What way forward for African Protocol for Women’s Rights?

By IndepthAfrica
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Mar 8th, 2012
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Marren Akatsa-Bukachi

Ending gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity. This includes recognition of the importance of active engagement of men and women at all levels, whether they are policy makers, parents, spouses or young boys and girls.

It is significant that the organizers of the Africa UNiTE campaign have chosen to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as a way of drawing attention to the terrible and pervasive scourge of violence against women and girls in our continent.

Yes, Africa must shout it from the mountain-top, and the highest mountain-top in Africa, for all to hear because the resounding silence down below has been deafening.

It is instructive and quite ironic that commitments made by African countries, through ratification of various international and regional instruments that specify obligations for the elimination of violence against women, speaks volumes about their paper commitment to address violence against women; but this commitment is not adequately reflected in action.

Signatures by African Heads of States and Ministers to the “Say NO Petition in 2009” signifying their commitment to end violence against women and girls at the national level, is another paper commitment, and the symbolic “turning on” of the light for their country on the map of Africa, at the launch of Africa UNiTE in January 2010, as a sign of their commitment to participate in the United Nations Secretary-general’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign.

In order to raise awareness on ending violence against women and to accelerate efforts and implementation of commitments in Africa, a climb to Mount Kilimanjaro has been organized for 5-9 March 2012, under the theme “Climb Up, Speak Out”, as a major advocacy event of the Africa UNiTE Campaign.

The Mount Kilimanjaro Climb to End Violence Against Women and Girls is coordinated by the Africa UNiTE Secretariat, working with participating agencies and in partnership with the Kilimanjaro Initiative and with support from the United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU), SAY NO-UNiTE and the UN System.

Through advocacy initiatives at the global, regional and national levels, the UNiTE campaign aims to raise public awareness and mobilize communities to end violence against women and girls. In addition to working with and assisting Member States and supporting longstanding efforts of women and civil society organizations, the campaign is actively engaging men and boys, young people, celebrities, artists, sports personalities, the private sector and others.

The Campaign seeks to achieve the following Six Outcomes to be implemented by 2015, through national commitments and actions:

• National laws are in place and enforced in line with international human rights standards

• National plans of action are adopted and adequately resourced, with implementation underway

• Data collection and analysis systems are undertaken on prevalence of various forms of violence against women and girls

• National and/or local campaigns are launched and a diverse range of civil society actors are mobilized in preventing violence and supporting survivors

• Sexual violence in conflict situations is systematically addressed in all peace and security policy and funding frameworks and mechanisms for protection and prevention of systematic rape are implemented

• Safety of women and girls in public space

This is a wonderful initiative and we see it as an opportunity to further raise and highlight this issue in Africa. However, activists working on ending all things that violate the rights of women may need to climb the highest peak of Mount Everest before we get our leaders to put their money where their signatures are. The continent is littered with pacts, commitments, and protocols-all addressing the issue of violence against women. Our leaders are quick and eager to put pen to paper and sign whatever comes their way. Implementation is completely another issue altogether and this is the crux of the matter. Women are not protected even where some of these laws exist.

Recently in Kenya, a trend has emerged where women are battering men in the Central Province of Kenya. The hullaballoo this has raised in the country, and the media frenzy that has resulted, including reports on the BBC, have gone viral on the social networks. The contention is that gender equality has now been taken too far and women have become “big headed” with power.

An organisation calling itself, “Maendeleo ya Wanaume” (Development for Men)-a name obviously meant to mimic and counteract the generations old “Maendeleo ya Wanawake” (Development for Women)- has come up to lobby for the battered men. Their contention and raison d’être: that women are drunk with power and women’s rights, and should be brought back to reality. Whereas Maendeleo ya Wanawake has been working on issues of social, economic and political development, its’ recently launched male counterpart is focused on saving men from violence by their spouses and partners.

Its response to the women’s battering? A protest action – don’t eat your wife’s’ cooking for a period of six days. It has not yet been established how successful this was. The organisation attributed their campaign to save men from women’s battering to a research conducted in Central Province and parts of the Rift Valley that showed that almost 900,000 men had been battered over a period of five years. The root cause for this battering was not even evinced or considered in the subsequent dialogue that ensued. This mass husband battering is considered as alien as the sight of a Kenyan man with babies securely strapped on their backs carrying firewood or water; a common scene of Kenyan women from that region.

In the case of the woman whose seriously battered husband had been shown on the media with panga (machete) cuts on his face and parts of his body, she was one of the catalysts of the media frenzy. The police swung into action with alacrity and arrested the woman. By the following day, she was shown on TV in the dock, accused of grievous bodily harm. This is exactly the opposite in the case of violence against women.

Why am I dwelling on this story? Because it shows the way gender-based violence, those perpetrated on men and those on women, are like an opaque glass where one side is completely different from the other side.

Women are battered every day and almost every minute. In some parts of Africa, a woman is raped every ten minutes, yet this does not raise as much furor as when a man is battered. The feeble response from police when a woman reports violence, especially domestic violence, is that it is a domestic issue and should be solved amicably at family level. The woman is sent right back into the arms of her batterer and is not protected. This in itself is another form of violence against women. Women are indeed the first to feel the blow and the last to be relieved of it.

This illustrates clearly that the mindsets of society have not changed in spite of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Protocol) having come into force in November 2005. There is need to raise awareness on what constitutes violence against women. The men of Kenya’s Central Province do not realize that the changing gender roles thrust on the women could have driven them to the end of their tether. Central province has the highest number of men consuming local and illicit alcoholic brews that are highly potent and in some cases toxic, to the extent of rendering them completely inebriated, unable to contribute meaningfully for their families, at times blind and in some instances, dead. Over time, they become alienated from their wives and children, and when they try to assert some of their lost masculinity, it is too late and violence is the result from a woman whose patience has been sorely tested over several years of neglect.

What am I trying to say? That violence against women is just too pervasive and is taken way too lightly. The media, one of the key institutions for social transformation, can be partly faulted for this. The media, like our African governments, is quick at putting pen to paper, highlighting negative stereotypes or what is considered unusual-such as husband battering. Little attempt is made to research why this phenomenon is taking place and what can be done about it. None of the women accused of perpetrating battering are given a forum to air their views and tell their side of the story. Instead, the Maendeleo ya Wanaume leadership had immense media exposure, and an opportunity to air their views, which they used to censure women for being drunk with gender equality, but not the men for being drunk and inebriated with alcohol and dubious brews and neglecting their family roles. Instead, the discussions veered away from the root causes to the need for the men to assert their masculinity and show the women who is boss.

There is need to bring the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) Coalition into partnership with the media in order for the Articles in the Protocol to be appreciated by the men and women in the African Union member states.

SOAWR’s campaign for ratification, domestication, and implementation can benefit from the Africa UNiTE Campaign to End Violence Against Women, which has now been owned by the African Union. The campaign needs to follow the “in your face” mode, aggressively using every opportunity to highlight the issues in the media and make the link between that particular issue and the related article in the Protocol. The example from Kenya portrayed in this article trivialized the whole concept of gender-based violence and made it a power contest between women and men, taking us back several years. However, the SOAWR coalition has an opportunity to make this link, debunk the untruth that gender equality has a direct correlation with the increased male battering, and mobilize feminists and gender activists to bring the discussion back to earth, situate it in the root cause analysis, and away from the blame game.

Ending gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity. This includes recognition of the importance of active engagement of men and women at all levels, whether they are policy makers, parents, spouses or young boys and girls.

The gaps are there. Please listen to the silence. Who and what isn’t there? Finding nothing is a very important “finding” in social policy. This is the gap that must be addressed. The gap is deep in the deafening silence of signed and ratified Protocols that are forgotten on the shelves of technocrats.

Marren Akatsa-Bukachi is the Executive Director of the Eastern African sub Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI) which is a member of SOAWR.

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