Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

AFRICA: Women's Bodies Have Been Battlefields

Wambi Michael interviews CHRISTINE BUTEGWA, Akina Mama wa Afrika's regional programme coordinator

KAMPALA, May 2 2009 (IPS) - Religion, cultural norms and tradition promote discrimination and unequal power relations between men and women in Africa. Akina Mama wa Afrika's Christine Butegwa doesn't hesitate when asked what explains the horrific levels of sexual violence against women in conflict-affected areas on the continent.

Since independence, many African countries have experienced armed conflict; women have endured the worst effects of this. Gang rape, and sexual slavery, often resulting in unwanted pregnancies, severe gynecological problems like fistula, infection with HIV, and psychological trauma are just some of the painful results.

"Women's bodies have become battlefields for these conflicts," Butegwa says, "and so their bodies are torn. Their spirits are torn."

Butegwa says the current leadership in Africa is failing women on the question of reducing gender-based violence.

Akina Mama wa Afrika – the name means "solidarity among African women" in Swahili – launched a regional gender programme in Kampala at the end of April that seeks to build a stronger women's movement to push for the implementation of policies needed to end impunity for perpetrators and support survivors of sexual abuse in conflict and post- conflict situations in West Africa and the Great Lakes region.

Excerpts of the interview follow.

IPS: What is the impetus behind this programme on sexual and gender-based violence? Christine Butegwa: Africa since independence has been faced with armed conflict in almost all the fifty-three countries. And in that situation, women have endured the worst of that armed conflict in their communities…

Moreover, this sexual violence happens both in conflict and peacetime. In fact, conflict only increases the problem but actually, the root cause is that women's sexuality has been taken as a site for power struggles between men and women.

IPS: With the background of powerful social and cultural forces that disadvantage women, do you believe the strong movement of women leaders that you are pushing for will end those imbalances and begin to address gender-based violence? CB: Akina Mama Wa Afrika, as you know, is a pan-African women’s organization. Our main niche is building womens leadership skills. So we are bringing together partners who work around sexual and gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive rights to look at ways in which we can build women's leadership to take control and change the situation of women in this continent.

We can look at three key areas that we want to address. One is the fact that we have done a lot as a women’s movement in Africa and across the world to bring the issue of gender- based violence to the attention of policy makers. We have seen this with the United Nations women’s decade.

We have also seen a growing number of policies and legal frameworks that address violence against women. You have the Beijing Platform for Action that was very comprehensive in addressing violence against women. We also have UN Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security which again looked at sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, but also looking at womens participation in peace and security.

IPS: But is the average woman benefiting from these declarations and resolutions? CB: Exactly. That is why we are equipping women with skills and tools to demand implementation in our three-year project. Indeed, there are quite a number of good laws even at national level, a number of countries have laws around sexual and domestic violence. [The challenge] we are facing now is implementation.

We have all these good laws but implementation is not there. And what women are saying is that there is a lack of political will to address the root causes and eliminate violence against women.

IPS: So what new strategy do you have in mind, to solicit and maintain the political will needed to end gender-based violence? CB: We want to move from policies to ensuring these policies are implemented and to ensuring that governments set budgets to implement the policies on gender-based violence.

We are seeing African governments saying, "We are not able to address the problem because we do not know the magnitude of it, we don’t have the statistics." Therefore, what we want to do is to empower women to gather documentation and statistics around women's lived experiences of gender-based violence whether in conflict or peace times.

We can then use that to advocate for better policies and better implementation of those policies.

IPS: But we have heard womens activists pushing for the same in the past. Why do your think these similar strategies will succeed this time around? CB: Maybe one issue that I have not raised is the lack of leadership. The current leaders in Africa have frankly failed women with respect to violence against women. They have failed girls. Girls as young as five years old, as young as three years old have been defiled, raped whether in peace times or conflict and women also.

So what does that do to a country when half of your population has undergone this amount of trauma? And governments are not doing anything.

We are saying there is an imbalance that our governments are giving to women’s issues. And let me give you a concrete example. Recently there has been a lot of talks around male circumcision as an alternative preventive measure against HIV/AIDS and our governments are taking that up and are going to put aside the money to have free male circumcision across the country.

Now at the same time we have women who daily face violence. We have statistics indicating that every thirty seconds a woman is raped across the continent but we are not having the same response from governments.

What they are doing is the rhetoric, giving with one hand and taking away with another. Giving policies but failing to provide resources to implement them.

And so we are saying to women that there is a leadership crisis in Africa and there needs to be a different calibre of leaders who can bring change and we believe that women leaders who are equipped with skills can be transformative leaders who will turn around the situation.

We have evidence that women who have had these skills have been able to cause change in their communities.

IPS: So three years down the road what do you expect in terms of ending gender- based violence and addressing reproductive health rights of women in conflict and post conflict zones? CB: What we want to see is improved, gender-responsive policies and implementation of those policies at regional and national levels.

We are going to work in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sierra Leone. Both of those countries have policies at national and regional levels. In western Africa there is ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] which has a strong peace and security component but when you analyse it, it is gender blind because it does not take into consideration women's experiences in war.

In Central Africa, there is the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGR) which again has wonderful clauses on gender-based violence. But again implementation is missing. So what we want to see is the implementation of gender responsive policies and women leadership skills built in these countries.

We have noted there are many womens organisations doing work in gender-based violence but they are isolated and not coordinated. One of the things that governments listen to is mass movements and that is what we want… to assist movements to become stronger and to talk with one voice to the governments to create change around sexual violence.

A final component is tracking [governments to make sure they] implement policies and the international treaties that they have ratified.

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