/ 25 May 2020

End the pandemic of violence against women activists

Uganda Health Virus Demonstration
Stella Nyanzi (C), a prominent Ugandan activist and government critic, is arrested by police officers as she organised a protest for more food distribution by the government to people who has been financially struggling by the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in Kampala, on May 18, 2020. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP)


Women have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has exacerbated gaping inequalities for women around the globe and in every sphere, from health and the economy to security and social protection.

Adding to this, the abuse against women is now on the rise. Domestic violence in particular, according to one eloquent observer in The New York Times, is “acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic”. Despite their stated commitment to human rights, few democracies have responded effectively to this threat.

Against this backdrop it was to be expected that some of the world’s most authoritarian states would reveal their true colours and commit horrendous acts of gender-based violence. In Africa specifically, attacks against female activists have been evident in Egypt, Uganda and Zimbabwe. So much more must be done to stamp out these transgressions.

Violence against women

To be sure, women were facing an epidemic of their own well before the coronavirus: unprecedented levels of political violence. Female politicians in the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, are far more likely to receive hate messages and threats over social media than their male counterparts, and the same holds true around the world. A study conducted in 2019 concluded that political violence against women had reached “some of the highest levels ever recorded.” The study also found gender-based violence, namely abductions and forced disappearances of women, are especially widespread in Africa.

The events this week in several African countries need to be understood as part of this broader phenomenon. But these atrocities nonetheless stand out for their perniciousness and merit added scrutiny. 

First, in Zimbabwe, three women affiliated with the country’s pro-democracy opposition, including a sitting member of parliament, were abducted from police custody and brutally assaulted over a 24-hour span. MP Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marowa, and Cecilia Chimbiri all remain in the hospital at the time of writing and have given harrowing testimony of the unspeakable crimes committed against them. Instead of taking the allegations seriously, authorities in Zimbabwe, including the justice minister, have publicly disgraced themselves by claiming — in an entirely new level of gaslighting — that they had imagined the ordeal and may themselves face prosecution. 

This is not a new experience in Zimbabwe. Recall that just last year comedian and government critic Samantha Kureya was abducted, beaten and forced to drink sewage before being dumped in the suburbs of the capital Harare. This incident is eerily familiar and fits a longstanding pattern of the use of violence to silence Zimbabwean women. Recall, for instance, the abduction and torture of Jestina Mukoko, the persecution of Beatrice Mtetwa, and the repeated beatings, arrests and torture inflicted against Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, and countless other female activists, from Women of Zimbabwe Arise. The list goes on.

Meanwhile in Uganda last week, Stella Nyanzi, a university lecturer, activist and perennial thorn-in-the-side of the country’s long-ruling dictator, was arrested for “inciting violence” as she helped lead a protest against the slow distribution of food and relief goods to vulnerable people affected by the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Photos of Nyanzi’s arrest and manhandling by police officers went viral and drew rightful rebuke. But as in Zimbabwe, this is nothing new. Just last year a court convicted Nyanzi on charges of “cyber-harassment” and sentenced her to jail in a decision that was criticised by human rights groups worldwide. 

Also this week in Egypt, Lina Attalah — editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, one of a shrinking number of independent news sites — was detained by the security forces. The regime of military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has long harassed Mada Masr, including Attalah, who has been arrested and violently detained before, as recently as last November.

It is telling that Egypt has been consistently ranked among the world’s top jailers of journalists, and also has an epidemic of targeted violence against women. The trend of censoring women and critics through violence are two sides of the same coin. In particular, “violence committed against women by institutions of the state” has long been on a disturbing scale, according to numerous human rights groups. 

Sustaining patriarchy

We need to act not just because of the untold harm caused to the women involved, but also because of the signal that these abuses — and the lies that are used to cover them up — send to other women. In Zimbabwe, for example, allies of the regime have propagated exactly the kinds of deceptions and stereotypes that prevent women from participating in politics in the first place. Take the victim-blaming tweet sent by Zimbabwe’s deputy minister of information, Energy Mutodi, who claimed that the three women were attacked because they “went out for a romantic night … with their lovers … [and] … tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for their services”. In addition to being a barefaced lie, this narrative reinforced the kinds of accusations that female leaders often face: that they are prostitutes and only come to harm because they act irresponsibly. 

Mutodi was subsequently sacked, but his post is still being circulated on social media. Worse still, by dispensing with Mutodi, President Emmerson Mnangagwa somehow comes across as a serious leader concerned about human rights issues, when in reality he is responsible for creating the very conditions under which these abuses take place. 

This is precisely the problem: although such instances of violence are horrendous, accountability is unlikely. Impunity prevails because authorities will deny any involvement and the difficulty of proving exactly what happened — especially when police are perpetrators — means that the international community will pull their punches. Although a number of international donors united to condemn the events in Zimbabwe, they only called for a “credible investigation” — which we know won’t happen, as the recent arrest of two journalists reporting on the story demonstrates  — instead of condemning the Mnangagwa government for its brutality. 

This is not enough. There is no point in the international community continuing to fund programmes that encourage women to run for office and vote during every election cycle, only to allow female leaders to be beaten and tortured with brazen impunity. This is not to suggest that African women need the international community to save them. On the contrary, female leaders have been standing up to repressive leaders for decades. Think of Ugandan opposition parliamentarian Betty Nambooze, a critic of the Museveni regime who was beaten so severely that she later had to have several operations on her legs and spine. Despite having been arrested numerous times, she has never given up. And every year, others join her, as new feminist group such as She Decides emerge to stand alongside existing women’s movements. 

These women do not need Western governments to fight their battles — but they will be more effective if the international community supports their cause. It is imperative not to allow authoritarian regimes to persistently adhere to an old playbook during the coronavirus era. Now, when international attention is focused on fighting the pandemic, rather than protecting human rights, historically marginalised groups are acutely vulnerable. Leaders who perpetrate and allow these abuses, whether in Africa or elsewhere, must be loudly shunned and shamed until things are put right.  

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Africa. Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organisation, Vanguard Africa.