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AFRICA: A Loud and Clear No to Violence Against Women

KEMPTON PARK, South Africa, May 12 2010 (IPS) - Poet activist Myesha Jenkins’ voice reverberated through the hall: “Women are out in the night; we are cleaning the streets, some are walking the streets…”

One in three African women are beaten or coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime: Africa UniTE is a fresh call to act to end this. Credit: B.Wolff/UN

One in three African women are beaten or coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime: Africa UniTE is a fresh call to act to end this. Credit: B.Wolff/UN

Jenkins’s verse was echoed by fellow poets Zanele Faith Mavuso and Aura Zawanzaruwa who spoke of the pain of violence and the strength of women.

It was an unusual setting for the women poets performing their work: a May 11-12 gathering of government, civil society and U.N. agencies at a regional consultation for a Southern African strategy to support the Africa UNiTE Campaign to End Violence Against Women and Girls.

The UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, a multi-year effort aimed at preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls, was launched in 2008 by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. So far, the heads of states and ministers from 69 governments have added their names to the “Say NO” campaign.

Fresh commitment to act on pledges

It is a campaign that organisers hope will reverberate through the corridors of government and initiate action and implementation of the many laws, agreements and strategies already in place across the continent to end violence against women and girls.

These agreements include, among many others, international agreements such as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Discimination Against Women, ratified by 51 African countries), the Rome Statute, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and Protocols on Human Rights; and the Southern African Development Community Gender and Development Protocol.

The SADC protocol, in line with the campaign, aims to “halve gender violence by 2015”. It is yet to be signed by Mauritius and Botswana.

Five goals

By 2015, UNiTE aims to achieve the following five goals in all countries:
  • Adopt and enforce national laws to address and punish all forms of violence against women and girls
  • Adopt and implement multi-sectoral national action plans
  • Strengthen data collection on the prevalence of violence against women and girls
  • Increase public awareness and social mobilization
  • Address sexual violence in conflict

Gender Links executive director Colleen Lowe Morna, who is a member of the UNiTE Campaign Regional Steering Committee, noted that all SADC countries have a draft or a national action plan (NAP) to end violence against women; nine SADC countries have legislation on domestic violence, seven on sexual offences and five on trafficking.

“The UNiTE campaign gives us an unique opportunity to revive multi-sector NAPs… it gives us an opportunity to harness a new wave of political will and commitment,” said Lowe Morna.

Morna urged that the regional strategy be proactive – putting an emphasis on prevention first. “Say NO puts prevention at the centre,” she noted.

Gender-based violence pervasive

When the African UNiTE campaign was launched at the African Union in Addis Ababa in January, 17 African countries committed themselves to closing the gap in implementation of various agreements and commitments of African countries to take action to eradicate violence against women.

The U.N. Declaration on Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring public or private life”.

There is a lack of reliable data on the extent of violence against women and girls in Africa but, in the words of Simone Ellis Oluoch-Olunya, UNIFEM deputy regional programme director, it is “pervasive”.

“In Africa, like all other regions, one in three women are beaten or coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime,” noted Oluoch-Olunya.

The direct and indirect costs of violence is one few countries can afford.

This violence is exacerbated during times of conflict.

UNIFEM Southern Africa Regional director Nomcebo Manzini asked: “What have we done collectively for our sisters in the DRC; for our sisters in Somalia. How can we raise our activism to a higher level?”

Manzini also raised the issue of violence and culture.

“Cultural practices that violate human rights must be changed. This is an imperative,” she urged.

Distinguishing between culture and cultural practices, Manzini said: “We should not aim to change people’s cultures but seek to change harmful cultural practices. It is the practice that emanates from day to day behaviour that violates human rights.

“There is not a single culture that values violence against women and girls.”

Gabriella Rakotomanga, head of programmes at the Catholic Relief Services in Madagascar, warned that changing cultural practices would take time.

Participants at the consultation – drawn from justice ministries, national and regional gender units as well as civil society from 14 southern African countries – are seeking ways to raise awareness and advocacy around national commitments and initiatives.

The campaign intends to make positive changes in six focus areas: intra-family violence against women and girls (domestic violence, intimate partner violence, incest, etc); rape and other forms of sexual violence in the broader community; harmful practices including child marriage; violence against women in conflict-affected countries; linkages between violence against women and girls and HIV and AIDS; and, safety and security of women in public space.

And if the voices of those saying “No” are heard and acted on, then hopefully women will one day walk the streets without fear of violence.

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