I became sensitive to gendered violence, at age 9, when I saw my neighbor’s wife run out of their house screaming for help.  She had red marks on her hands which were clearly made by a belt, and her blouse was ripped.  Before then, I wondered why the volume of their stereo was always increased, anytime I heard her scream or sob, leaving her voice drowned out by the music.

Years later, I came to the conclusion that violence against women and girls (VAWG) – and especially domestic and sexual violence - is the defining issue for feminism. The barriers determined by gender unfairly disadvantage and victimize women and girls, and acts of violence are often committed against them expressly because they are women and girls.

Gender-based violence, whether it is sexual or nonsexual, remains a major problem in most parts of Africa. It causes widespread psychological and sociological effects on women and girls, leading to trauma, shame, compromised mental health, physical injuries, and – all too commonly  death. Whether or not there are defined causes of gender-based violence seems a pointless discussion – apart from certain inadequate policies against "correction" and corporal punishment, VAWG is often a result of unequal power equations both real and perceived between men and women and is also strongly influenced by cultural institutions. These risk factors create persistent, patriarchal barriers, and they are pervasive around the African continent.

In Ghana, a man has a traditional right to assert power over a woman and is socially superior.  Ghanaian women are still denied privileges and access to resources on the basis of their gender, and men remain the holders of political, and social power.  In South Africa, sexual violence is seen as an acceptable method of putting women in their place or punishing them for perceived misbehavior, whilst intimate partner violence is a taboo subject. In Nigeria, where a bride-price is an expected part of marriage, the identity of the woman becomes conflated with that of property, making her vulnerable to violence at the hands of a man who thinks he “owns” her. Nearly 60% of Ethiopian women are subjected to sexual violence, including marital rape, according to the United Nation’s Ending Violence Against Women report in 2006. The incident and death of sixteen-year-old Ethiopian school girl Hanna Lalango in 2014, who died from injuries sustained in a brutal kidnapping and gang rape by five men, has thrown a spotlight on how cultural attitudes could have mitigated – or even prevented - this act of violence.

Fortunately, as relevant education and campaigns reach survivors of such gender-based violence, they begin to seek means to overcome these barriers every day – even, as declared by Professor Lisa Wade, an authority in the global gender sociology and equality space, when “7 in 10 men still want [their female spouses] to revert to traditional [African] gender roles”. Despite the efficacy of anti-violence and gender equality campaigns on the international level, VAWG has not yet received the priority required to enable significant change in Africa for the purpose of sustainable and inclusive advancement. New actions and more structures are needed for people and government to act differently, even beyond the directives detailed in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),

This task is immense, but not insurmountable.  First, the messaging needs to be customized to reflect traditional African patriarchal values. Rather than anchoring conversations of change in the contexts of women’s rights or social affairs, advocacy should highlight the economic costs of domestic violence, thereby confirming it as a public concern.  There is ample data to reflect that gender-based violence hinders communities and countries alike economically, particularly when resources are drained from social services. In Uganda alone, about 9% of violent incidents have forced women to lose time from paid work, amounting to approximately 11 days a year.  This is equivalent to half of one month’s salary, which affecting not only the incumbent person, but also her family and dependents.  And these impacts ripple out across entire communities, regions, and nations.

In advocacy, greater emphasis should be placed on storytelling about women and girls who have survived gendered violence, and gone on to shape their communities positively.  The removal of stigma and the elevation of role models is a powerful tool that can strengthen the voices of victims and educate bystanders. Take, for example, the brave story of Javier Espinoza, who turned pain into power after living with an abusive father, by starting a program called “In a Box,” which provides women and kids in domestic violence shelters with the tools, resources, and comforts that they need.

Our next objective to end VAWG should be to talk women’s right anew. Women deserve more in society, as they have always been held back by external factors. Change in social attitudes that presently confine women or deny them fundamental rights - such as freedom from discrimination, female genital mutilation, and access to education - is needed.

"Women’s rights should not be talked about as a diversity issue, as if it is a fragment of human relationships, but as a priority,” says Jude Kelly; Founder of the Women of the World Festival during her address at the 2016 Commonwealth Women Leaders’ Summit,“It is actually ‘half of the world’.”

Moreover, collaborative advocacy efforts should be strategic in order to win over oppositional thinkers in the debates about sexual and domestic violence. Generations of men and women coming together to discuss these complex issues will expand the vision of both civic and private experts, thus leading to increased local and international awareness.  This collaborative approach might just be the starting-gun for new actions, decisions, and viewpoints. In a way, former Cameroonian Minister of Women’s Affairs, Catherine Bekang Mbock, touches upon this very school of thought when she says: “The real fight of the moment remains the promotion of gender, male-female partnership, [and] the necessary contribution of each gender to the edification of the society.”

We have to leave gendered violence behind, for it is only then women and girls would be safe to play their roles as agents of sustainable and inclusive development. The only way we can achieve this all-important objective is together.


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