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Taking on violence against women in Africa

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Taking on violence against women in Africa

International norms and local activism start to alter laws, attitudes
From Africa Renewal: 
Reuters / Zohra Bensemra
Slogan on a wall in Kibera, a slum in NairobiSlogan on a wall in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi: Kenya has a law against domestic violence, but implementation is difficult.
Photograph: Reuters / Zohra Bensemra

Kenya’s current law against wife-beating was prompted some years ago by a particularly dramatic incident of a common problem — one that is not unusual across 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), domestic violence is a global problem affecting millions of women. In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the WHO found that 56 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.

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.

Rooted in culture

Perpetrators of violence against women typically have a history of violent behaviour, grew up in violent homes and often abuse alcohol and drugs.

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.”

A study on domestic violence in Uganda by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) 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.”

Africa’s economic decline over the past three decades has left many women in 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.”

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 Day rally in South AfricaWomen's Day rally in South Africa.
Photograph: Redux / eyevine / Xinhua / Li Qihua

Women’s activism

Women, however, are not just victims. They have been working actively to gain better mechanisms to protect themselves. 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. 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 counselling and rehabilitation programmes for victims, sensitize law-enforcement officials and draft relevant laws to protect women against all kinds of violence.

Unfortunately, few countries have met those obligations. Many countries 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. A 2011 report on Progress of the World’s Women by UN Women, the UN body responsible for gender rights, reported that only 21 sub-Saharan countries had specific laws against domestic violence.

Many countries that are party to the convention still have no laws specifically outlawing domestic violence and sexual harassment. The sexual violence bill in Kenya, for example, passed only after certain sections, such as one that would have outlawed marital rape, were removed.


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, a leading Kenyan gender advocate. “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.”

According to Ms. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the former 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. The gender desks have “improved reporting and response to these crimes,” Ms. Josephine Odera, UN Women’s director for West Africa, told Africa Renewal. “What we need now is to expand this approach to more countries.”

When the government of Burkina Faso passed a law prohibiting female genital cutting in 1996, it launched a public education campaign to make the law effective. It added the topic to the school curriculum and opened a telephone help line for girls at risk. As a result, reports Plan International, the number of convictions has gone up and public support for female genital cutting has fallen.

However, even good laws can fail if the legal process is too expensive. In Kenya, for instance, some women have had cases pending before the courts for years because they rely on free public defenders who handle too many cases.

“There have to be free legal services,” argues Ms. Saran Daraba Kaba, a former government minister in Guinea and founder and president of the Mano River Women’s Peace 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.”

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 on domestic violence is critical. It sends a message that such violence is not an issue just for women, but a problem affecting the whole community.

Regional efforts

To extend the frontiers of outreach in Africa, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping launched the Africa UNiTE campaign in January 2010. It is part of the Secretary-General’s global campaign to end all violence against women and girls. The African campaign seeks to involve African governments, civil society, the private sector and schools and colleges, and to “empower women and their communities in stopping gender-based violence and demanding accountability.”

The Africa-UNiTE campaign urges governments to consult with civil society to identify areas to be strengthened in current national legislations. Civil society groups have organized workshops for local journalists on gender violence. Private companies have introduced “zero tolerance” policies against gender discrimination and sexual harassment. And schools and universities have included awareness-raising activities in their curriculums.

UN Women, in partnership with the Kilimanjaro Initiative, is organizing an Africa UNiTE Mount Kilimanjaro Climb in March 2012. Commitments from all African governments to end gender violence by 2015 will be carried to the mountain top.