at the same time helping build their communities and societies? Again, when you get here you realize there is a focus on economic development that is sustainable and responsible. You get to deal with issues around financing, sustainable financing, financing for development, and the need for the private sector to get involved in development.

Of course, there is my journey within the Department of International Relations and Cooperation [South Africa’s foreign ministry], over 20 years in different positions at different levels, where I learned more about our country’s foreign policy and international relations.

I always say that democratic South Africa has been good with its foreign policy—its focus and its consistency over the years.

What are your top achievements so far here at the UN?

I can give you some highlights. I will start with human rights. As you know, in 2021 we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which is a landmark anti-discrimination framework. South Africa was given the responsibility of preparing for that commemoration and facilitating the development of a political declaration. We were given that role together with Portugal, and I have to commend Amb. Francisco António Duarte Lopes of Portugal because we managed to put on the table a political declaration that was successfully adopted on the margins of the UN General Assembly High Level Week in September 2021.

Secondly, on peace and security, South Africa and the Peacebuilding Support Office of the United Nations hosted a webinar and initiated a dialogue on how to get the private sector to contribute to peacebuilding. I must tell you it was an interesting webinar. We looked at how we can make resources available for peacebuilding. We believe that the private sector that benefits from a stable and peaceful society needs to contribute to peacebuilding. And it happens that the private sector is ready to make such contributions. So, we hope to put in place a strategy for private sector engagement.

Thirdly, there are issues that we will always care about. These are not just 2022 issues, but issues that will always be South Africa’s priorities because of our history. One such priority is our solidarity with the people of Palestine and the people of Western Sahara. We also have the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which aligns with the SDGs, and now includes the post-COVID-19 recovery agenda.

Fourthly, we are known for gender equality and women’s empowerment. In 2022 and 2023 South Africa will be the Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW). We are chairing on behalf of the Africa Group, and we want to make sure that we drive the implementation of agreed conclusions.

Talking about gender equality, you are one of only a handful female Permanent Representatives to the UN in New York. Why do you think that is so?

Governments have the primary responsibility for promoting gender equality; they need to always be reminded to walk the talk. That is not always necessarily the case. When women take leadership positions in public spaces, they’re likely to promote other women. I can say that in my case. But again, I represent my President who is strongly supportive of gender equality.

Gender equality is a huge priority here at the UN headquarters. Is that the case in Africa? 

I think so. I know so. Many of the African Union’s instruments focus on gender equality, on women’s empowerment. In fact, the AU might be ahead of many other regional bodies in terms of thinking through issues related to gender equality. If you look at the number of AU protocols and instruments, you will find that gender equality is a priority for our leaders. But there’s a lot to do in terms of implementation.

This year’s CSW will likely be hybrid — in-person and virtual events. What should African women expect from it?

They should expect two baskets of outcomes. The first basket is the formal one, which is what CSW is there for. Every year, we look at how far we are implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and then come up with recommendations to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. This year it will be in the context of climate change.

So, the CSW looks at the lived experiences of women. You and I know that the effects of climate change affect women disproportionately. And so, in the agreed conclusions, Member States will make recommendations to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of climate change. So African women should expect that their needs and their challenges are being addressed through agreed conclusions.

We need to be aware that it’s not just how damaging the impact of climate change is to women, it’s also to what extent women are involved in mitigation and adaptation activities? Are they funded? Are they engaged?

The second basket is the CSW space, where civil society and the UN system, including the Member States, engage to address pertinent issues. It is fertile soil for learning from each other, for sharing experiences, and for creating knowledge.

So, our sisters and our mothers in Africa can expect to learn and exchange ideas; they will hear how Zimbabwean women, for example, are tackling their challenges, or what women in Pakistan and other parts of the world are doing.

How much impact will the virtual events have on the outcomes?

The women can learn not necessarily by coming here. The experience of the last CSW has shown that they learn very well on virtual platforms. In fact, most people will say that virtual platforms allow many women access. Those who cannot afford to get on the plane to New York can log on and exchange experiences with others. So, we will have to be sensitive in creating those platforms: how you design topics, the learning spaces, and the exchanges that happen.

What are your views regarding how women can take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is probably Africa’s biggest project currently? 

Absolutely, the AfCFTA is the biggest project. And it is a transformative one. Creating that market of 1.3 billion consumers, you can imagine what it will do for our manufacturing sector, for trading, for agriculture, and so forth. To the extent that the free trade agreement will transform the continent economically, women need to be part of it, if not at the center of it.

We often talk about the economic and financial inclusion of women. If you walk into any market right now in Africa, most informal traders would be women. We need to start thinking creatively about how to include them in a manner that advances their socioeconomic wellbeing. When we [South Africa] were chairing the AU, our President [Cyril Ramaphosa] really became the champion of women’s financial and economic inclusion. Take procurement, for example. If I have two suppliers with equal capabilities, and one of them is a woman, I’m going to give the opportunity to the woman supplier.

So, we need to be deliberate within the free trade area in building capacity and creating opportunities for women. We need to put in place policies and programmes that support women-led small, medium and large enterprises. (Photo: Mathu Joyini).

I must mention the SheTrades that was initiated by the International Trade Centre and is helping connect African women entrepreneurs to the markets. Such programmes are helpful.

Finally, what message would you like to send to Africans, particularly women?

We are in a continent whose future is bright. Studies show that future economic growth will be in Africa. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the top six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa. It is about how we organize ourselves to recover from the pandemic. And that is currently being coordinated so well by the continent.

If you look at the various initiatives that have been put in place by the continent to coordinate our recovery and our preparedness for future pandemics, you become hopeful.

We have all the frameworks, all the policies, all the opportunities. What we now require is to roll up our sleeves and do the work.

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