White Ribbon Day (#WhiteRibbonDay) and #OrangeTheWorld are both campaigns today, 25 November, marking the start of 16 days of activism against gender abuse on the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW). Whilst people are more real than statistics, nonetheless, the stats are representations of the reality of some people’s lives, they make sobering reading. Sixteen days won’t end violence against women and girls, but it might be the beginning of the end, if we start to say ‘no’ every day and give women back control, power and agency over their bodies and lives. The 16-day-long campaign ends on Human Rights Day, 10 December, but shouldn’t stop there.
12 Facts about Violence towards Women
2 women each week are killed by an ex or current partner (UK), 40-50% of all murders of women worldwide are by family or partners, but just 4-5% of men
1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 transwomen experience domestic abuse, in some countries those figures are 2 in 3, up to 71% (Ethiopia)
Even Universities are not safe where 1 in 7 young women experience abuse or violence
Up to 30% (eg Bangladesh) of women experience their first sexual act as forced
Forced marriage and sex tourism often go hand-in-hand with low ages of consent e.g., 9 (Afghanistan), 12 (Philippines), 13 (Japan), regularly 14-15 in other Asian countries. Rural areas may allow marriage even younger with sex at puberty (age 9 or earlier). Among Sri Lanka’s Moor and Malay minorities under 12 is permitted with the permission of male leaders or relatives!
Over the last year 295 trans people were killed, mostly transwomen
More facts about violence against women from WHO, UN Women.
“I’m a simple village girl who has always obeyed the orders of my father and brothers. Since forever, I have learned to say yes to everything. Today I have decided to say no…I want a divorce!…You’ve sullied the reputation of our family! You have stained our honor!” – Nujood Ali, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
Change Men* and Society to Eliminate Causes of Violence
Violence and abuse are possible because of physical, social, religious and economic power imbalances. Men should not have power and control over women’s fortunes, choices, and bodies. This is manifested in legal, religious, cultural and political ways including victim shaming, reduced legal rights, and religious traditions. Women need human rights and agency over their bodies and lives, freedom to safely and economically exit abusive relationships, and for authorities to take seriously the claims of sexual and physical violence.
(*Men in the main, as they have the power, and are the main perpetrators, but this does not exlude women on women and girls violence)
On Africa Day it is worth reflecting on diversity as much as the so-called unity of the African Union. Africa may be a continent but it is far from united or content. Nor need it be. Diversity and difference, religious, economic and national identity struggle, are features of growth as much as peace and unity are. For now, discontent still rules whether in North Africa’s culturally Islamic Arab Spring countries or in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s continued issues. In between, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya struggle with North-South divides, extremist groups and campaigns of terror. There are many Africas, not just one.
Whilst shaking off the shackles of historical European colonialism, no one African identity has emerged but dozens. Self-determination, battles for independence, and religious and tribal/civil wars have ensured that national identities and stable futures are still fighting for supremacy. Africa is still making and creating its modern history.
War and Conflict
Africa leads the world on at least one thing, its 161 conflicts in 26 African countries, half of the continent. Peace One Day? and prosperity are yet distant horizons. The poor, dispossessed, women and children are so often the innocent victims in conflict. Africa needs peace, but that is not the same as unity.
Africa Day, itself, celebrates the May 25 founding in Ethiopia, by 30 African leaders, of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which in 2002 became the African Union whose motto is “united and strong”. Its current chairperson is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his statement today is AU president Robert Mugabe’s Africa Day statement 2015.
Geography and the Clash of Civilisations
When was the last time anyone thought of Egypt, ancient or modern, as part of Africa rather than part of the Middle East? Geographical unity is a false guide to religious, cultural and national identity unity. Again, when we talk of the ancient world Africa is usually forgotten, yet Egypt is African, Nubia too, and what about historical Mali and the medieval literary and learning centre of Timbuktu.
Arabic, English, French, and Swahili, may be the most well known African languages but many forget the 500 languages of Nigeria, or indeed the 2-3,000 across the whole of Africa making it the most diverse location on Earth, linguistically. South Africa has 11 official languages, more than anywhere else, only Somalia has just one. Most countries will speak ex-colonial languages alongside indigenous ones. 75% of Africa speaks over a dozen different languages but 25% speak hundreds more.
African Economics & Absolute Poverty
Many in African still survive – and that is a dubious description, on less than $1-$2 a day.
“Over the last 30 years, worldwide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to under 20%). But in African countries the percentage has barely fallen. Still today, over 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.” Our Africa – Poverty
Nigeria, riven by conflict, violence, corruption, is nonetheless on target to continue to grow as Africa’s strongest economic nation, in the main due to oil.
African Women and Gender Equality
The theme of Africa Day, this year, is the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Gender equality is far off with Boko Haram continuing to kidnap young girls and make sex slaves or forced marriages of teenage women. Education is still not an equal right in many states and countries, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a health and human rights issue barely being tackled at all.
“a recognition of centuries of African women and women from the Diaspora to the struggles against slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and for the emancipation of our continent and African men and women everywhere.
Women and girls continue to play critical roles – paid and unpaid – in their families, communities, countries and regions, that directly impact on economies and societies.
Despite the constraints that they continue to face, we have made strides, as a result of different waves of struggles by the women’s movements. Since the historic Beijing Conference twenty years ago, and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, we have seen progress on women’s representation, in the advancement of reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on access to education and basic services.
At the same time, it is estimated that if real change happens at the same [pace], it will take us 80 years before reaching full gender parity.”
Unity and equality in Africa are a long way off, slow progress is being made and conflict in various forms continues to destabilise economic and cultural development. Individual hopes, educational and economic opportunity, health and women’s rights, are bigger issues than a surface unity this Africa Day. African rights are human rights and abuses remain ignored by pan-African and international communities. News stories, unless they be of thousands of migrants or hundreds of schoolgirls, go ignored or buried by the international news services. Africa needs greater news coverage and the spotlight of global media, as well as economic aid, in order to progress both human rights and economic development.
International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
The United Nations designated Friday 6 February 2015 a worldwide day of zero tolerance on FGM, and called for action to end FGM now before another 86 million girls under 15 (most are under 5) are cut against their will by 2030.
It is carried out at the behest of male patriarchal societies, and increasingly by medical practitioners not just by tribal societies. In some countries up to 75% of cases involve healthcare professionals (most often other women) against the primary rule of medical ethics – The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere – “first do not harm”.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.” – United Nations
Prevalence of FGM
Despite laws against it, and blatant after-the-fact evidence that is occurs on UK soil, and not just in African and elsewhere, female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) still happens. In 7 countries 85%-98% of girls are cut, with Somalia being the most extensive practitioner.
Some 140 million women and girls throughout the world are thought to be living with FGM, including some 200-500,000 in the USA and an estimated 66,000, 103,000 or 137,000 in England and Wales (2011 figures). It still goes on in at least 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Illegal but not Prosecuted
In the UK the first court case of its kind brought against medics and others involved has just failed to reach a prosecution. Another woman was arrested in the last few days trying to take her 8 year old daughter abroad, presumably to engage someone to carry out the intervention, the child was taken into care.
It has been illegal in the UK for nearly 30 years without a single successful prosecution. In Egypt it’s been against the law for only 7 years, but it has had its first guilty case just last month.
Whilst it has been rightly called “barbaric”, even primitive, is can be a distraction to use this term. Amnesty International counsel against it, though others think we should call a spade a spade, or a barbaric scalpel.
“Barbaric” may mean “uncultured, uncivilized, uneducated” or even “foreign, strange, brutal” from its earliest Greek and Latin origins, but some societies practising it do so in full knowledge of what they do, and as part of their culture, or coming of age ceremonies.
FGM Origins and Geographical Spread
It was present as far apart as Australian aboriginal tribes and Tsarist Russia in a Christian sect called the Skoptsy. They practiced castration and cutting of men and women as necessary for salvation – a complete misreading of some biblical texts in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The early church father Origen, was said to have castrated himself too.
Indeed, there are reports that the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it themselves, highly civilised cultures by some measures. FGM and female circumcision pre-date the Quran, in fact they are not mentioned in it. Its practice may have related to controlling slave women, and through the slave trade spread across sub-Saharan Africa via Arab and other traders. Some early descriptions seem to be of early surgeries on intersex people with either an enlarged clitoris or large labia. To this day genitals and even gender are still defined by size.
Whatever its origins, in a supposedly post-slavery era (though we are not there on that count yet either) it remains used in traditions and cultures that are innately sexist where men and marriage define and control status, pleasure, and purity. Virginity and FGM remain prerequisites for some African marriages thus forcing mothers into being accomplices in the practice, in order to find marriages for their daughters and avoid the social and economic exclusion of not being married off.
Zero Tolerance to End FGM
Zero tolerance rather than a phased ending of FGM is the only way to bring about its demise, irrespective of cultural excuses, rather than setting some future date for it to end by. It is abuse, explained by culture and tradition but never justified by it. Mothers and medics, being coerced into collusion breaks their sacred vows to first, do no harm, to their child or patient. We need education of mothers, medics and girls, as much as legal action, to raise awareness that this is an unacceptable practice that must end.
An early version of this article was first published here.
Images courtesy of Pixabay and do not imply people illustrated are affected by FGM