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RIGHTS: Against Sexual Violence: Solidarity Among African Women

Wambi Michael

KAMPALA, May 2 2009 (IPS) - Increased cases of rape and sexual abuse of women and girls is closely associated with armed conflict and its aftermath in Africa.

Akina Mama wa Afrika has launched a programme targeting sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. Credit:  Wambi Michael/IPS

Akina Mama wa Afrika has launched a programme targeting sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

"Rape has been used as a weapon of war by militia, and this hurts women forever, because even in peacetime you find little response in terms of repairing the effects and providing justice," Marie Jalloh told IPS.

Jalloh, a member of Parliament from Sierra Leone was among the gender activists brought together in Kampala between April 28-29 by Akina Mama wa Afrika – the name means "solidarity among African women" in Swahili, and the organisation has worked to support African women in identifying issues and organising around them since 1985 – to discuss ways of strengthening the women's movement against gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict Africa.

"To be honest with you, people – even women – don’t take rape seriously [in Sierra Leone]," she said. "To them, it is a way of life but they don’t know how it is affecting them. Even when the victims try to speak out they don’t get justice. If they go to the police station, the rapist will go and pay money to police and the victims will remain suffering. So some resort to silence but suffer from trauma forever."

Françoise Mukuku, the coordinator of a young feminist group in Democratic Republic of Congo, told IPS that rape remains rampant in the eastern part of the country.

"The people who are fighting in DRC, they come from Rwanda, Burundi, some are coming from Uganda like the LRA who are active in Congo. We have the same culture where the woman belongs to men. So if you want to humiliate the husband, you rape his wife or daughter," Mukuku said.

"I have come across women who have been gang-raped and contracted HIV/AIDS as a result. Eastern DRC has [so many] cases of fistula not just resulting from childbirth but mainly as a result of gang rape."

Mukuku said rape and other forms of sexual violence not only humiliate women but break their confidence, and prevent them from participating in development activities.

"We are raising awareness of women on taking the floor, speaking out on rape. We are telling women that our culture is not helping us, religion is not helping us to end rape. We should find a third way of speaking out because it is we who understand what it feels like when we are raped." she said.

Akina Mama Wa Africa (AMwA) executive director Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe said the failure of legal protections, as well as poverty and illiteracy have left women vulnerable to gender-based violence.

She said women generally lack economic independence, and denied the opportunity to decide how to use even the limited resources available to them, face an uphill task to defend their legal rights. "Even if a woman sold a chicken, the money is not even enough to hire a lawyer. The laws are there but they are not implemented. The judicial systems and procedures are to the disadvantage of a woman," said Kimbugwe.

Activists at the regional meeting in Kampala noted that cases of rape and sexual abuse have not been properly documented, with limited exceptions in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. AMwA has launched a three-year gender-based violence programme in the Great Lakes Region and West Africa that will, among other activities, involve the documentation of abuse to strengthen advocacy for better policies.

Annie Chikwanha, Senior Fellow at the African Human Security Initiative Institute For Security Studies, said documentation of such experiences is necessary to overcome the silence imposed on survivors of sexual violence.

"There is an aspect of shame that constrains many women’s actions. What will communities say if the whole world knows that I have been raped? We stigmatise ourselves even more because of the whole aspect of shame," she asserted.

"And women who are violated are the poorest, so they don’t have any recourse because they don't have a voice. But it is women who suffer these atrocities so they should talk about them instead of a third party who can distort the information."

Chikwanha pointed out the difficulty in gathering information about gender-based violence.

"There are so many cultural inhibitions against women. It is very difficult for women to speak out freely; sometimes women require permission just to speak to a stranger," she said.

"I have experience in conducting surveys in rural areas in Africa. Most times you have to seek permission of men to access the woman’s voice. Men insist on listening to the conversation. So the women feel constrained to speak out. We are now saying let us empower women with skills to have these experiences documented."

She said that the lack of statistics has affected planning for pro-women services in areas affected by conflict. Taking up a similar theme, Awino Okech told IPS there is a need to include responses to gender-based violence in political interventions in conflict and post- conflict situations.

"In situations where there is no psycho-social support for traumatised women, girls and even men whose relatives have been raped – how do you expect recovery of that family? Women are dying silently from rape-related effects like fistula. Many have HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections… But where can they go for treatment?"

Okech works works for the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) as Gender and Conflict Themes Manager. She said that responding to gender violence has rarely been a priority, but such a response is important for recovery.

Hyacinthe Budomo, gender advisor at International Conference on the Great Lakes Region secretariat told IPS that impunity for perpetrators of sexual crimes could be eliminated if countries took advantage of existing regional institutions and legal frameworks.

"We need to reform penal codes in member states of the Great Lakes region. We need judicial cooperation among member states in the region. We need to train the police in order to end gender-based violence," said Budomo.

"I strongly believe if the women come together as a network and push for reforms where there are no laws, and implementation where the laws exist, I believe we shall find a way out of this. We have good laws at international level but most of these laws have not been domesticated. So the implementation of these laws is still far-fetched. So there is a lot of work to first of all ratify and domesticate them other wise they have remained on shelves as women continue to be raped and sexually abused."

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