/ 7 August 2021

Women in Africa are still trapped

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Women and girls continue to fight for their human rights and wellbeing, generations after they were recognised. (Photo: AFP/Marco Longari)

This year marks 59 years since the Pan-African Women’s Organisation (PAWO) was established in July 1962 as an arm of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union, dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

Pan African Women’s Day is commemorated annually on 31 July and the date is an important reminder of the struggle for women’s emancipation across the continent, whereas Women’s Day in South Africa, on 9 August, commemorates the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings in protest of the state’s apartheid pass laws.

The current situation in Southern Africa is such that, two generations later, women and girls continue to fight for their human rights and wellbeing. The emergence of Covid-19 exposed pre-existing structural gender inequality and discrimination, reminding us that the pandemic’s effect is gendered.

Research by Amnesty International has found that policies enacted by Southern African governments, to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, did not consider issues which overwhelmingly affect women and girls. Here, as elsewhere, gender-based violence was already entrenched before the pandemic. Consequently, the development and implementation of restrictive measures has been a catalyst for the spike in cases of gender-based violence, which have risen alongside the multiple waves of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

Just as hospital beds in Covid-19 wards reach full capacity and run out of oxygen, shelters for women survivors of gender-based violence quickly ran out of bed space. One such refuge, the Grace Help Centre in the mining town of Rustenburg in South Africa, reached its capacity of 30 people in the early months of the pandemic in 2020 following the start of the first lockdown. Other shelters across Southern Africa are also struggling to accommodate women attempting to escape isolation with abusive partners and family members, and the breakdown of support networks in communities. 

Although there has been progress in developing regional and international protections for women’s rights, in practice, many women and girls across Africa in toxic and abusive relationships invariably remain trapped. For instance, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) prohibits gender-based violence and all forms of exploitation of women and girls, including harmful practices that are detrimental to women and girls’ wellbeing. But, the implementation of the Maputo Protocol (and other treaties) remains elusive, because of the lack of political will, as justice systems throughout the region fail to meet the needs of gender-based violence survivors. This is not to mention the sociocultural attitudes, harmful gender stereotypes, habits and practices that discourage women and girls from reporting abuse in the first place.

It is in this jarring context that a woman in Madagascar may choose not to report her case of domestic abuse during lockdown because she knows that she will not receive the vital protection and support she needs. According to the most recent population survey conducted in the country in 2018, one in four women has been a victim of physical violence perpetrated by a current or former partner. On 13 December 2019, Madagascar’s parliament adopted a law to combat gender-based violence, however, failure by the government to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 restrictions undercut this intention resulting in more cases of gender-based violence with little legal recourse.

Meanwhile, governments across the region aren’t doing any better. In South Africa, by mid-June 2020, 21 women and children had been killed by the women’s partners, and police recorded a 37% increase in gender-based violence cases within the first week of the lockdown in April 2020. An emblematic case is that of Tshegofatso Pule. The 28-year-old woman, who was eight months pregnant, went missing on 4 June 2020 and was found four days later, stabbed and hung in a tree in Johannesburg.

In Zimbabwe, Musasa Project, an organisation that offers protection services for women who are victims of domestic violence, documented 764 cases of gender-based violence in the first 11 days of the national lockdown, which was a significant rise from the 500 monthly cases recorded pre-Covid-19.

In Mozambique, local NGO, Center for Public Integrity, broke the harrowing story of violence against and exploitation of women at Ndlavela Women’s Prison in Maputo. A commission of inquiry, set up by the ministry of justice in July 2021, confirmed the allegations against prison officials, including of sexual exploitation, torture, and other ill treatment.

A look at the experiences of women and girls, from Antananarivo to Maputo shows multiple barriers to justice that must be addressed in national responses to human rights abuses against women. Civil society organisations dedicated to the protection and promotion of women’s rights and wellbeing need to be acknowledged as essential service providers and adequately funded. It’s high time women-led civil society organisations and women human rights defenders had seats at the table to ensure the rights and needs of women and girls are integrated and reflected in Africa’s human rights agenda.

Collectively, we would have reasons to celebrate Pan African Women’s Day if our incarcerated sister, our cousin confined in an abusive relationship due to national stay-at-home orders, our aunt seeking refuge at a shelter and our mothers who have buried their daughters, were all afforded the protections and peace they rightfully deserve. Governments across Southern Africa must stop paying lip service to women’s rights protection and make it their number one priority because anything less is unacceptable.