Violence against women and girls in Africa: A global concern to ponder on International Women’s Day and beyond

Violence against women and girls in Africa: A global concern to ponder on

International Women’s Day and beyond


Author: Kennedy Kariseb

Doctoral candidate, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

It has been four decades since the United Nations (UN) observed for the first time International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March 1975. Although there are traces of celebration of this day, dating as far back as 1909, its formal initiation came in the wake of the first World Conference of the International Women’s Year that took place in Mexico City, Mexico. Its object, as aptly argued by Temma Kaplan, is to mark ‘the occasion for a new sense of female consciousness and a new sense of feminist internationalism’.[i]

In a sense, 8 March is meant to be a day of both celebration and reflection for women the world over: a celebration of the gains made in enhancing women’s rights and the overall status of women globally, while reflecting and strategising on the voids and shortcomings still persistent in the women’s rights discourse. The occasion of the forty-third celebration of the IWD clearly marks an opportunity for feminist introspection on the broader question of violence against Women (VAW) and its regulation under international law. This is because while VAW is not the only form of human rights abuse women suffer, it is one in which the gendered aspect of such abuse is often the most clear and pervasive.

It is a general truism that a considerable number of developments have taken place since 1945 that has positively contributed to the status of women from a legal perspective. However, socially and economically women, especially in the global South remain vulnerable and suppressed in different ways. This is particularly true in the context of VAW and girls in Africa. According to the United Nations World Women’s 2015 Trends and Statistics Report, published by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, prevalence of physical violence against women was highest in Africa, with almost half of the African countries reporting lifetime prevalence of over 40 percent.[ii] One in three women in Africa has experienced physical and or sexual intimate partner violence at some point in their life time.[iii] In at least six African countries, there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence.[iv]

Equally of concern is the fact that VAW in conflict situations, and human trafficking of women remains problematic in certain parts of Africa.[v] It is thus not surprising, given the above statistical setting, that, international figures such as, Irene Khan, then Secretary-General of Amnesty International, described VAW as the ‘most outrages human rights scandal of our times’.[vi]

Given this pandemic of violence, time and again, the question is raised whether there is need for international legal intervention. In other words, whether an international treaty on VAW would contribute to subsiding the current prevalence of violent perpetuations against women and girls. Although this question creeped into international circles in the early 1990s, it has most recently gained currency in the framework of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences (SRVAW). To this end, a call for suggestions have been made and from the responses that have been received it is clear that the international community remains divided on the subject.

There may be strong arguments on both sides of the debate, but overall the quest for an international treaty on VAW can at best be described as illusionary, in that it does not entirely matter whether such a treaty is birthed. The argument rather is that deep-seated social practices, such as VAW requires more than mere legal intervention. That is not to suggest that norm setting and regulation of VAW is not of any pertinent importance. On the contrary, recent developments within the various mechanism of the international human rights systems shows, the relevance and role of legal instruments and processes in addressing VAW. The impact of laws, however, depends on their legitimacy and effectivity if they are to have any meaningful impact at grassroots level. With strong resistance from civil society organisations and various mechanisms from within the international human rights system,[vii] a strong argument can be made that the introduction of an explicit treaty on VAW may not enjoy the legitimacy it deserves in order to yield positive outcomes domestically.

VAW is a socially rooted problem, deeply engrained in the socialisation of persons and further perpetuated by patriarchy and its normativity in (African) society. It is thus these entrenched processes and practices of socialisation and patriarchy that must be addressed if VAW is to be eradicated. The social education, of both the girl and boy child would be crucial to such resistance efforts. Education here is referred to in a broad sense, going beyond mere formal training. As rightly observed by American women’s rights activist, Arvonne S Fraser, ‘the prerequisite for development and implementation of women’s human rights are education; the means and ability to make a living beyond childbearing, homemaking, and caring for families, freedom of movement and a measure of respect as individual human beings’.[viii] The education of women, especially the girl child has an empowerment effect; that can enable women and girls to see themselves and the world within which they operate beyond the confines of their homes. Through education, women are better placed and able to resist abuse and subordination, challenge the patriarchal nature of both State and society, and path a destiny for themselves within the broader social space. However, it is not only the education of the women and the girl child that is central in addressing violence, especially sexual violence. Men and boys alike must be subsumed in this ‘process of learning and unlearning’ in order to assess their place and footing in society and to aid the process of evening society so that gender parity in all areas is achieved. The common practice of isolating men, viewing them as oppressors rather than partners, causes more harm than progress, to the vulnerabilities women undergo.[ix] For centuries, ‘men, masculinity and men’s powers and practices were taken for granted; gender was largely seen as a matter of and for women; men were generally seen as ungendered, “natural” or naturalised’.[x] A reform in approach is thus needed in the women’s rights movement; one that is responsive, inclusive and enabling to masculinities in easing the challenges of women and girls, especially in the context of violence. This approach should be one that resists essentialism embedded in radical feminism which in principle proposes to silence and marginalise the male gender in women’s concerns, overlooking the role that masculinities can play in advancing the cause of women and the girl child. The simple ideology behind this proposition is that it is a misnomer to view all men as the embodiment of suppression, law and by extension State power. As true as it is that historically men were, and to some extent continue to be the primary perpetrators and instigators of women’s rights violations, the converse is true; namely  that addressing women’s concerns, such as VAW and girls, will require complementation and cooperation across sexes and gender identities of all sorts.

While strengthening and forging forward with international legal interventions directed at addressing VAW and girls in Africa and beyond, it is important to bear in mind that these legal interventions too have constraints and limitations; and that now more than ever, VAW and girls should be addressed from all angles, albeit with a stern focus on socially anchored approaches.

[i] T Kaplan ‘On the socialist origins of international women’s day’ 11 (1) Feminist Studies (1985) 170.

[ii] United Nations/UN The World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics (2015) 143. Also available at (Last accessed and retrieved on 1 July 2017).

[iii] See generally, African Union Commission/AUC State of Women’s Rights in Africa Report(2016)1-56. Also available at accessed and retrieved on 1 April 2017).

[iv] As above.

[v] United Nations Children’s Fund/UNICEF Trafficking in human beings, especially women and children in Africa (2005) 1-60. (Last accessed and retrieved on 1 July 2017).

[vi] Amnesty International/AI Foreword-It’s in our hands: Stop Violence against Women (2004) iii.

[vii] D Šimonovic Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on the adequacy of the international legal framework on violence against women(2017) 1-20. Also available (last accessed and retrieved 2 March 2018).

[viii] AS Fraser ‘Becoming Human: The origins and development of women’s human rights’ in M AgosÍn (Ed) Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A global perspective (2002) 17.

[ix] V Nkiwane ‘Men, gender and law’ in A Tsanga & J Stewart (Eds) Women and Law: Innovative approaches to teaching, research and analysis (2011) 261-262. See also G Reid & L Walker (Eds) Men behaving differently: South African men since 1994 (2005) 7.

[x] J Hearn ‘The problems boys and men create, the problems boys and men experience’, in T Shefer, K Ratele & A Strebel (Eds) From boys to men: Social constructions of masculinity in contemporary society (2007) 13.

About the Author:
Kennedy Kariseb is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. His areas of research are broadly blended between family law, gender law (i.e., vulnerability of women to violence), and (international) human rights law (with a stern focus on special procedure mechanisms).

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