It is prestigious to speak in defense of women’s rights. It is even more prestigious if the women whose rights you are speaking for are poor, battered downtrodden African women. To be on the side of women’s rights is to be on the right side of politics. The African Union could not resist the opportunity to declare 2015 The Year of Women’s Empowerment.
As a show of commitment to the cause, most African countries have constitutions that guarantee female equality and are signatories to key international conventions. However, there is a silent proviso that has a strong influence on the attitudes of African countries towards the rights of women. This is the proviso that an African woman can enjoy her rights within certain limits – the line is drawn when the common African man starts to feel threatened. The woman will then be said to be enjoying rights to the point of becoming “˜un-African’.
As we celebrated International Women’s Day over the weekend, we gratefully acknowledged the news that political representation of African women is rising. And we are thankful for the decline in maternal and child mortality and other atrocities like Female Genital Mutilation and gender and sexual violence. But we also mourn silently for the thirty women still dying every hour from pregnancy complications in sub-Saharan Africa. We sing a pitiful dirge for the four out of five children who do not live to see their fifth birthday. We wonder painfully about the fate of the missing Nigerian ‘Chibok girls’ and know that, for all the optimism over “˜empowerment’, the future for African women is uncertain.
Recently, across East Africa, men have expressed their disgruntlement with the rate at which women are moving towards “˜empowerment’ by stripping those they deem indecently dressed on the streets. In Uganda, the men were spurred on by the Anti-Pornography Act and a call by Ethics Minister Simon Lolokodo, who is notorious for saying it is natural to rape women and for men to “discipline” women who “irritate” them with the way they dress. Africa is a continent where male political leaders can marry child brides, be physically violent to their partners and openly have affairs (nobody seems appalled).
The African woman living in indignity has become so normalised that even the “˜International Community’, to whom Africans often run for help when their governments let them down, is quick to call for sanctions in response to political and human rights violations, but is less often heard when it comes to women’s rights. In 2013 Uganda passed the Anti-Pornography Act and the Anti-Homosexuality Act – one targeting “˜indecent’ women and the other gay people. The international community reacted swiftly to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, cutting aid and placing travel bans on those who supported the law. Political and economic pressure served to ensure that the law was annulled within months. The Anti-Pornography Act, however, still stands and women in Uganda are routinely undressed on the streets, arrested and charged for the clothes they have chosen to wear.
But African women are not seated around waiting for someone, from the western world or otherwise, to save them. Decades of fighting to be seen and heard have taught them better. Ugandan women held a demonstration against the anti-pornography law and are challenging its constitutionality in court. In Kenya, when women were similarly stripped, they took to the streets to assert their right to wear what they want. Nigerian women demonstrated for days when the “˜Chibok girls’ were first kidnapped, and continue to challenge their government’s lukewarm response.
Yet, even among those who support the human rights movement in Africa, there is concern about how far an African woman should go in asserting her rights. Attempts to retract hard-won rights are justified under the argument of “˜cultural relativism’, with proponents arguing that it is possible for Africa to have a different interpretation of human rights than the rest of the world.
But the African woman’s demands are metamorphosing into something most people never envisaged. The African girl whose only prayer was that her parents would have the sense not to cut her genitals or marry her off to the elderly neighbour has, with the help of the women’s rights movement, attained an education and become a voice of influence. She is the twenty something lawyer, doctor, teacher, engineer or journalist who will not settle for an apologetic approach to women’s rights. She is assertive, vocal and ready to fearlessly defend the progress that brought her this far. She is the woman who, during the demonstration against the stripping of women by vigilante men in Uganda, held up a placard with a bold message to the ethics minister:
“Lokodo, hold your libido.”
Her approach makes earlier members of the women’s rights movement squirm, with the plea that “˜she should not be too aggressive’ lest she ruin any chance of “˜dialogue’ with the tyrants.
But dialogue has only taken women’s rights in Africa so far. And with African governments sanctioning the notion that women have achieved as much as they possibly can and now ought to slow down, the woman who survived FGM or early marriage or violence and tries to take her place in the public sphere, quickly meets with that glass ceiling called “˜African culture’. The same African leaders who agree that these “˜traditional’ violations of women’s rights are unacceptable have found new ones to replace them.
Patience Akumu is a freelance journalist. She lives in Uganda.