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African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

Why assuring women and young girls a life free from violence should be everyone’s business all the time


Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD), Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Aya Chebbi, African Union Youth Envoy

Violence, weather in the form of verbal abuse, online trolls, sexual harassment, physical assault or rape, remains to be the most common form of oppression that women and young girls face. 

It is so pervasive. Despite variations, it happens in all societies. Every woman or young girl experience it or at the very least lives under the constant shadow of it. According to the World Bank 1 in 3 women face gender-based violence and abuse in their life time.

Violence or abuse is so rampant that women and young girls experience it in almost all places. No place seems to be safe. Violence against and abuse of women and young girls take place in private spaces such as at home, a space that is supposed to provide care and affection. Women and young girls also face violence and abuse in public spaces including on the streets and public facilities. 

Women and young girls have to worry about which route to take when walking on streets. They have to worry about their appearance or dressing when planning to use public transport or going to public facilities to receive public services. 

More disturbingly even at schools including institutions of higher learning or places of work or even of worship, women and girls are not fully safe. 

For the young generation whose life experience has been inseparably tied with new technology and the online life of social media platforms, a new front of psychological violence and abuse has emerged. In this sphere, violence has become monstrous and absolute targeting the privacy, the body shapes and social engagement of women and young girls. The abuse taking place in this space often leads young women and girls in particular into self-loathing and commuting suicide. 

Women and young girls face violence and abuse in all seasons - both in peace times and in times of crisis or conflict. Indeed, violence against women and young girls is not a phenomenon that arise in times of crisis or conflicts. What makes violence against women challenging is that it is common even in times that are free from crisis or conflicts in society. 

Surely, the scale and gravity of violence heightens during times of crisis and conflict. Little wonder that women and young girls bear the brunt of violence in times of societal crisis and conflicts. As the abduction of Chibok girls by Biko Haram in Nigeria or the raping of women and other forms of sexual violence in the DRC and South Sudan conflicts show, in times of crisis or violent conflict, the bodies of women and young girls can end up becoming the theatre or site where the fighting takes place. That is why women and young girls are become particular target of violence by conflict parties during crisis or situations of armed conflict. 

The attack may originate from any one. Strangers or close members of family or friends or partners. It could come from those entrusted with the responsibility of protecting women and girls law enforcement officers, teachers, doctors or nurses, priests or clerics. 

Despite all the knowledge and awareness mobilized over the years, there is little improvement in the exposure of women and young girls to violence and abuse. Certainly, there are improvements in the legal arena with laws increasingly proscribing various forms of violence against women. Women rights, despite contestations from social and cultural conservative forces including recent legislative and institutional backlash, are becoming mainstream. 

These improvements do not as yet reflect the lived experiences of most women and young girls. That is why despite having one of the most progressive constitution and legal system in the world violence against and abuse of women and young girls is declared in South Africa as a major crisis facing the country. 

What is disturbing is not merely that women and young girls face violence and abuse in almost all seasons, in almost all spaces and from almost any one. More disturbing is the tolerance that states, governments and other sectors of society show for such violence and abuse. Equally disturbing is also the failure of states, government and members of society to punish violence against women and young girls to ensure that women and young girls live a life free from violence. 

Partly, this is a result of the violent masculinity that arises from dominant patriarchal culture, which makes women and girls vulnerable in all the structures of power. Unbalanced power relations are affecting the achievement of equality, which require an urgent action to ensure that opportunities are provided to empower girls and women in understanding their rights, in accessing equitable justice.

In part violence against women and girls results from the commercial and pop culture that portrays women principally, if not exclusively, as sexual objects and as beings who are there to serve the desire and wellbeing of men and society.

Partly, it also results from the belief that women and girls belong to realm of the household and the age-old quest of society to control or subjugate or instrumentalize the body and life of women. 

While in many instances these acts of violence and abuses don’t stop women and young girls from going about their lives, in other cases these acts may interrupt the lives of the victims or lead to bodily damage and psychological trauma. Even when they don’t lead to such tragic consequences, such violence and abuse invariably results in loss of opportunities and other socio-economic costs for victims. 

The cost of violence against and abuse of women and girls is not confined to the immediate or direct victims. Such violence and abuse also make families pay a heavy price. The social and economic cost of violence against and abuse of women and young girls is also huge for the broader society. 

According to a report on a recent study by KPMG and Vodafone, at least 500,000 women in Kenya and 238,000 in South Africa are forced to take additional days off work due to domestic and gender-based violence, thereby prevented from making their productive contributions to their work place and the larger economy in these countries. The same report notes that according to the UN in 2016 ‘the cost of violence against women was $1.5 trillion, equivalent to approximately two percent of global gross domestic product’.

Violence against women and young girls is contrary to all standards that make a society free and safe. It is against fundamental principles of human rights and freedoms. It is an attack against the inherent equality of women and young girls with men and young boys, hence against the fundamental percept of equality of all human beings. 

That is why the proscribing of violence against women and young girls has assumed a prime place in the rights of women. That is why the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa provides for a wholistic approach for the promotion and protection of the rights of women. The protection envisaged in this landmark instrument thus covers the treatment of women and young girls in the family, the right of women in marriage and at times of divorce, the right of women in the political, cultural and social economic spheres of public and private life and the treatment of women and young girls in conflict or crisis situations. 

These instruments adopted within the framework of the AU dictate that women and girls should be protected from violence and abuse. They should be protected because like men and young boys it is their inherent right to lead a life free from violence and abuse. They are entitled to a life free from such violence and abuse by virtue of being human. Such is a life that society owes them in the way it owes violent and abuse free life to others. 

But protecting women and young girls from violence and abuse is not just a matter of right. It is not just something that is in accord with and demanded by the humane and democratic values and principles to which every society strives to conform. 

Ensuring the freedom of women and girls from violence and abuse is also good for the society. Society achieves tremendous social and economic gains from the additional productivity that women and young girls bring due to being free from the burdens of violence and abuse. 

Addressing the scourge of violence against women and young girls should be the business of every one. Boys should be taught that it is completely uncool to mistreat women and girls. Girls should be taught to reject, and they should reject, any excuse that suggests that it is ok for a woman or a girl to be abused or violated or mistreated by a partner or a boyfriend. 

Parents also bear major responsibilities. It is how parents treat each other that sets the example for boys and girls in the household. Men and boys should know that mistreating their spouses or partners or girlfriends is not a measure strength. It is rather a sign of pathological weakness, a weakness that robes them off the strength that comes from maintaining a relationship with women free from violence and abuse. Women should also not tolerate abusive behavior of their spouse. They should reject any form of mistreatment or abuse by their spouse. 

Religious leaders should teach believers that there is no scriptural basis for violence against and abuse of women and young girls. They should indeed teach that it is not in accord with scriptural teaching for a husband to abuse his wife or for a man to disrespect a woman.

The state bears the most responsibility for ensuring the freedom of women and girls from violence and abuse. This it is expected to do by enacting laws and policies that ensure gender equality and punish discrimination and violence against women & young girls. The state is also expected to put in place mechanisms that address the social and cultural conditions that nurture violent masculinity and discrimination against women and girls. 

No decent government should tolerate the abuse or violence of women and young girls whether at home or in public places. No decent leader should give a pass or show leniency for anyone who abuses or violates a woman or young girl. No organization should allow its space to be a ground for violating women and girls. No decent society should make a woman or a young girl feel that she does not deserve to be free from violence and abuse. 

There is no dignity or cultural good that any decent government or a community or a society can protect by allowing the subjugation of women and girls, by allowing their discrimination. There is no dignity or cultural good that any decent government can protect by failing to punish abuse or violence against women and young girls wherever it happens and under any circumstances. 

That is why pregnant girls or teenage mothers should not be barred from attending their schools. That is why the prevention by any government of such girls or teenagers from going to their school is discriminatory and engages in an act that legitimizes the mistreatment of women and girls on the basis of gender. 

Indeed, if there is one major measure of a decent state or government, if there is one key standard of assessing the coolness of a government or its office holders it is and should be the extent to which they ensure respect for and protection of the freedom of women and young girls from violence and abuse. 

As we observe this season of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence against women, it is important to remember that our effort to rid our societies of the scourge of violence against women and girls should be a permanent one. We should continue this campaign year in year out mobilizing the useful resources that AU instruments such as the Maputo Protocol avail for sparing women and girls from this scourge.