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Taking on violence against women in Africa

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Taking on violence against women in Africa

International norms, local activism start to alter laws, attitudes
From Africa Renewal: 
Associated Press / Khalil Senosi
Kenyan women demonstrate against rape in Darfur, Sudan Kenyan women demonstrate against rape in Darfur, Sudan: Violence against women is becoming an increasingly public issue across Africa.
Photograph: Associated Press / Khalil Senosi

The incident was not unusual in Africa. In December 1998 a Kenyan police officer, Felix Nthiwa Munayo, got home late and demanded meat for his dinner. There was none in the house. Enraged, he beat his wife, Betty Kavata. Paralyzed and brain-damaged, Ms. Kavata died five months later, on her 28th birthday.

But unlike many such cases, Ms. Kavata’s death did not pass in silence. The Kenyan media covered the story extensively. Images of the fatally injured woman and news of her death generated nationwide debate on domestic violence. There followed five years of protests, demonstrations and lobbying by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as by outraged men and parliamentarians. Finally, the government passed a family protection bill criminalizing wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence affects millions of women in Africa. In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the WHO found that 50 per cent of women in Tanzania and 71 per cent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands or other intimate partners.

In South Africa, reports Amnesty International, about one woman is killed by her husband or boyfriend every six hours. In Zimbabwe, six out of 10 murder cases tried in the Harare High Court in 1998 were related to domestic violence. In Kenya, the attorney general’s office reported in 2003 that domestic violence accounted for 47 per cent of all homicides.

‘No boundaries’

Domestic violence is a global problem. In Europe, estimates the WHO, violence in the home is the primary cause of injury and death for women aged 16–44, more lethal than road accidents or cancer. Indeed, “violence against women,” said then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999, “knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. It is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation.” And, he added, it is “perhaps the most pervasive.”

Violence against women goes beyond beatings. It includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, sexual harassment, intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, trafficking and forced prostitution.

Such practices cause trauma, injuries and death. Female genital cutting, for example, is a common cultural practice in parts of Africa. Yet it can cause “bleeding and infection, urinary incontinence, difficulties with childbirth and even death,” reports the WHO. 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.

Sexual violence is another problem. A local organization in Zaria, Nigeria, found that 16 per cent of patients with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were girls under the age of five, a sign of sexual assault. In the single year 1990, the Genito-Urinary Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, treated more than 900 girls under 12 for STDs. Such assaults, observes a WHO publication, put “African women and girls at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases [including HIV/AIDS] than men and boys.”

Rooted in culture

Abusers of women tend to view violence as the only way to solve family conflicts, according to a 1999 study on violence against women by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health near Baltimore, US. Perpetrators typically have a history of violent behaviour, grew up in violent homes and often abuse alcohol and drugs.

The story of Janet Akinyi in Kenya is a case in point. In 2006 she filed for divorce and custody of her children after her husband attempted to kill her with a knife. She had endured violent beatings throughout her 10 years of marriage. “We used to be okay until he started drinking,” Ms. Akinyi told Africa Renewal. “Then he would get furious at anything and start beating me. He would say it is the only way to teach me to respect him.”

A girl who was raped in Somalia A girl who was raped in Somalia.
Photograph: Panos / Liba Taylor

However, violence against women, the Johns Hopkins study points out, goes beyond the brutalization of women by individuals. The prevalence of the phenomenon, “cuts across social and economic situations, and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world — so much so that millions of women consider it a way of life.”

In a report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2000, the agency noted that in interviews in Africa and Asia, “the right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife” came out as “a deeply held conviction.” Even societies where women appear to enjoy better status “condone or at least tolerate a certain amount of violence against women.”

Such cultural norms put women in subservient positions in relation to their husbands and other males. That inferior status makes women “undervalued, disrespected and prone to violence by their male counterparts,” observed a 2003 report by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former UN special rapporteur on violence against women, agreed, noting that discriminatory norms, combined with economic and social inequalities, “serve to keep women subservient and perpetuate violence by men against them.”

Focusing specifically on Africa, Ms. Heidi Hudson found in a 2006 study by the South African Institute of Security Studies that “the subservient status of women, particularly rural women, in many African countries is deeply rooted in tradition.”

Women as property

This is true to such an extent, Ms. Hudson added, that women can be perceived as objects or property, a view reflected especially clearly in practices such as wife inheritance and dowry payments.

The impact of both practices was illustrated by a 2003 study on domestic violence in Uganda by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). The study found that families justified forcing widows to be inherited by other males in the family with arguments that the family had “all contributed to the bride price” and that therefore the woman was “family property.” Once inherited, a widow lost her husband’s property, which went to the new husband. And if a woman sought separation or divorce, the dowry had to be reimbursed. Often, the study found, “a woman’s family is unable or unwilling” to refund the dowry, and her brothers may beat her to force her back to her husband or in-laws “because they don’t want to give back cows.”

Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, was an early critic of such cultural practices. He noted in 1984 that denying women the right to inherit and own property leaves them economically vulnerable and dependent. That creates a situation in which “women in Africa toil all their lives on land that they do not own, to produce what they do not control, and at the end of the marriage through divorce or death, they can be sent away empty-handed.”

Since Mr. Nyerere’s time, Africa’s economic decline has left many women in even worse conditions. Their plight is so severe, noted a study by the WHO and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), that many women see no option but to remain with husbands who routinely batter them. The women stay because men “serve as vital opportunities for financial and social security, or for satisfying material aspirations.” Moreover, as such women are often both poor and uneducated, “the combination of dependence and subordination can make it very difficult . . . to demand safer sex or to end relationships that carry the threat of HIV/AIDS infection.”

A police station in Mombasa, Kenya A police station in Mombasa, Kenya, with a special unit for crimes against children and women: Activists are urging the police and courts to take such crimes more seriously.
Photograph: Panos / Sven Torfinn

The WHO found that women with at least a secondary education were more able to negotiate greater autonomy and control of resources within marriage, have a wider range of choices in partners and are more able to choose whether and when to marry. Such capacities have often been associated with lower levels of violence in the home.

Women’s activism

Women are not just victims. They have been working actively for change. In Senegal, after the 1996 rape of a nine-year-old by a community and political leader, the NGO Association pour la promotion de la femme sénégalaise (APROFES) initiated protests, leafleting campaigns and local theatre performances to publicize the case. That thwarted efforts by the man and his supporters to force the girl’s family to withdraw charges.

APROFES also provided legal counsel at the subsequent trial. The court proceeding, attended by thousands, yielded a 10-year prison sentence for the perpetrator, the first conviction for such a crime in Senegal.

Women have also been active internationally to gain better mechanisms to protect women. This has included successfully pushing for adoption of international treaties and instruments, such as the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (see box). That convention commits governments to change discriminatory practices and laws, including those that permit early marriage, bar women from inheriting property or relegate them to a secondary status.

The convention entered into force in 1981, and as a result the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was officially established. In 1992, the committee affirmed that violence against women was a “violation of their internationally recognized human rights” and “a form of discrimination” that “nullified their right to freedom, security and life.”

The committee asked governments to identify and end customs and practices that perpetuate violence against women. It urged them to conduct public education, create safe havens, institute counseling and rehabilitation programmes for victims, sensitize law-enforcement officials and draft relevant laws to protect women against all kinds of violence.

Unfortunately, UNIFEM found in 2003, few countries have met those obligations. Many countries, reported the agency, do not collect information on violence against women, so there is little data available to assess whether measures are having any impact. Worse, few countries have enacted laws to prevent abuse. As of that year, only 17 sub-Saharan countries had specific laws against domestic violence. Ten did not have any laws on rape or sexual assault and 30 had no laws prohibiting female genital mutilation.

As of 2007, out of 179 countries that are party to the convention, only 89 have laws specifically outlawing domestic violence. Ninety governments have laws against sexual harassment. In Africa, only South Africa has enacted all relevant laws to punish violence against women.

Slow change in laws

At a 2007 forum in New York of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, Kenyan Member of Parliament Njoki Ndugu illustrated the challenges women face when trying to get male-dominated parliaments to pass laws in women’s interests. “The motion to amend the sexual violence act had been introduced several times since independence and failed,” Ms. Ndugu said. “Each time, it was seen by the male members of parliament as giving too much power to women.” Some male parliamentarians, she added, “argued that stricter anti-sexual-violence laws would lead to men being falsely accused of raping women.”

The sexual violence bill in Kenya passed only after certain sections, such as one that would have outlawed marital rape, were removed. In Uganda, similar laws have languished for more than a decade. Participants from Tanzania and Zimbabwe said they had faced similar resistance.

There have been some exceptions. In Rwanda, UNIFEM worked with the government to create a law requiring all parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates in parliamentary elections. Today, 49 per cent of Rwanda’s legislators are women, the highest rate in the world. The legislature has passed several progressive laws, including one that gives female children the right to inherit their parents’ land and property, a right that was traditionally reserved for males.

This advance was especially important for female survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Without the new law, they would have been beholden to male relatives and vulnerable to abuse. But they can now take control of their family resources and provide for themselves.

In South Africa, men and women legislators together helped pass the Domestic Violence Act in 1998, at a time when the country had the lowest number of female ministers and parliamentarians since the end of apartheid in 1994. Legislation introducing minimum sentences for rape and tightening bail requirements for those accused of rape was enacted in 1997, and guidelines for the handling of sexual offences were passed the following year.


Putting new laws on the books is not enough. Law enforcement and court mechanisms also have to be made friendly and accessible to women, says Ms. Mary Wandia, the Africa women’s rights coordinator for the non-governmental Action Aid International. “The police force is often uninterested in domestic violence,” she observes. “Unless a woman can show physical evidence of the violence she has suffered, police and law-enforcement authorities are often unwilling to believe and assist her.”

Moreover, Ms. Wandia adds, “many communities are complicit in excusing or condoning violence against women, and in so doing, tacitly approve of the abuse.” Neighbours and friends may hesitate to intervene in abusive relationships because marital relations are often considered a “private matter.”

According to Ms. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UNFPA, there is a need “to ensure that all those who respond to violence against women — whether they are police officers, judges, lawyers, immigration officials, medical personnel or social workers — are sensitized and trained to provide a response that is compassionate and comprehensive.”

In Rwanda, gender desks have been established at police stations, staffed mostly by trained women who help victims of sexual and other violence. They investigate cases and ensure that evidence is available for court proceedings. As a result, in 2006 the Rwandan police referred 1,777 rape cases to prosecutors, resulting in 803 convictions. The gender desks have “improved reporting and response to these crimes,” Ms. Josephine Odera, UNIFEM’s director for Central Africa, told Africa Renewal. “What we need now is to expand this approach to more countries.”

In 1996, the government of Burkina Faso passed a law prohibiting female genital cutting. To make the law effective, the authorities launched a public education campaign on the issue, added the topic to the school curriculum and opened a telephone help line for girls at risk. As a result, reports Plan International, there were 400 convictions between 1996 and 2005, with sentences of up to three years and fines equivalent to US$1,800. Public support for female genital cutting has fallen.

However, even good laws can fail if the legal process is too expensive. When Ms. Akinyi, in Kenya, filed for divorce after her husband’s attempt to kill her, she had to borrow money for legal fees from friends. “I have already spent KS35,000,” equivalent to US$500, she told Africa Renewal. “I tried to get legal aid, but I was told there many other cases more dire than mine. Some women have had cases pending before the court for five years because they are relying on free public defenders who handle too many cases. I now realize why so many women never leave their husbands. How can they possibly afford this process?”

 “There have to be free legal services,” argues Ms. Saran Daraba Kaba, a former government minister in Guinea who is now executive director of the Mano River Women’s Network, which works in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. “There is a need for lawyers who are well trained in helping the victim to make an informed decision. We have created free legal clinics and trained local lawyers to address that. It is a very new model, but it’s something that has promise for the future.”

Changing social attitudes

To Ms. Kaba, the biggest challenge is changing the social attitudes and beliefs that confine women to an inferior status. “We have to get more women to know their legal rights. We have to teach our people why it is important to protect women and how it benefits the entire community when women are afforded better protection,” she argues.

Educating both men and women is critical. The WHO study found that 80 per cent of women surveyed in rural Egypt believed that beatings were justified if the woman refused to have sex with her partner. In Ghana, more women (50 per cent) than men (43 per cent) believed that a man was justified in beating his wife if she used a family planning method without his consent.

In Uganda, the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention works with 73 community volunteers, balanced roughly equally between women and men. They use street theatre to generate support for local laws on domestic violence. Male activists also engage men, to emphasize that nonviolence benefits the whole family, not only women.

In Tanzania, the NGO Kivulini uses open-air meetings, local drama groups, traditional drumming, singing and dancing to engage people in discussion about domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. In Guinea, public education efforts bring together local NGOs and imams to explain that Islam does not condone the abuse of women.

By engaging both men and women, such civil society groups send a message that domestic violence is not an issue just for women, but a problem affecting the whole community. “Mindsets must change,” Ms. Safiye Cagar, the UNFPA’s director of information, told government and civil society representatives at the 2006 Commission on the Status of Women forum. Such change, said Ms. Cagar, can only be achieved through dialogue and debate, advocacy, community participation and the concerted mobilization of civil society. “Too many women are subjected to violence and made to feel shame . . . for crimes committed against them.”

The real shame, Ms. Cagar said on International Women’s Day, belongs to a world that allows such crimes to continue. “It is the responsibility of governments and society as a whole to condemn violence against women — and to take action to eliminate it.”

Global spotlight and uneven progress

In addition to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 1993 Vienna Declaration on Human Rights and the 1995 Declaration of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing specified actions to protect women from discrimination and violence. Similarly, a 1993 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women called on governments to condemn such violence and to refrain from using customs, traditions or religious beliefs to avoid their obligations to end it. These agreements serve as the framework for the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on violence against women.

In 2003, African governments adopted a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in which they committed themselves to end discrimination and violence against women. The protocol came into force in November 2005 after ratification by 15 states.

Today, the UN special rapporteur and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) serve as two of the main avenues through which issues of gender violence can be addressed internationally. CEDAW encourages states to report on the extent, causes and effects of violence, and on the measures they have taken to counter it. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can submit supplementary reports. The system has had some successes and faced many challenges.

Uganda In 2002, CEDAW expressed concern about the absence of laws to address the high incidence of violence against women in Uganda. In the absence of a domestic violence law, the police and courts rely on laws that cover assault and homicide. The committee strongly recommended the speedy enactment of two bills that have languished in parliament for a decade: the Domestic Relations Bill, which is intended to consolidate laws on marriage and divorce, and the Sexual Offences Bill. But political leaders described the bills as “not urgent.”

Nigeria — In 1998, CEDAW also raised concerns about the prevalence of violence against women and girls, “including domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace,” in Nigeria. The minister for women affairs and social development responded that the government had difficulty addressing the issue because “women hardly report violence to the police for fear of reprisal from both the husband and wider family.” Five years later, a study by Amnesty International in Lagos found that there still were very few criminal prosecutions in such cases.

Morocco — In 1997, CEDAW asked the Moroccan government to address violence against women and establish support services for victims of violence. The following year a Geneva-based NGO, the Organisation mondiale contre la torture (OMCT), submitted an alternative report outlining several laws that made Moroccan women vulnerable to abuse. Because of activism by the OMCT and other international and local women’s groups, Moroccan laws changed in February 2004. The minimum marriageable age for girls was raised from 15 to 18. A legal obligation for a wife to obey her husband was scrapped, and women were permitted to contract their own marriages and more easily sue for divorce.

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