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DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: Time For Action on Violence Against Women

Joyce Mulama

ADDIS ABABA, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - Continued violence against women is one of the focuses of a continental meeting reviewing progress made towards achieving gender equality in Africa.

Participants in the sixth African Development Forum (ADF VI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital are putting their leaders to task over their failure to implement international declarations made to end violence against women.

"There is much talk and signing of these things, and less action," Botha Mbuyiselo, of Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa told IPS at the sidelines of the event.

"Our politicians need to move from rhetoric to action. They need find a proactive voice and act collectively against this violence," he remarked.

Girma Wolde-Giorgis, Ethiopia's president had echoed similar sentiments in his address at the opening of the Nov 19-21 meeting. "It is time to move from talk to action. It is time we focused on implementing what we have said, and make follow-up plans to see if we are recording achievements."

Some of the declarations cited at the meeting, and which the continent's leadership has signed include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. Adopted in 1998 in Banjul, Gambia, the instrument is explicit about addressing violence against women.

In addition, the leaders agreed to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979. Under this facility, governments are expected to establish structures to fight violence against women. However the continent is still marred by widespread cases of violence against women.

The situation has also been perpetuated by loopholes in national legislation that have paved way for women to be abused. For example, Kenya's Sexual Offences Act passed in 2006 contains a clause which many feel risks penalising women who report sexual offenders, jeopardising the Act's effectiveness.

"They can be charged with false accusation of rape because of lack of evidence to put forward. And it is clear that sometimes women may not be able to report a rape immediately and so by the time they get to report, evidence may have dried out," Jacinta Muteshi, former chairperson of Kenya's Gender Commission told IPS at the Addis Ababa meeting.

Further, the law has been criticised for spelling out a maximum rape sentence – life imprisonment – but failing to stipulate the minimum judgment, which is left at the discretion of magistrate. Such ambiguity, women rights activists say, may trivialise the gravity of a rape offence.

While South Africa has legislation stipulating a minimum sentence of between 10 to 25 years for rape offences, these guidelines are not always respected, according to Mbuyiselo. "Our governments need to ensure that such a law is adhered to in order to send a clear message to offenders and to deter further acts of violence against women, he said.

His country has over 55,000 reported rape cases yearly, according to government data, making it one with the highest number of rape cases on the continent.

Improvements to legislation are stalled in several African countries. In Kenya, the Domestic Violence (Family Protection) Bill is still pending after it was introduced in parliament eight years ago. In neighbouring Uganda, a similar bill, Domestic Relations Bill has been languishing in parliament for over a decade now.

The ADF VI is expected to come up with an action plan that stipulates among other things strict implementation of national and international laws on violence against women and subsequent monitoring of the same.

But many activists at the meeting feel that better legislation alone is not enough to stop violence on women. It emerges that culture remains an even greater impediment that must be addressed. The commonly held belief that African women are the property of men and should therefore be beaten, is just one cultural norm cited as disastrous to women.

The story of Naisianoyi Parakuyo encapsulates this observation. "My husband would beat me every day saying I was his property since he had paid dowry, and that he would do anything he liked to me. I endured this for many years, until one day he stabbed me in my palm with a sword as I lifted my hand to protect chest which was his target," she said pointing at the deep scar on her left hand.

In an interview with IPS at the sidelines of the meeting, Parakuyo, a Maasai from Kenya narrated how she was lucky to be alive after escaping brutal attacks from her husband, but not without her self-esteem being punctured. She is now an activist who talks to communities about gender violence.

Other practices that promote violence against women include wife inheritance, which is still deeply rooted in several African societies. This is where a widow is inherited by a brother-in-law or a suitor identified by the village elders upon the death of her husband. In some cases, widows are forcibly inherited; if they refuse, they are often physically assaulted or chased away from the family home.

Such traditions and cultural practices have proved difficult to break when tackling violence against women. "It is easy to say that culture poses a great challenge to the fight on violence against women. But in terms of what responses we have around culture, I think that is work that we have not even began to touch yet," Muteshi told IPS.

"It is going to be really important to start looking seriously at what kind of interventions are required to address culture because it is in culture that the script of gender is written. It is in culture that the script around power relations gets played out," she added.

Some practical interventions, the meeting suggested, should begin at the family level with parents teaching and treating their boys and girls equally. "We must not show boys that they are superior than girls; we must not divide domestic roles saying that particular chores can only be performed by boys or girls. This is the beginning of addressing violence against women," Barry Bibita Niandou, Niger's minister for Female Promotion and Child Protection underlined.

Organised by the African Union, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank, the meeting's theme is Action on gender equality, empowerment and ending violence against women in Africa.

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