Despite commitments made by member countries through the national poverty reduction strategies and programmes of the past decade, the number of people living in poverty in Africa rose by over 82 million, with women constituting 70 percent of the increase. The major causes of women’s poverty are embodied in unequal power relations between women and men, discriminatory inheritance rights and lack of access to property and productive resources. Widespread poverty also adversely affects women’s health and education.
Poor women are more vulnerable to all forms of violence because they typically live in uncertain and dangerous environments. Violence against women is the main outcome of gender-based inequalities, creating far greater consequences for women’s well-being and empowerment than previously thought. This is acknowledged in paragraph 117 of the Beijing Platform for Action:
“The fear of violence including harassment, is a permanent constraint on the mobility of women and limits their access to resources and basic activities. High social, health and economic costs to the individual and society are associated with violence against women.
Violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into subordinate positions…...” (United Nations: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1996, p.75)
The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action (POA) links population action to development with a significant emphasis on women’s rights, empowerment and gender equality.
The Programme for Action promotes gender equality in all spheres of life including in the family and community, but decisively places men in the center of the process if change is to be achieved. It encourages men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behavior, as well as their social and family roles (ICPD POA, Para 4.27). It highlights men’s special responsibility and promote their active involvement in:
“Shared control and contribution to family income, children’s education, health and nutrition; and recognition and promotion of the equal value of children of both sexes. Male responsibilities in the family must be included in the education of children from the earliest stages. Special emphasis should be placed on the prevention of violence against women and children.” (ICPD POA, Para 4.27).
At the state level, the ICPD POA calls on countries
“to take full measures to eliminate exploitation, abuse, harassment and violence against women, adolescents and children” (Para 4.9).
The ICPD plus 5 further spells out particular action in that,
“Governments should give priority to developing programmes and policies that foster norms and attitudes of zero tolerance for harmful and discriminatory attitudes, including son preference, sex selection discrimination and violence against the girl child and all forms of violence against women (Key Action, Para 48)”.
Millennium Development Goal 3 calls for the promotion of gender equality and women’s
empowerment. The target for measuring this goal’s progress is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education no later than 2015.
This goal is based on the understanding that women are generally poorer and less educated than men and account for a greater segment of the population living in absolute poverty. Their illiteracy rates remain high in comparison to men’s. In modern urban sectors, significant gender disparities exist in employment opportunities with a larger proportion of women occupying lower level and semi-skilled positions in comparison to men. Wide wage differentials are apparent. Traditional and cultural barriers and practices (e.g., the continuing prevalence of female genital mutilation,
forced early marriage, wife inheritance practices, and prohibitions on land ownership) continue to create serious status, health and economic disadvantages for women and girls.
Due to the narrow range of the progress indicators, the Millennium Task Force on Education and Gender Equality decided to broaden the operational framework to include:
- human capability as measured by education, health and nutrition scope;
- access to resources and opportunities in the paid non-agriculture sector;
- participation in decision-making in the public sphere through an increased number of seats in national government; and
MDG 3 provides an opportunity for a multi-dimensional approach to gender equality including women’s access to reproductive health, education, information, as well as to improved economic and political opportunities.
Issues and Challenges Facing Women
Limited decision-making power: Women have limited decision-making power within the household. In most parts of rural Africa, women are responsible for bringing income into the family by farming and petty trading, but possess limited control over how those resources are spent. Within poor households, the girl child is the first to be pulled out of school to support the family when income levels fall, hence limiting her skills development and income earning potential when she participates in the paid labour force.
Increased exposure to risk: Poor women and girls can be exposed to sexual violence on a daily basis due to unsafe working conditions. They must travel long distances to fetch water and firewood, and perform farm work. These tasks all involve walking or working in relatively isolated areas where they are vulnerable to sexual assault.
Multiple and excessive demands on time: The excessive demand on poor women’s time and the multiple chores they perform, creates tensions in households that lead to domestic violence with its subsequent social, psychological and economic impact on families. Violence also has an economic cost in terms of health services and health care and related absenteeism results in decreased workforce and farm productivity and reduced family income.
Lack of access to resources: Resource use and allocation is the domain of the males in the community. Land is considered the most fundamental resource for living conditions, economic empowerment, equity and equality but in some cases women have no inheritance rights. Without the rights to own land, women’s economic and physical security is compromised and leaves them more vulnerable to violence. Women’s work is limited to raising children and bringing food to the family. Resources available for girls’ education and upbringing are also limited, leading many into liaisons and situations detrimental to their health and security.
Unacknowledged violence: the community overlooks the occurrence of violence. Some cultures do not consider wife beating to be a form of violence. Sexual harassment of girls by male members of the community is the norm. Rape is not talked about in the community and generally goes unpunished. In some societies, the practice of “wife heritance” (marrying a relative of the deceased husband) is forced upon a widow to protect family assets through the male inheritance line, preventing women from being able to legally inherit land and property regardless of national laws designed to protect their rights. The use of domestic violence to intimidate women into entering or staying in situations where their rights are undermined is very common. However, it is seldom recognized as women are not encouraged to complain to anyone nor are they economically independent and in a position to leave.
Persistence and prevalence of customary law: Despite the many international legal and human rights instruments for which most African states are signatories, customary laws based on a patriarchal system prevail, and fail to provide women with their rights. Some countries have gone further and created new laws to implement the international instruments but these have not assisted women to exercise their rights. Law enforcement agencies, such as the police and judiciary are largely unaware of women’s rights and their impact on gender-based violence.
They may themselves hold culturally influenced gender biases. Legal penalties for gender-based violence are insufficient and erratically applied. Rape often goes unreported due to potential ostracization of the victim in the community. In some communities, raped women and girls are subsequently killed as they are viewed as having dishonoured their families. In some countries, rape laws provide loopholes for the perpetrator such as freedom from incarceration if he marries the woman he has raped.
Spousal abuse is common and many men physically abuse their spouses with impunity. In some societies, social honor and chastity protect men from being punished for their violent acts. Domestic violence is generally considered to be an internal family matter even in cases where there is physical injury.
Under-representation in political structures: Although women make up half of the voting population, they have been consistently under-represented in political institutions and have limited say in the formulation of public policy choices and priorities. Gender-blind policies in many spheres have directly or indirectly discriminated against women. Socio-cultural attitudes held by the voting public stereotype women as being incapable of undertaking challenging leadership roles. Technical and financial restraints usually place women at a greater disadvantage than men during election times. The masculinized nature of the political environment, often characterized by corruption, violence and intimidation, also works to discourage greater participation of women.
Areas for Action
- Enforce zero tolerance of all forms of violence against women and girls.
- Advocate for equal representation of women and men in all activities in the public sphere to create public awareness of women’s contribution to society and ensure women’s input in decision- making.
- Campaign for women’s equal political participation at the national and local levels as essential for future development of the nation’s future, its children.
- Lobby for the inclusion of gender and empowerment strategies in the national Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes (PRSPs) and for gender-sensitive national budgets in all sectors.
- Integrate the MDGs into plans of action.
- Create public awareness campaigns directed towards both men and women to enable greater awareness of their legal and human rights, the legal consequences of abusive behaviour, as well as the impact of GBV on future generations.
- Raise awareness of the importance of women’s economic empowerment and the economic costs of the absence of women’s contribution to the labour force as a result of violence.
- Strengthen and forge commitment through campaigns for the reform and implementation of laws allowing women to inherit land and property, access to education and health care.
- Call for media campaigns highlighting women’s important role in production and reproduction: the contribution of women’s paid and unpaid labour, and the importance of producing and reproducing the future labour force.
- Initiate collaboration between community leaders, elders, local authorities and schools to create greater understanding of the link between GBV and poverty.
- Develop procedures to systematically share information on issues, legislation and policies connecting women’s economic empowerment and men’s burden sharing within the household.
- Support community participation and collaboration in forming social transformation forums including those committed to combating GBV.
- Establish partnerships with government bodies, NGOs, human rights groups, institutions, and international agencies in the formulation and implementation of the national PRSPs.
3) Capacity Enhancement
- Fund training in participatory community leadership: enhance community capacity for social transformation by identifying critical issues, finding innovative solutions and planning to take action. The goal is to empower women to take charge of their own development.
- Develop resource maps of communities: identify resources available in community, village, city or neighborhood (institutions, services, resources, community centers, churches, mosques), develop ideas, identify obstacles and examine areas that need change or require strengthening as the first step to eliminate gender-based violence.
- Discuss the responsibility of the government in lieu of the commitment made to eliminate all forms of violence against women and make proposals and demands for the modifications of the laws or enactment of new laws.
- Revise school curriculum to reflect gender equality so that young boys and men can become aware of the devastating impact of violence; and young girls and women can gain self-esteem and confidence to combat violence before they become victims.
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in collaboration with the
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and
Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)