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RIGHTS-AFRICA: No More Excuses on Gender Violence

Joyce Mulama

ADDIS ABABA, Nov 25 2008 (IPS) - As the world marks the twenty-seventh International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, United Nations figures indicate that in the course of her lifetime, one in every three women is beaten, coerced into sex or abused, by a relative or acquaintance. In Africa, concerns continue to be raised over poor legislation and enforcement to protect women and girls from harm.

At the African Development Forum, held in Addis from Nov. 19-21, it emerged that many women do not report cases of violence, particularly those involving intimate partners, for fear of reprisal, which may include economic deprivation, physical abuse, or losing custody of their children.

“There is a deep culture of silence where women do not tell about their husbands or partners beating them; they fear that they may stop being provided for, particularly if the man is the bread winner,” says Auxillia Ponga, a gender advisor with the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Given this situation, accurate data on levels of violence against women continent-wide is not available. Where studies have been undertaken, the results are disheartening.

A 2005 study by the World Health Organisation found nearly a third of women surveyed in Ethiopia had been forced to have sex against their will within the 12 months prior to the study. The U.N. Secretary-General’s Task Force on women, girls and HIV/AIDS found that young women between 15 and 19 had rates of infection 3.5 times higher than males the same age; the disparity is linked to the greater vulnerability of women in the context of high levels of sexual violence.

Participants at the ADF VI released a statement and plan of action outlining a campaign that will seek to encourage survivors of violence to speak out so that comprehensive data can be generated and used to design specific measures to combat the violence that is rampant on the continent.

The ADF VI plan of action, titled “From Commitment to Delivery”, calls for a three-year initiative beginning in 2009 that will campaign door-to-door at the community level to create awareness about the importance of reporting violence.

“This campaign recognises that having sound data on all aspects of violence against women is a precondition for establishing the best policies and monitoring the effectiveness of actions,” says the plan of action.

The plan also requires countries to reform their laws to ensure they adequately protect women and girls as well as promote gender equality. Progress in this area will be reviewed after three years, where countries that will not have made headway will be required to explain why.

Concerns have been raised that despite most governments on the continent passing legislation outlawing violence against women, implementation remains a key challenge, with authorities citing a dire lack of resources. They allude to a shortage of funds to create awareness among the law enforcement officers, judges and magistrates, as well as educate women on their rights.

“The government’s work is to create an enabling environment by passing the laws. It is upon all stakeholders to make sure the law works since governments may not have the necessary resources,” Victor Shipoh, the gender and international affairs director in the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare in Namibia told IPS.

To address such shortcomings, participants called on AU member states to finance and implement a fund for women by 2009 – an African women’s fund was promised in the 2004 Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. They further supported the creation of a new U.N. agency focused on ending violence against women and promoting gender equality, with a minimum budget of one billion dollars a year.

African governments were urged to increase domestic investments in gender equality and empowerment of women programmes notwithstanding the world financial crisis.

“Our governments should not use the financial crisis as an excuse for delayed action, saying they cannot fund gender programmes because of dwindling finances from the donors,” Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, head of the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women told IPS.

A general feeling resonating from the meeting was that with the current financial crisis, governments are most likely to make budget cuts on what they consider as non-essential areas. Gender equality and economic empowerment, it is feared, may fall under this category.

Echoing earlier criticism of current spending priorities on things such as the military, Akatsa-Bukachi said if cuts to budgets were necessary, these should be made elsewhere: “They need to find a way of beefing up domestic resources to fund women empowerment programmes. After all the wealth of a nation is determined not by external resources but by its own national resources.”

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