What gains from the African renaissance if we fail to view women as equals
At a global summit in London this week, delegates are discussing and debating so-called gender violence, only this time it is done within a specific framework, that of rape and gender violence in conflicts in the eastern districts of the not-so-Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The summit enjoys such high exposure and is so important, the local British High Commissioner referred to its debates at the celebration of the Queens’ birthday, and the Namibian government even dispatched a high-level participant, Professor Peter Katjavivi. But the biggest summit drawcard is American actress, Angelina Jolie, a respected benefactor of African charities.
Gender issues originating in conflict situations and violence against women and children, unfortunately are only too familiar threads in the colourful (mostly red) tapestry that tells Africa’s story of exploiting the vulnerable and the defenceless. It is only too convenient to exploit the females belonging to or deemed to support another faction, even if they are from the same country, or worse still, from the same tribe. And I suppose it is a bit silly to focus only on the Congo while the Central African Republic is an equally notorious basket case, and the memories of South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Cote d’ Ivoire are still relatively fresh. For that matter, one can go back in the history of the past thirty years, and for every calendar year, there will be one or other African conflict where the real suffering always came down to the women and children.
If you are not African, it is easy to dismiss these conflict situations under the label, Africa the Dark Continent, then go on to do business with whoever proved to be strongest, and pretend the atrocities never were so acute as the victims claim.
But I also sense a change in the narrative, shifting from international focus from those groups working in development, to local grassroots level, in whatever community is affected by this type of violence.
But consider for a moment our own track record. Gender violence, as a domestic issue became so intense over a number of years, it lead to the landmark Prayer Day earlier this year where thousands upon thousands of people just pitched to participate, voluntarily. Compare this to the general apathy when we have to vote, and I suspect even the best-informed people in government were astonished by this unexpected reflex from society at large. It was the first signal to me that there is a definite, noticeable shift in the way communities tolerate, or no longer tolerate, violence against the weak. But, sadly, although that Prayer Day made a very strong impression on most, gender violence in our country did not stop.
The issue that is forced to the surface, is one of mentality.
I ask myself the question: Is there fundamentally a difference between a local man who slashes his consort when his ego fails him, and a militia in the DRC or the CAR, who violates a women to prove a point to his enemies, or to intimidate the local community not to support his adversaries.
Go back a little further and ask the same question, this time comparing a Namibian domestic squabble that turns violent, to a systematic eradication of another ethnic group, as happened in Rwanda. I am sure these basic considerations will keep both sociologists and politicians’ minds occupied for a long time, but I fear it will be wasted intellectual energy.
I only see a long term, lasting solution in a type of quasi-institutional framework that covers the whole sub-Sahara continent.
By this I mean that there must first be an official watchdog, perhaps run under the auspices of the African Union or one of its fledgling agencies. Secondly, there must be an enforcer agent meaning a group of people with the authority and the institutional back-up to go into a conflict zone, with force if need be, and to provide on-the-ground protection to women and children. Ultimately, there must be regional tribunals to which any wronged women can take her case, charging the perpetrator with his crimes, without any fear of reprisal.
We can look at gender violence from all different angles. I do not see much difference between a Namibian man cutting up his girlfriend and a Congolese rebel, hacking his enemy’s women to pieces. They are both motivated by the same drive for revenge (in their own eyes).
In the same breath I also believe that if we want to claim our African renaissance, not much of this will become reality if we do not, almost reflexively, protect those in our communities who are the weakest.