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Domestic Violence: Why it disproportionately Impacts African Women

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Women in the growing economies not only have to contend with violence, but also with the fear of it. It’s this fear that restricts the places they can go to and activities they can do to end the cases of violence.

This leads us to the question, why is violence against women so prevalent in homes?

We all are born and raised in a specific culture. By default, we grow and hold on to it. And like oxygen, we cannot feel it, neither can we see it, but it has a significant impact on our lives. Violence against women, too, becomes the way of life as young boys witness their fathers, uncles and other men in the society devalue their mothers, aunties and sisters.

Also Read: Why Does Sexual Assault Cases Within Family Remain Under-Reported?

It is impossible to talk about domestic violence and not question the cultural aspects that cause, fuel and sustain it. We also cannot understand this concept without clarifying the reason why gender-based violence disproportionately affects poor women from sub-Saharan Africa and other third world countries. And that’s what we discuss in this article.

Domestic Violence Statistics

While ubiquitous, the cases of home-based violence don’t reach the relevant authorities. So, it’s somewhat hard to get the right statistics. Even so, the available numbers are still startling.

Statistics show that:

  • 1 in every 4 women in South Africa is a victim of domestic violence.
  • 1 woman is killed every 6 hours by an intimate partner.
  • Domestic violence cases profoundly affect women aged between 20-24 years
  • 66% of the violent crimes come from men the women know and sometimes, trust.
  • Intimate partner (boyfriends and husbands) accounts for 15% of all attacks.
  • In homicide cases, 1 in 3 women is murdered by her former or current partner

Women also suffer sexual violence in the hands of men they care for or love.

Statistics show that:

  • 1 in 2 women experience some form of sexual victimization like stalking, unwanted sexual contact, attempted rape in her lifetime
  • 1 in 5 women is a rape victim, compared to 1 in 71 men.
  • Of the 1 in 5 raped women, 1% report the perpetrator to be an intimate partner, and 40.8% an acquaintance.

Violence cycle

It comes as a shock that something as fundamental as anatomy can have such complex and far-reaching consequences. How to live as an African woman today is either to fear or to experience sexual and/or physical violence. This comes right in the face of fights against gender-based violence and promotion of gender equity.

The sad bit is the perpetrators of violence are often very close relations; those whom the women know, and most likely trust.

If the above statistics are anything to go by, then it’s evident that gender-based violence takes different forms, and like many aspects of life, it is recurring.

It is evident that while domestic violence ties to some kinds of cycles and behaviors, it is still part of the broader culture. What this means is that it is not similar to, but still part of, rape, street harassment, and rape jokes.

The rate of domestic violence is so high even to rule out that the perpetrators are outliers or crazy. It is true that the abuser’s background plays a significant role in molding who they turn out to be, but so does the culture that consistently points fingers towards the women, protects powerful men prosecution and questions when a woman chooses to report violence.

The culture of domestic violence

Culture not only creates an environment that encourages violence against women, but it also shapes how people interpret it.

If a man hits a woman, many people tend to ask, “Why does she stay?” instead of, “Why did he hit her?”

To some extent, the “Why does she stay,” question comes from the natural confusion about how a victim of violence can still “be with the man.” But at the same time, the question shows the degree to which people still hold on to the choices of the victim than the actions of the abuser.

And because the conclusions we make are as a result of our questions, it limits how people view and interpret issues around domestic violence.

According to the society, when a woman is raped, maybe it’s because her dress was too short, or she was out alone in the middle of the night, or she provoked the man, or she stays alone. And when she’s hit, she’s disrespectful, or she didn’t cook well or clean the house thoroughly. Everything revolves around the woman not doing something right.

The society believes that women experience violence because of the choices that they make. The reality is, the assault is as a result of the decisions that these men make, and the cultural power that encourages this kind of behavior.

Why violence disproportionately affects African women

Black Enterprise

Although women of any background and income level can be a victim of abuse, the truth of the matter is that poverty is a persistent risk factor for gender-based violence in home setups. It also is the reason why women hold on to abusive relationships because otherwise, they have no place to go.

If a woman decides to leave an abusive home, she and her children are likely to end up on the streets, and so they choose to stay.

Also Read: Why More Women Live in Poverty in the Developing World

Conclusion

Today, African women are more empowered and have more opportunities than ever. The cultures, too, are rapidly shifting, and nothing is the same as it was five decades ago. The issue of violence against women also gets more attention now than before.

However, domestic violence and the fear associated with it is still a persistent problem. Mainly if it happens in the mediation of power, poverty, and race, more and more women get left out with no justice or support from the legal systems.

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The Challenges Facing Internally Displaced People in Africa

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Today, there are five times as many internally displaced persons as they are refugees. This makes them the largest groups of people affected by forced displacement.

IDPs are people who are forced to flee. Like refugees, they have to leave their homes because of fear of persecution or conflict. But there’s a single fundamental difference between the two: to find safety, IDPs move from one area or region to another but still stay within their country, while refugees leave the country that they live in and cross the border for safety.

Also Read: The Plight of African Women Migrating to Europe

Why don’t IDPs leave the country like refugees?

Some IDPs may want to stay close to their homes with hopes that things would get better soon, so they can return. Others lack the physical strength or the means to go through the uncertain and sometimes, dangerous journey to a safer country. Often, the internally displaced persons are stuck in conflict areas where threats like violence restrict them from reaching the border.

The troubles that IDPs go through

When refugees move to another country, they are protected by the international law. However, the IDPs depend on their government for protection from persecution and violence. In most cases, the government may not be able or may be unwilling to offer such protection. For this reason, internally displaced are among the most vulnerable displaced persons across the globe.

But like refugees, they also face challenges like loss of jobs, properties, and even livelihoods. Some get injured, some lose loved ones.

IDPs in Number

African countries have more IDPS than refugees – Precisely, there are nearly five times as many internally displaced persons. Towards the end of 2010, there were about 2 million refugees and 11 million IDPs in sub-Saharan Africa.

For the longest time, Africa has been leading region with the most IDPs in the world. From approximately 26.4 million IDPs globally in 2011, 9.7 million were from sub-Saharan Africa.

The irony

One would imagine that because the IDPs are in their country, they would receive a special type of care. Unfortunately, this is never the case. Most African countries still do not have a comprehensive and coherent policy or legal framework to address the internal displacement issues. And while they may have a range of laws that they can use to take care of the problem, it’s highly likely that none directly focuses on protection and provision of help to the internally displaced and affected communities.

Following the Post-election Violence incident in Kenya, for instance, the government initiated Operation Rudi Nyumbani (go back home) campaign and provided goodwill payments to the IDPs. While this intervention sufficed the immediate need, it did not take care of the long-term need as envisaged by the Kampala Convention or the UN Guiding Principles.

Problems facing the internally displaced persons in Africa

Some documented challenges that the internally displaced persons in the African countries encounter are:

  • Finding employment
  • Finding housing’
  • Discrimination
  • Impact of disrupted education
  • Financial difficulties
  • Ongoing mental issues because of trauma
  • Community attitudes
  • Changes in status and roles of family members
  • Separation from family members

Impact on children

UNHCR

Children face specific challenges because of their experiences and age. It is difficult for them to forget what happened, so they stay with the scars of violence and displacement. And while children are often resilient, some will:

  • Experience psychological effects of trauma
  • Have identity and belonging issues
  • Go through changing family responsibilities
  • Loose out in education

Impact on women

During wars or violence, women and children experience all kinds of abuses, including sexual and physical violence. They even end up losing their husbands or fathers, who often, are the providers. And when they flee, they have to figure out a way to fend for the children. It’s difficult because they have to start from the scratch.

Also Read: If Not You, Who Will End Violence against Women in the Sub-Saharan Countries?

Diseases

Since the IDPs are moving to a new place, and are doing that suddenly (without preparation), they are forced to stay in temporary structures like tents. This means they will experience frigid nights, lack of clean water, bites from insects, and even attacks from people and animals.

In conclusion

There are three ways to handle the IDP situation: resettlement in a third location, voluntary repatriation, and local integration. Repatriation is perhaps the easiest solution to displacement because most displacement crises are temporary. However, it can be a poor option due to limited prospects of a safe return.

In cases when the displaced people can neither continue to live in the temporary shelter or dire camp nor go back to their homes, then they can be resettled in a new and safe area within the country.

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The Plight of African Women Migrating to Europe

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“From what I hear, there are plenty of job opportunities in Europe. I believe when I get there, my life will be better,” a Congo migrant.

Thousands of African women risk their lives as they go on a boat journey to Europe in search of what they imagine would be a better and easier living. Many begin the journey with much hope, but sadly end up in despair.

In an interview with one woman migrant who left the Congo with hopes of getting to Europe, one of our crewmembers asked about the trip. Here’s what she had to say:

“That trip was hard and easy at the same time. We started our journey from Congo, and we went through to Cameron, where we stayed for two days. Then we left for Nigeria and spent only a single night there. We proceeded to Niger and then to Libya. I had to work in Libya to get the money to go on with the trip.”

Also read: Workplace Challenges Women Face in the Developing World

We asked, “How did you find your way to the boat and the smugglers?

“There was a black guy in Tripoli who asked people whether they had the money. When I asked him how much I needed to pay for the journey, he told me $1,000. I worked for a few days and managed to raise three-quarters of that amount, which he accepted. We were hidden somewhere in a bush without food– only some biscuits and a little water. We weren’t allowed to speak. In total, we stayed there for five days. On the fifth night, at around 9 PM, the guys came and told us we were leaving. The journey to the seaside took about two hours on foot.” She says.

We asked, “How did you feel when the boat took off?

“I have never been happier in my life,” she says smiling.

We asked, “Are all of you traveling for the same thing, and if so, what is it?”

“Yeah, most of us, if not all, are traveling to get a better life. We believe that the developed countries like America and Europe flow of honey and milk. Even when you lack shelter, once you are there, life is just good.”

We asked, “And do you believe that?”

“Of course I do believe that. Once I’m in Italy, my quality of life is going to improve,” she concludes.

The shocking reality

Migrant women are on the move for various reasons – to escape conflict, poverty, and devastation within their community or country, to join their loved ones, to further their education, and even to get better opportunities and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, most women migrants go through hell. In our interview with over 100 women, nearly 50% said they had been victims of abuse or rape during their journey. They say they were treated like chickens; they were beaten and denied food and water.

It is true that these women make a conscious decision to trust the smugglers with their lives – because they pay to be able to get across a country that they are not allowed to get across legally. However, they do not sign up for abuse and torture.

Women migrants rely on the smugglers to get overseas, often under a “pay first system” which leaves them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and violence including rape and prostitution.

Also read: If Not You, Who Will End Violence against Women in the Sub-Saharan Countries?

People traffickers demand hundreds to thousands of dollars from migrants to take them across the desert before packing them onto inappropriate boats for the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

How can we stop women trafficking?

Trafficking is a complex issue that needs a multifaceted approach. What makes it so tricky is the aspect of willing buyer, willing seller. Even so, there is still much that can be done. For instance, both NGOs and government programs can identify the women who are at risk and offer them adequate tools that they require to find work overseas without exposing themselves at risk.

Government and NGO programs should also take short and long-term measures to address trafficking. Short-term approaches include raising awareness and education, while long-term actions include improving the socioeconomic position of vulnerable women and lobbying efforts for reforms on the national laws.

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How Lack of Sanitary Pads Affects the African Girl-Child

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In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 65% of girls and women lack access to sanitary towels. Most of them resort to shocking alternatives like using goatskin, chicken feathers, soil, leaves, cups, pieces of cloth, and even ashes to hold the periods.

The onset of menstrual periods should be a joyous moment for any girl because it is a transition into womanhood. However, for some African girls, the process is dreaded, because many of them cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. For them, the menstrual cycle comes with frustrations, embarrassments, fear of stigma, anxiety, and stress.

“In Africa, many families survive with a dollar or less every day. It is impossible for a family to spare $0.50 for a sanitary pad when they don’t even have enough for one meal,” says Wakasa, a Human Rights Activist in Nigeria.

ALSO Read: The Struggles of Pregnant Women in the Marginalized Communities of Africa

The alternatives

Since these girls and women lack the money to buy sanitary pads, they resort to using other methods to prevent leaking, and staining their clothes; they use:

  • Chicken feathers
  • Goatskin
  • Tissue paper
  • Exercise books
  • Cotton wool
  • Maize cobs
  • Cow dung
  • Cups
  • Soil
  • Ash
  • Leaves
  • Old clothes
  • Old mattresses

While these ad hoc alternatives come in handy, they present a range of health and psychological effects.

Health effects

According to Dr. Lagat, a Gynecologist at the Nairobi Women Hospital, unhygienic practices are the leading cause of severe reproductive tract infections and even cervical cancer among these women.

She says, “When a woman uses goatskin or old clothes to stem the bleeding, she exposes her uterus or urinary tract to bacteria from outside, which makes them prone to infection. But when they use sanitary pads, the risk is reduced.”

Psychological effects

In another context, the fear of leaks, cultural stigma, lack of menstrual materials, and lack of knowledge can put too much pressure on the girls. Some African communities believe that periods only come after a girl loses her virginity.

Lack of sanitary materials also paralyzes the day-to-day activities, because women are forced to stay at home.

“I use scraps of fabric and cotton because sanitary towels are too expensive,” says Nafula, a 19-year-old Kawangware resident. “They sting, they burn, and they irritate my skin. But what’s worse is they leak and soil my clothes. During my periods, I cannot walk around, or carry on with my daily duties because I fear that people will see the blood stain on my clothes, so I seat at home.”

ALSO READ:Workplace Challenges Women Face in the Developing World

Impacts on education

Studies show that many girls in Africa miss about three to five days of school every month during their menstruation periods due to lack of sanitary pads. Often, they feel unclean, uncomfortable, and even embarrassed to stay in school. The discomfort and the fear of leakage also cause some to lose concentration in class.

For others, the problem is as basic as lack of access to toilets. In most parts of Africa, there’s only one toilet for every 300+ students.

The monthly absenteeism makes it difficult for the girls to keep up with the syllabus, let alone compete with their male classmates, so they remain a step behind throughout their education. Some will even choose to drop out of school to avoid the pressures altogether.

“I got my first period while I was in class. Unfortunately, a boy who was sitting behind me shouted that I had blood on my dress. It was terrifying because no one had told me that at some point, I’m going to have periods,” narrates Maya, a 14-year-old girl. “Everyone started calling me ‘the immoral girl’, and after months of struggling with self-esteem issues, I chose to drop out of school.”

What needs to be done?

Having monthly periods shouldn’t be shameful or a cause for health problems. It also shouldn’t hinder the women from empowerment or education. It’s therefore vital for policymakers to ensure that all school-going girls have access to sanitary ware.

Furthermore, school curriculum should include information about the biological processes to demystify all issues around the sexual and reproductive health to benefit students.

If male and female contraceptives are accessible free of charge in all public hospitals, the same should be for sanitary pads. After all, contraceptive use is optional; sanitary ware isn’t.

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