Fighting Misogyny & Women's Oppression In Africa, One Country At A Time

Thanks to the work of Eve Ensler and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, among others, the abuse to which women are subjected to in the Congo and Darfur is becoming widely known. But that's barely a start.

A series of articles — including ones in The Guardian and by Reuters — were spurred by this week's release of a report by ActionAid titled "Hate Crimes: The Rise Of Corrective Rape In South Africa." The Guardian's Annie Kelly writes:

Research released last year by Triangle, a leading South African gay rights organisation, revealed that a staggering 86% of black lesbians from the Western Cape said they lived in fear of sexual assault. The group says it is dealing with up to 10 new cases of "corrective rape" every week.

"What we're seeing is a spike in the numbers of women coming to us having been raped and who have been told throughout the attack that being a lesbian was to blame for what was happening to them," said Vanessa Ludwig, the chief executive at Triangle.

Although South Africa legalized same sex marriage in 2006, men are targeting black lesbians for rape and then murder in a supposed effort to cure them of lesbianism.

"When asking why lesbian women are being targeted you have to look at why all women are being raped and murdered in such high numbers in South Africa," said Carrie Shelver, of women's rights group Powa, a South African NGO. "So you have to look at the increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings. So when there is a lesbian woman she is an absolute affront to this kind of masculinity."

The government is, of course, not necessarily keen to do much about it.

A statement released by South Africa's national prosecuting authority said: "While hate crimes – especially of a sexual nature – are rife, it is not something that the South African government has prioritised as a specific project."

Neither, it seems, are the police, who rarely go to much effort to track down offenders, even as sexual abuse rates skyrocket.

"Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I'll become a girl," said Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, Johannesburg. "When you are raped you have a lot of evidence on your body. But when we try and report these crimes nothing happens, and then you see the boys who raped you walking free on the street."

Not that police and prosecutors don't often turn a blind eye to sexual assault in plenty of other places in the world, but this a whole class of women being systematically victimized, and the local and federal government is ignoring it for so-called cultural reasons. One woman told Reuters:

"We get insults every day, beatings if we walk alone, you are constantly reminded that you deserve to be raped," ActionAid quoted one lesbian as saying. "They yell, 'if I rape you then you will go straight, you will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learnt how to be a real woman'."

It boggles my mind that this is actually a legitimate thought that occurs to anyone.

But there are more incomprehensible thoughts to be had in a piece in The Independent by Johann Hari who travels to Kenya and Tanzania to report on the problem of murdered elderly women and the ongoing practice of FGM and its side-effects. He starts in Tanzania, where the killing of supposed witches is widespread (and reminds Americans of our own origins).

Witch killings are a daily event in Sukumaland. The victims are almost invariably old women, living alone. These women are frightening anomalies here: they have a flicker of financial independence denied to all other females. It has to be stopped. "Of course witches must be killed!", Emanuel Swayer tells me, leaning forward. "They are witches!"

Many male villagers blame the vagaries and hardships of life on the elderly women in the community, who are them targeted for mutilation and death in a manner that just happens to dispose of examples of quasi-financial independence that might influence other women.

Sato [Magdalena Ndela] can remember when they came to kill her. "It happened in the night. I heard people opening the door without knocking," she says. "They shone a light in my face. I thought – what is happening? What can I do? That was when I felt the first cut into my body. I looked down and saw my hand was cut right off. Then they cut into the right one and it was hanging. Then I felt a blow against my head and I lost consciousness."

[snip]

Sato tugs off her headscarf to show me the wounds. Her head is one long scar, and her ear is a twisted lump. Ever since the attack in 1995, her right eye has been weeping salt tears and pus. She mutters: "Now I can't do anything. I wasn't born like this. I can't do anything."

At least in Tanzania, there is an organization — called Maparece — that attempts to teach villagers of the actual causes of the problems them blame on widows. Its founder, Juliana Bernard, explains:

"Witch-hunting is the most extreme end of the extreme views towards women held by many men here. Women do the vast majority of the work. They build the houses, care for the children, and work in the fields. They work 24 hours a day – but they have nothing at the end of it. We are seen as the property of our husbands. Women are not allowed to decide anything about our own lives. We have no rights, no property, and no say. Widows are the exception – and that is why they are targeted. Anything bad is blamed on us, and we can't answer back. It ends with us being blamed even for disease and death."

Her program is simple: she eats with the supposed witches and survives. She provides them with chimneys for their wood-fired ovens that redirects the smoke from their eyes, reducing their bloodshot (and thus "witchy") appearance. She helps bring polio vaccines to villages, so that polio cannot be blamed on witches.

Hari then goes to Kenya, to bear witness to female genital mutilation.

First, Margaret puts her finger under the hood of the clitoris, "and then I cut it completely off." Then "I cut out all the meat. I know when to stop when I feel the bone and there's nothing left to cut away." Then "we take her to bed and cover her with a cloth. In the evening, the women come back to check I have done a good job. If I have left anything by mistake, because the girl kicked and screamed too much, we cut her again."

More than 90 percent of the women in some countries in Africa undergo some form of FGM (though not all are, apparently, as extreme as the procedures witnessed by Hari). The explanation for the procedure is clear:

Outside a tin shack in the emptiness, Margaret explains why they do it. "It is to please the men," she says. "They will not marry a woman who is uncut. They think that a woman with an uncut vagina will be sexually insatiable, and have sex with anyone. But if she is cut, she will not enjoy sex, so you know she will be a virgin on her wedding night, and she will not cheat on you after you are married."

If you make sex so painful for a woman, then she won't pursue pleasure with anyone else. And, if there are other problems, well, so be it. Controlling women is more important.

Dr Guyo Jaldesa sees the consequences every day. "Instead of a normal vagina, these women just have scar tissue," he says. "This causes all sorts of problems. It is basically torture for the women to have sex. One of the purposes of female genital mutilation is to make it terribly painful and unpleasant for women." When he gets married, "the man has to prove his virility by forcing open the closed scar tissue. If he fails to perform this the man is ridiculed, but it can be very difficult. So often the man will use objects – like a knife or broken bottle – causing even more terrible damage to the woman."

During childbirth, the woman's vagina has no elasticity. "The scars cannot stretch to let the baby out – so it often becomes trapped there," he explains. The World Health Organisation calculates this causes a 20 per cent increase in still-born births.

FGM is also a contributor to fistulas, in which tissue separating a woman's vagina from her urinary and digestive tracts dies from prolonged childbirth, leaving her incontinent and leaking urine and feces through her vagina.

Kanako Sampao is a lean, drawn 25-year-old woman who wanders the streets, her head covered with a red bandana. She keeps her distance from everyone, in order to hide the stench that constantly leaks from her. "I was cut when I was 10," she says, looking around nervously, and smirking at odd intervals. "I screamed but they did it anyway." She didn't heal very well – it was months before she could walk again. When she was 14 she was married off and had her first and only baby.

"He became stuck. I couldn't push him out," she says. "They cut me to pull him out but it was too late. He died." The punishment didn't end there. When the baby becomes trapped in a scarred vagina, there is huge pressure on the rectum, the bladder and the urethra – and a lot of the tissue can become damaged and die. This happened to Kanako. Her insides were crushed – and never recovered. She has what is called a fistula: now all her urine and faeces leak in a long incontinent streak from her vagina.

She admits that she is shunned and beaten by society, scavanging from the trash of her own relatives to survive.

In Kenya, Hari highlights the work of Agnes Pareiyo, who was herself so mutilated and now works to end the practice through education, providing alternatives for practitioners and sheltering girls who flee their families to avoid it.

Agnes' defence of her girls is legendary in the Rift Valley. Everybody knows about the time an enraged father turned up at the gates of the shelter with a sword to reclaim his daughter and have her cut. The gates were sealed; the girls were gathered, unarmed, behind Agnes. The father was howling revenge – and Agnes stood firm and shouted: "Come on then! Try it! We're not afraid of you!" After a moment's silence, he fled. "I am a Masai woman," she says, and chuckles.

The shelter triggered such a mass rebellion of young girls running away from home that the Kenyan government finally made it illegal to subject a girl to genital mutilation in 2001. But the first prosecutions are only beginning now.

The difficulty, as Agnes sees it, is not just FGM but the fact that FGM and child marriages share a strong correlation in Kenya.

But Agnes soon realised that mutilation cannot be looked at on its own. After a girl is mutilated, she is almost always forced to drop out of school and sold off for a dowry to an older man. In the Rift Valley, mutilation and forced marriage are Siamese twins.

Agnes also helps provide shelter to girls that don't wish to be thus married off.

Hari argues that the West's insistence that some of these practices are "cultural" and that it is cultural imperialism to try to end them is wrong-headed. Agnes agrees:

Agnes leans forward, her hands bunched into fists. "These girls don't think [mutilation] is wrong because a white man told them so. They know it's wrong because it's their body." With that, Agnes sits back, and looks out, towards the girls playing in the yard, free at last.

Raped And Killed For Being A Lesbian: South Africa Ignores 'Corrective' Attacks [The Guardian]
South African Gangs Use Rape To "Cure" Lesbians [Reuters]
Witch Hunt: Africa's Hidden War On Women [The Independent]

Earlier: Darfur: When Assault Becomes A Case For Genocide
The New York Times Decides Not To Forget About Congo
Rwandan Women's Perspectives On Their Children, Their Rapes
Fixing Fistulas In Tanzania Can Be Beautiful