UN’s 16 Days To Bring Attention To Gender Violence

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Written by Andrew Friedman

For 16 days, between November 25 and December 10, the United Nations observes “16 days of Activism against Gender Violence.”

The period, which began on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and concludes on Human Rights Day, is meant to bring attention to the scourge of gender-based violence around the world.

It also presents an important opportunity to look at just how prevalent gender-based violence is across Africa.

For too many across the continent, violence against women is an everyday occurrence. This includes extreme situations such as the rape epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once referred to as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman” and the “rape capital of the world.”

Alongside these are too many others that suffer underreported violence and injustice such as “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” along with the horrific practice of Female Genital Mutilation, a common practice in parts of the continent, according to one UN report.

There is also an unfortunate prevalence of partner or wife-beating continent-wide. In one 2005 WHO study it was found that 56 percent of women in Tanzania and 71 percent of women in rural Ethiopia “reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands or other intimate partners.”

The problem is not concentrated in the two countries examined by the WHO. An International Rescue Committee study from 2012, based on 10 years of study in post-conflict West African states called domestic violence the “most urgent, pervasive and significant protection issue for women in west Africa.”

In too many countries across the continent legislation has lagged woefully behind the issue.

Lack of Legislation

Kenya is a representative case. The country, which has no comprehensive law against domestic violence and sexual abuse, is seeing its first such bill wind its way through the halls of parliament right now.

The Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill 2013 is an attempt by the country’s parliament to protect “all persons in a domestic relationship,” according to Joyce Majiwa, the lead consultant working on the bill. It attempts to fill gaps, where Kenyan laws that criminalize violence do not take into account the particular difficulties of domestic violence, such as the need for temporary shelter and what to do with children in such situations.

Kenya is not alone. A 2011 report by UN Women on the Progress of the World’s Women reported that only 21 sub-Saharan states have specific laws prohibiting domestic violence. Even those that have such regimes may not be paying nearly enough attention to the problem.

In one example, Sierra Leone passed a law criminalizing domestic violence and providing for women in such situations in 2007, but as of 2010 only one person had been prosecuted under the new law, according to the IRC report on Western Africa

While it is imperative that countries throughout the continent pass comprehensive legislation to deal with gender based violence, the law can only go so far. Many analysts point to cultural norms and mores that add to the problem.

In one report by the UN Population Fund dating back to 2000, the Fund documented interviews across Africa (and much of Asia) where men are seen as having “a right to discipline their wives as they see fit.” The report went further saying that “the right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife” was “a deeply held conviction.”

The state of gender-based violence across the world is horrific. In too many places worldwide there is inadequate attention and legislation to protect abused women from intimate abusers. This is not specific to Africa. The UN’s 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence serves to draw a great deal of attention to the profound human rights issue.

Not All Doom and Gloom

As described so eloquently by a UN special report, “women…are not just victims.” There has been a collective effort across the continent and the world to stand up and demand equal rights and an end to gender-based violence that has been ongoing for decades, since the campaign that would result in the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

This movement continues to this day with a wide variety of women’s groups moving towards a wide variety of goals.

In one particularly salient example, November 17th saw a “miniskirt march” in downtown Nairobi. The march was meant as a protest against the all-too-common occurrence of gender-based violence that occurred when women were seen as “inappropriately dressed” by unelected, arbitrary mobs, who then resort to abuse.

The marchers are demanding that police open mobile units so that victims of such violence can report incidents “from the safety of their own homes.” This will solve the problem, described by one of the protest’s organizers, that “victims are afraid of going to the police station,” rendering laws against gender-based and sexual violence unenforceable, according to The Guardian.

Women’s rights are human rights. This includes a right to be free from violence both within and outside of the home. The UN’s 16 days of Activism campaign is an attempt to remind the world that this fundamental problem still exists the world over.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.