When one of Africa’s biggest music superstar, Kofi Olumide was recently caught on camera angrily kicking one of his female dancers at the Nairobi airport, many African women were shocked but not surprised. Violence against women in both public and private settings is common place in Africa. It is an open sore of a continent and little is being done to stamp this out by African governments. The international community doesn’t seem to be too bordered about this as well. The question must be raised as to why this shameful pattern is continuing in this continent and how to break this vicious cycle.
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women of 1993, defined violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’
In a 2005 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) observed that domestic violence is a global problem affecting millions of women. However, African women are the worst affected by violence. For example about 51 percent of African women have been victims of violence, 11 percent suffer violence during pregnancy, 21 percent marry before the age of fifteen and 24 percent experience female genital mutilation (FGM).
The WHO noted that FGM could lead to “bleeding and infection, urinary incontinence, difficulties with childbirth and even death.” The organization estimates that 130 million girls have undergone the procedure globally and 2 million are at risk each year, despite international agreements banning the practice
African Recovery reports that violence against women in Africa goes beyond domestic violence. It includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, wife-beating, and sexual harassment, intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, trafficking and forced prostitution. These practices cause trauma, injuries, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and even death to many African women.
Many people have wondered why Africa has not made significant progress in protecting women against violence despite the clear commitment made in 1995 by 53 African nations with the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of African Women. Beyond the lack of political will, and the unequal power-relationship between men and women in a predominantly patriarchal Africa, there are other underlying causes of this problem.
First are cultural traditions. African rural communities are often held back by cultural practices which tolerate and legitimize violence against women like wife-beating. Wife-beating is still accepted in many African countries, only 21 African countries have laws which prevent such practices. One of the compliments I often heard people giving to my father who was the clan head and a monarch was that he never beat up my mother. In cultures where women are considered inferior to men women’s rights are considered privileges from their husbands, wife beating is tolerated as a necessary evil to whip an errant wife in line with her husband’s wishes and orders.
Sexual violence is another aspect of the abuse of women’s rights in Africa which is often justified through different cultural alibis. When women activists protested against the insistence in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa that young girls must undergo and pass virginal tests as qualification for educational scholarship, many people in the area claimed that this was an attack on their cultural tradition.
The same argument for tradition is what has sustained the ‘hyena’ practice in some rural communities in Malawi where young girls are forced against their will to have sex with the village hyena—an older man whose role is to ‘open the door’ of sexuality to these teenagers.
Sexual violence extends to rape which unfortunately is common in many African societies. Late last year it was reported that young girls were given to soldiers in South Sudan as ‘sexual favors’ which was another name for forced sex or rape. Most rape cases are never reported, investigated or tried in court except perhaps when it involves high profile men like South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma or UN peace keepers in Congo and Central African Republic. In many cases of rape, women are often blamed for ‘seducing’ the men or ‘exposing’ themselves to attack by their looks or their way of dressing.
Second, are religious traditions which are the greatest obstacles to realizing the goal of the 1995 AU protocol. As a priest, I have been to many ‘healing sessions’ in African churches. I have seen with horror how women are hounded, chained like animals, and severely bitten in the macabre ritual of casting out demons from them.
Women are mostly the ones accused of witchcraft, sorcery, or blamed for casting spells on people. In many cases, widows are subjected to all forms of painful purity rituals after the death of their husbands. In a few cases, these widows are ostracized if they were suspected of killing their husbands. This happens if these widows were found by an oracle of having been ritually married in their previous lives to a water god who may have killed their late husbands out of anger or jealousy.
Many African traditional, Christian and Islamic religious groups demonize African women and frame the female body in Africa as a source of evil. Indeed, many African women’s rights activists believe that the female body in Africa is often treated as either a disability or a play thing.
African women are also exposed to violence because of poverty. Poverty and diseases have a preferential option for African women and children. In a continent ravaged by refugee crisis, wars and conflicts and the dislocation of whole populations, women in Africa continue to be vulnerable and susceptible to violence, exploitation, forced labor, and sexual abuse.
Unfortunately this plight of African women is below the radar globally. African nations are failing the women population. These violent practices are entrenched and resistant to change and pressure from African women activists and a few African women in positions of leadership.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon had declared on the international day for the elimination of violence against women that violence against women and girls has no place in any society. It is an impunity for which perpetrators must no longer be tolerated. The same sentiment was echoed by the Kenyan Youth and Gender Minister Sicily Kariuki in reaction to Olumide’s now infamous kick when she said; “His conduct was an insult to Kenyans and our constitution. Violence against women and girls cannot be accepted in any shape, form or manner.”
Time has come for African nations to implement the UN conventions on prevention of violence against women by identifying and ending all religious and cultural customs and practices that perpetuate violence against women. African nations must educate African men to respect the dignity and rights of African women. Women at all levels in Africa should be educated on their rights. I have personally been part of programs in three African countries where educating and empowering women led to changes on the part of their men. This is because beyond creating safe heavens for women and legal protections, the greatest weapon in the hand of African women for combating violence from men is economic power which is the gateway to other rights.