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What are the forces that continue to reinforce gender-based violence in Africa?

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By Bella Mkhabela

The United Nations (UN) describes Gender-based violence (GBV) as extreme violence and brutality targeted at women and girls. This brutality plays out in the form of abuse, abductions and trafficking, raping and killing of women of all ages.

According to the United Nations Women’s Organisation 2022 Report, GBV stems from deep-rooted negative stereotypes of how women should behave compared to men. The phenomenon is exacerbated by the gendered state of inequality in the world, a patriarchal system that favours and seeks to favour men. In Africa, GBV threatens women’s daily lives and safety.

Most importantly, it threatens the potential development of many states. Several African countries need to be developed because of the need for economic growth and infrastructural development. These two are harder to achieve when only half of the population is catered to.

In past decades, African leaders have worked hard to develop African economies. The development of the African economy would allow the Continent to compete and participate equally with the rest of the world community, bringing much-needed support and capital for the people in African societies. To achieve that goal, the government must open the economy to everyone understating that the empowerment of women means more economic growth and participation overall.

Over the past decade, African governments such as Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana have implemented policies for the empowerment and protection of women’s rights in the workplace and other essential sectors like politics.

These three states have been making strides in the legislative sphere; making various laws and policies to protect women and creating specialised services to empower and enable women. According to Alt Advisory Africa, last year, the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, signed three new laws to strengthen efforts against GBV.

The implementation of such rights and services, unfortunately, fell short due to the lack of sufficient institutions equipped to deal with gender-based violence. There are many complaints from communities and victims of gender-based violence about their treatment by protection services such as the police. The police force in places like South Africa is under represented and needs more gender diversity. This would explain the lack of sensitivity and ability to address GBV cases.

However, despite efforts made by governments across the Continent, Africa still has some of the most violent and hostile nations for women to live in. According to Gouws (2022), the latest police figures in South Africa show that 10,818 rape cases were reported in the first quarter of 2022. South Africa has among the highest rape incidence in the world, despite being an economic powerhouse on the African continent. What factors continue to reinforce gender-based violence, and how can governments deal with these factors?

According to Alieke (2022), one of the most significant factors acting as a hindrance to progress is cultural and traditional practices. Women’s rights groups argue that the principles of the patriarchy are practised through culture and tradition, and in most cases, they become accepted as the norm.

Many communities in Africa, to this day, support the practice of harmful traditions targeted at young women, such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, and female circumcision. In addition, they uphold practices that perpetuate toxic notions of masculinity and how men should treat women, for instance, not outlaw marital rape.

Furthermore, this violence is not just exhibited through the physical harm inflicted on women. Still, it denies political rights, economic participation, access to social spaces, education, or material benefits such as land. Women are treated as second-class citizens, or even worse, as property to be transferred from father to husband. In many communities, girl children are denied the right to inherit their parent’s properties and participate in wealth building.

A large part of Africa’s history and traditional knowledge system was destroyed by colonialism. Since then, African societies have tried to build and redevelop those knowledge systems authentically. There’s a belief that patriarchy could be the foundation of African traditions and cultural norms.

However, history does not seem to support that claim. Ownership of property and the specific ownership through the patriarchal lineage do not seem to be fundamentally African notions but more European. That begs the question of whether or not the harmful practices that have left women in a very vulnerable state in today’s society are indeed traditional and cultural.

No matter the origin of the ideals and stereotypes against women, this perception lives on and is now deeply rooted in Africa. Women are treated as less-than and othered in many communities and societies in Africa, commodified for marriage and relegated permanently to bear children and be homemakers. Women are not treated and given the opportunity to be equal contributors as men in society, denied freedom of expression, education and work opportunities.

Legislation against gender-based violence is not enough to fight against this pandemic in Africa. Legislation is an excellent first step to outlawing harmful traditional practices that dehumanise women and girls. African societies, in addition, have to do a lot of work to sensitise communities and educate people about the equal value and importance of girl children.

Governments must use awareness campaigns to crush harmful stereotypes and the notions that these stereotypes are traditions and, therefore, cannot be changed. If families invest in all children, their education, happiness and health, countries are far more likely to succeed and progress faster. This rapid growth is essential for their survival and decolonisation in African societies.

Bella Mkhabela – Admin and Research Assistant IPATC: Gender Unit