A Step toward Eradicating Violence against Women in Africa

8 December 2008 at 22:01 | 908 views

By Abdul Karim Bangura
Department of Political Science
Howard University
Washington, DC, USA.

On November 21, 2008 and many days thereafter, Joyce Mulama’s article titled “Africa: Time for Action on Violence against Women” appeared in many media sources, including online academic listservs. The story chronicles declarations and personal statements made by participants who attended the sixth African Development Forum convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from November 19 to 21 organized by the African Union, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the African Development Bank. To this day, I have yet to see a debate among intellectuals on this very important issue. The deafening silence led me to ponder whether African intellectuals are either ashamed or just do not care about the problem. My haunch is the former. Since the role of women in society, especially as it pertains to issues dealing with peace and conflict resolution, is a topic that interests me greatly, here goes my proverbial “two cents” on the problem.

Due to their subordinate status as women, African women are beaten, battered and killed in societies throughout the continent. They are killed for “dishonoring” relatives, seeking a divorce, choosing a partner against parental wishes, or having sexual relations outside of marriage. They are the victims of rape and battery in the home and in civil strife. This violence not only threatens women=s lives, it also severely limits their health choices, decision-making in the home and in society, participation in governance, education and overall economic and social well being. Evolving often from African women=s lower status in society, gender-based violence is commonplace and affects women in every corner of the continent.

Looking at gender relations in Africa, one can notice that the self‑glorifying language is notoriously unflattering. What we often hear is a confusion of control/domination with success, an obsession with living in a Aman=s world” and a plethora of bloody metaphors invoking images of Darwinian jungles and guerilla warfare. If we are to listen only to the supposedly self‑glorifying rhetoric, we might well come away with the idea that gender relations comprise a brutal battle for survival, devoid of rules, trust, or courtesies in which mercy and mutual consideration (much less altruism and concern for the public good) are share folly. Or, at best, we might come to believe that the aim of gender relations is to join an exciting game and, above all, Ahave fun.” Or, more cynically, gender relations present themselves as a grueling necessity, without ultimate point or purpose. Strikingly lacking is a vision: the failure to see the AAfrican family.” We hear about Awomen abandoning their traditional roles,” Awomen want to wear the pants,” Awomen are the source of all evil” (predicated on the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an), Awomen should be kept in their place,” Awomen are to be seen and not heard,” Awomen should remain in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant,@ etc. As the larger vision gets lost from view, people become so entrenched in their individual and increasingly isolated positions and ambitions that they lose sight of the purpose for living in a human family. It suffices to say that this is neither healthy and conducive to happiness and fulfillment for individuals, nor is it healthy and conducive to cooperation and efficiency in the human community.

To paraphrase a dictum in the Seville Statement on Violence, just as gender‑related violence Abegins in the minds of men,” the respectful and peaceful treatment of women also begins in our minds. The same species who invented gender‑related violence are capable of inventing the respectful and peaceful treatment of women. The first aspects to reconcile in any concern about gender‑related violence must be against those sexist myths and metaphors that blind and govern so much of our thinking. Metaphors are not just Amore picturesque speech.” The power of metaphors hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making. That we live by and through metaphors is hardly a matter of dispute.

Given this truism, we should be horrified by the metaphors that are the currency of everyday discourse in gender relations all over Africa. There is no need to single out any set of countries or region, as no African society is free of all forms of gender‑related violence and sexist myths and metaphors. We hear again and again that men are Arugged, unemotional and strong,” while women are Afragile, overly emotional and weak.” Men are supposed to Abring home the bread.” AReal men don’t cry.” Men are Aassertive” when they act that way, but women are Aaggressive” when they act similarly. In dating, men are the Ahunters” and women are the Apreys.” The female is a Atangible being,” not a person with the ability to be independent, in control, and as strong as her counterpart, the male. Women are Adecorative/sex objects.”

Indeed, if we believe these descriptions of gender relations as Darwinian survivalism and sex objectification, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all gender relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no society should have to tolerate. Indeed, human rights advocates have effectively used just such descriptions to push their approach. Of course, none of this is to deny the fact that sometimes infighting goes on in almost every family, nor is it to deny the fact that not every gender relation in Africa thrives.

How we look at what individuals do has a lot to do with much of the fighting between them. Many of the casualties of gender‑related violence can be laid at the feet of the malevolent images that we impose on gender relations and on ourselves. How we think about gender relations-as a ruthless competition for control/domination or a cooperative enterprise the aim of which is the prosperity of the human community-pre-shapes much of our behavior and attitudes toward our fellow humans.

Therefore, we must reject those myths and metaphors that cast gender relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring, and ultimately violent behavior. Some of these are quite crude and explode as soon as they are seen for what they are, but others are much more sophisticated and built into the very fabric of our current thought processes. Some can be summarized in a slogan; others do not even have names. Some seem not to be metaphors at all, notably the uncompromising emphasis on the importance of control/domination, and some seem to lie at the very basis of our conception as individuals, as if any alternative concept would have to be anti‑individualistic, or worse. One particular metaphor-the sex objectification metaphor-forms the basis of most gender relations today and should be eradicated.

About the Author

Abdul Karim Bangura(photo) is professor of Research Methodology and Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC, USA. For his brief biography, please click the following URL: http://www.studentservicesdr.org/Promocion/Bangura%20Brief%20Bio%20For%20Howard%20University.pdf


I extend gratitude to two colleagues, Lango Deen and Tracey Marke, for their valuable comments and suggestions to help smooth out the rough spots in the first draft of this article. All shortcomings in the article, however, rest with me.