For girls and women in Africa, Gender Based Violence is an everyday reality but things can change if we work together, says Primrose Manyalo.
Gender based violence (GBV) is so close to home to African women, like myself, that we smell it in the air we breathe, see it on our way to work, at church, at home and in restaurants. It is worn by some like an accessory to everyday outfits. This evil is worn the same way as cocoa butter in their Afros; and when they experience it, they shrug and move on as if nothing happened. For every girl sexually abused another 10 assaults go unreported. The big question is whether this should be the case?
As the 16 days of activism to end GBV draws to a close, one way or the other, if you are a girl or woman from Africa, your lived realities push you to air your views around this topical issue. This is not a cause distanced from our day to day lives and the struggles we have to overcome to prevent and eliminate violence, for our own good and the good of girls and women around us. A regular program or action will use words like “survivors and victims”, but if you are from Africa, you actually know that these people are you, your sisters, aunts, cousins, best friends, female work colleagues, mothers and grandmothers.
This years activism globally is centred around rape, violence and inequality, I will give you my own perspectives on these issues, what I think causes them and what we can do, as individuals and collectively to tackle them.
Numbers don’t lie!
In Zimbabwe, where I come from, about 1 in 3 women aged 15 to 49 are reported to have experienced physical violence and about 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
In South Africa,114 rapes are recorded by the police each day. The number of reported rapes increased between 2018 and 2019.
McKinsey’s Women Matter, stated that only 5% of CEOs, 22% of cabinet members, and 24% of parliamentarians in Africa are women. These numbers seem shockingly low, and yet align with statistics from the US, where only 5% of CEOs and 27% of cabinet members are women. This is not an African issue. It is a global phenomenon.
What’s the problem here?
Socialisation is one of the biggest challenges and contributors to this problem. It is rooted in our culture, traditional beliefs, values and norms. Growing up, I recall that my friends and I did the same chores with our brothers when we were young, but as we budded into puberty, the boy’s small smug habits started being overlooked. They cooked less, did less household chores and would not get shouted at, the same way as us, if they did not clear their plates after a meal. That is when the problem starts.
As the idea of what femininity and masculinity looks like is shaped in our own homes and spills out into wider society. Boys are socialised to be macho, strong and frank, to do less household chores as this is considered female work. On the other hand, girls mostly are prepared to be wives, mothers and care-givers for men. This means most men in Africa, marry and expect their wives to take the role of their mothers. I am not negating all efforts to empower women being undertaken today, my point is that socialisation is still playing a huge role in shaping how boys and girls become men and women and how they behave when they do.
This naturally leads to patriarchy, a huge contributing factor to gender inequality in our society. Harmful cultural, religious and traditional practices have continued to reinforce inequalities in all spheres from the home to the workplace and to parliament. Women are still viewed as tokens in the political arena where they are used as pawns in a game of chess to settle cheap political scores and organise support for male chauvinistic leaders which has led to very few women occupying key decision-making positions in political parties. In Zimbabwe for instance, of the 210 parliamentary seats, only 26 went to women.
According to statistical indices Africa is the poorest continent in terms of people’s access to basic needs such as healthcare, education and basic commodities. The World Food Program reported that 7.7 million people in Zimbabwe this year are food insecure. This worsens the situation for young girls and women, who are hardest hit by HIV and Aids, women’s sexual & maternal health, teenage pregnancies and early marriages which increases their vulnerability. There is a strong correlation between poverty, and inequality.
Where are the answers then?
The answer to some of these big challenges perpetuating GBV is right in front of us. Successful women, have in some instances had the full support of the men in their lives, be it brothers, husbands or male colleagues at work. This will sound controversial and as if I am suggesting that women need men to succeed, but this is not what I am saying. See, all the responses to addressing gender inequality, did so, with limited inclusion of males, leading to two parallel lifestyles that have occasionally caused commotion with one sex feeling threatened by the other. This is counter-productive, because we are talking about years and years of patriarchal socialisation , dominance and disregard of the female. It takes a holistic approach and concerted efforts to work with our male counterparts to unlearn some of these toxic cultures and oppressive norms. After all culture isn’t static.
Nelson Mandela also noted that the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world is education. Therefore efforts must be made to educate girls and women, including empowering them with life skills, leadership and living skills so that they take control of their lives and claim spaces of influence and power. And we must also make efforts to re-educate men and society as a whole to better respect women’s autonomy.
Legal reform, policy shaping and practice can complement educative efforts. In my country there is a stiff penalty for perpetrators of gender-based violence, who can be jailed for over three years. While a lot can still be done, the police, legislation and civil society have joined forces to enforce the law, provide victim-friendly services and psychological support for victims of GBV.
Lastly, issues related to GBV also have to do with deep psychological warfare, and even empowered young women and girls can stay be subjected to GBV and be trapped in it. While they may have skills, education and a strong voice, they may continue to suffer in silence as they have been smothered emotionally, adapting to the abuse and feeling trapped. In these instances, it is crucial to get psychological help and speak to professional therapists, close friends and relatives to get support in breaking the cycle of violence, be it physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological. While the legal, social and economic empowerment initiatives are good, at times this needs to be coupled with psychological and emotional support.
As we all joined together to Orange the World, we are deeply reminded that each day of the year, is a day to end gender-based violence and emancipate young girls and women. This has a huge bearing on the bottom line as transformative change will not be achieved without the full participation of young girls and women.
What are you doing in your home, at work and in your community to address rape, gender based violence and inequaulity at work?