Violence against women goes beyond beatings. It includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, sexual harassment, intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, trafficking and forced prostitution. Such practices cause trauma, injuries and death. Female genital cutting, for example, is a common cultural practice in parts of Africa. Yet it can cause bleeding and infection, urinary incontinence, difficulties with childbirth and even death. African women have experienced inequality in many aspects of life throughout history. Today, some of the largest risks African women face are human trafficking and gender-based violence. These risks are prevalent in underdeveloped areas where women are more likely to have lesser access to education and formal job opportunities.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), domestic violence is a global problem affecting millions of women. In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the WHO found that 56 per cent of women in Tanzania and 71 per cent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands or other intimate partners. The rate of such violence in sub-Saharan Africa is higher than the global average. Around 44% of African women, or more than two in five, have been subjected to gender-based violence.
The East and Southern Africa region has high rates of sexual violence against women and girls. In seven countries, around 20% of those aged 15 to 24 years reported they had experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner. Sexual violence against early adolescents aged 15 years and below is highest in the conflict and post-conflict countries of the DRC, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The high rate of violence against women and girls (VAW) in the region is maintained by the persistence of harmful gender norms, alcohol use and overall increased poverty, violence in urban slum areas and conflict areas. Partner violence and the fear of abuse prevent girls from refusing sex and jeopardize their ability to negotiate condom use, studies in sub-Saharan Africa have found.
A study on domestic violence in Uganda by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that families justified forcing widows to be inherited by other males in the family with arguments that the family had all contributed to the bride price and that therefore the woman was family property. Once inherited, a widow lost her husband’s property, which went to the new husband. And if a woman sought separation or divorce, the dowry had to be reimbursed. Often, the study found, a woman’s family is unable or unwilling to refund the dowry, and her brothers may beat her to force her back to her husband or in-laws because they don’t want to give back cows.
According to the African Sisters Education Collaborative, 9.24 million people in Africa are currently victims of modern-day slavery. This is 23% of the world’s population of modern-day slaves. In addition, over half of all human trafficking victims in Africa are under the age of 18. The majority of African human trafficking victims are female. Moreover, sexual exploitation makes up over half of all human trafficking exploitation in Africa. The exploitation of victims frequently lasts for less than a year. However, some victims reported experiencing exploitation for up to 16 years.
Many African countries accord equal rights to women in their current constitutions, such as Uganda, South Africa and Kenya but unfortunately a few countries still have no laws specifically outlawing domestic violence and sexual harassment. The sexual violence bill in Kenya, for example, passed only after certain sections, such as one that would have outlawed marital rape, were removed. In Uganda, it is required by law that a certain number of government positions and organizations’ leadership roles be allocated specifically for women. Rwanda criminalize violence against women in domestic violence laws.
In 2020, Africa and the world at large experienced an unprecedented surge in Violence Against Women and Girls as a result of the lockdown and movement restrictions to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Labeled the shadow pandemic, it was estimated that for an average lockdown duration of three months, there would be an additional 15 million cases of VAWG; 31 million for an average of six months; 45 million for an average of nine months; and 61 million if the average lockdown period extends up to one year. Across the African continent in particular, gender data shows exacerbated gender inequalities under COVID-19, placing women and girls at greater risk of VAWG(Violence Against Women and Girls).
Following school closures, gender inequalities intensified especially for the poorest girls and adolescents who faced a greater risk of early and forced marriage, sexual abuse and unintended pregnancy. In Kenya, for instance, data showed that in the far northern town of Lodwar, teenage pregnancies nearly tripled to 625 in June-August 2020, compared to 226 in the same period in 2019. In Malawi, it was reported that at least 5,000 cases of teenage pregnancies in Phalombe district in the nation’s south, and more than 500 girls had been married off following the pandemic. In Uganda, at least 4,300 teenage pregnancies were registered in the first four months of the COVID-19 lockdown by the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development. These statistics reflect the deep-seated structural inequities that feed and continue to provide a fertile ground for VAWG.
Gender Based Violence needs to be addressed especially in emergency situations. However, countries in crisis or transition have limited capacity to assess and address GBV, while coordination between humanitarian actors and their national counterparts on GBV tends to be weak. Most countries in the region do not reflect their commitments – as expressed in numerous international conventions and treaties they are party to – in national legislative policy and action. Even where national legislation on GBV exists, law enforcement agencies such as the police and judiciary are largely unaware of women and children’s rights. In humanitarian crises, there is usually little reference to and funding for GBV prevention and response in emergency plans.