Africa’s Problems Remain Major Ones

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Africa's-ProblemsIn Malawi, Madagascar, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Swaziland, Somalia, Togo, Eritrea, Mauritania, and Djibouti, wife beating is fairly rare. It is not acceptable in hunting and gathering societies such as the !Kung and the Mbuti.

But many of the countries where wife-beating is rare are those where female genital mutilation (FGM) is prevalent. FGM is common in Somalia, Djibouti, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali.

As Green notes, both beating and FGM are forms of controlling women, and the men of different societies have different forms. However, both are common in Mali and Chad, and rare in Madagascar. Green names both beating and FGB as human rights abuses.

Green says that violence against women is particularly bad when the interests of patriarchy and capitalism no longer coincide. (That is, when women earn money.) Even though capitalism has directed most African women into subsistence and petty commodity production, not wage labor, men are feeling economically insecure. Western-promoted structural adjustment programs have contributed to gender bias in the allocation of resources.

Urban women who earn wages have sometimes been targets of violence. They are considered not respectable because they are not living with their families (most of which are in rural areas) or with husbands. They are seen as witches, as sexually voracious, or as lesbians. They face sexual harassment at work, particularly in Tanzania, the Congo Democratic Republic, and Mozambique. In Tanzania, there is much sexual harassment in the civil service and the professions, not just for working class women. But the suicide of a woman who was harassed at the university prompted women to demonstrate at the university and drew attention to the problem.

In many countries, women who run their own small businesses, selling food or producing other consumer items,
are seen as prostitutes and harassed by the police. Some governments have scapegoated urban unattached women. In 1983, Zimbabwe launched Operation Cleanup, in which thousands of women were rounded up and detained hundreds of miles away from their homes; many were sexually abused.

Also in 1983, Mozambique tried to relocate labor to state farms. Supposedly only “idle” women and prostitutes were rounded up, but single women with children were also targeted. Witchcraft accusations, most of which are directed against women, are on the rise. Hundreds of women who were accused witches were sent to penal villages in northern Ghana. In 1996, 37 accused witches were killed in Uganda, and many more in South Africa.

There are many refugees from Africa’s wars; 80 percent of them are women and children. It is common for sex to be required in exchange for relief aid or to escape repatriation. For instance, refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone had to have sex with Guinean soldiers to enter Guinea.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, rape was widely used as a weapon against opponents of apartheid. Women working against apartheid who were imprisoned often were threatened with rape.

Now South Africa has the highest incidence of rape in the world, surpassing the United States. Many Somali women in refugee camps in Kenya have been raped.

In the Rwanda war, both Hutu and Tutsi women were raped, but Hutu men systematically raped Tutsi women. Those who had children as a result of the rapes are outcastes. Rape is rare in some countries, such as Eritrea, Malawi, and Cote d’Ivoire, Green reports. There is some progress, Green points out. Post-apartheid South Africa has trained domestic violence units in its police force. There are rape trauma centers in South Africa. Ugandan President
Youweri Museveni has condemned wife beating and asked for reports on the problem. In 1993, women founded the first rape crisis center in Namibia, and the group now works with the police to improve treatment of rape victims. Zimbabwe also is training its police to be more sensitive in cases of rape.

But very few rapes are reported to the police. In Namibia, it is estimated that 5 percent of rapes are reported; in South Africa, it is one in 35. There are very few rape convictions, and rapists often are given very light sentences.

In many Anglophone countries (those that were British colonies) courts practice the “cautionary rule,” in which judges instruct juries that women often lie or have fantasies. In 1991, Namibia abolished the cautionary rule.

In Sudan’s shar’ia courts, one woman’s testimony is not considered credible. A woman who brings a charge of rape may be charged with adultery and beaten. In some countries, the rape of a child is considered defilement, a lesser crime than rape. Under traditional law in much of southern Africa, a rapist is required to pay bridewealth and to marry the victim; the same is true in Eritrea. No one considers this a further injury to the woman who had been raped.

But women do have responses to violence. Survival is a form of a resistance, Green says. In some societies, such as the Pokot of Kenya, suicide may also be a kind of resistance. Husbands fear their wives will commit suicide because they will find it extraordinarily difficult to get another wife and they will get no help in raising bridewealth for their sons.

In some traditional societies, women insult a man who is considered to treat his wife badly. Some may enter a man’s house and take something essential from him. Fulani women launch attacks and demonstrations against men who leave their wives without good reason. Maasai women may gang up to humiliate or physically assault a man who endangers a woman’s fertility. Pokot women in Kenya may tie up a man, humiliate him, urinate and defecate on him, and beat him.

But as women move to urban areas, they are less able to rely on traditional sanctions. In countries like Botswana, Nigeria, and Senegal, elite women are working against violence against all women.

In 1993, women in Zambia held a march against violence against women. Violence against women has been an issue in Namibian women’s mobilization. On the other hand, women in Sierra Leone’s National Council of Muslim Women held a pro-FGM demonstration in 1996 and threatened publications that had run a series of articles against FGM.

Some NGOs (nongovernmental organizations — independent groups) are working to criminalize FGM. Senegal, Egypt, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania have adopted laws banning FGM. This has driven the practice underground, which Green suggests may be even worse because parents then won’t seek medical help for their daughters if they become infected.

Some groups are working for the medicalization of FGM, saying it should be done by doctors, which Green
suggests could backfire by making people feel safer to do more extreme varieties of FGM.Some NGOs emphasize the health aspects in discouraging FGM and point out that it is not required by Islam. Green notes that families that have their daughters cut believe that it is the best thing for their daughters (makes them marriageable in a society where marriage is mandatory) and that the families have to be persuaded to stop it.

FGM is often tied to women’s secret societies, which are the one place where women feel that they have power. So Kenyan NGOs are promoting the idea of “Circumcision through words” or a coming of age ritual that does not involve cuffing. Some Kenyan girls whose families reject FGM have been trained as peer counselors to discourage other girls from the practice; an NGO pays school fees for these girls.

Green suggests that only where there has been a real change in women’s status is there a chance of moving away from FGM. She emphasizes that westerners’ work against FGM angers many Africans and suggests it may be counterproductive. She does not note that westerners can help African women who are organizing against it or that
westerners have a responsibility to act when immigrants bring FGM to their own countries, and can provide asylum for women who manage to flee their countries to escape FGM. Much of the time she refers to FGM as “circumcision,” which makes it sound less like violence against women, although she clearly opposes it.

Some women’s groups work to change the laws on wife-beating, while others, like the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, try to persuade women that wife-beating has no traditional base and tell them they should not accept it. In Zimbabwe, women who are not lawyers get training to interpret the law to women.

There are links among women’s groups in different countries, but the groups do not cross the Anglophone-Francophone line. Legal aid clinics are still rare in Francophone countries.

There are battered women’s shelters in Ghana, Liberia, Mauritius, Zambia, Benin, and Tanzania.
South Africa has the most developed system of shelters, but they have waiting lists. There was a conference on domestic violence in that country in 1995.

There was a conference on domestic violence in Senegal in 1992. A Senegalese NGO declared a national
day of mourning on domestic violence, and women wore white to show their support. Groups in many countries are working to extend the definition of rape beyond penile penetration. Some are seeking to end the cautionary rule and to criminalize marital rape.

One problem with rape counseling as a strategy is that in many places it is taboo to discuss such personal matters with a stranger like a counselor, Green sayst. Activists sometimes face retaliation. Fatima Anyanziwa, Kenya’s leading anti-rape activist, was harassed after she demanded the arrest of a chief for raping a 12-year-old girl. She was charged with disrespect of judicial proceedings when she hung signs at the entrance to a court protesting the release

a rapist. While in police custody, she was threatened with rape. In Niger, activists who worked for a new family code to change laws discriminating against women in inheritance and child custody were threatened by Islamic militants.

But some women are brave, and such brave women are making changes. Green’s book is a good place to learn what the situation is and about the women who are working to making changes. I regret that she says nothing about violence against lesbians, which, according to the book Amazon to Zami, is very bad in some countries.

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