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The Plight of African Women
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In the recent Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) that was held in Addis Ababa from the 6th to 8 July, the AU leaders pledged to promote women’s rights and to place women at the heart of their development. It was the first AU summit to hold a debate on the subject of gender. As gender matters stand, African women are less likely to go to school than men, bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, have fewer representatives in government and are subjected to worst forms of patriarchy rituals such as female genital mutilation (FGM).

2004 - Mandisi Majavu

According to the World Health Organisation, up to 2 million girls are circumcised every year, most of them in Africa. FGM involves the removal of a woman’s clitoris and parts of the external genitalia, to reduce the woman’s sex drive. Often other wounds are inflicted during the circumcision and sometimes the vulva is partially sewn up, leaving just enough room for urine and menstrual blood to pass, according to the UN news agency report. Sudan has the highest prevalence of female genital mutilation in the world.

The wars and conflicts on the continent also put women in vulnerable position. The international NGO, Save the Children, rates Burundi, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, as one of the world’s five worst conflict zones in the world to be a woman or a child. Also, in Uganda, children and women have suffered the most in the 18 year civil war, with more than 10 000 children, according to the UN, being abducted since June 2002 – the highest number since the war began. The abducted children are then forced to fight and commit atrocities, and are subjected to sexual violence and sexual slavery. A study published by the UK-based scientific journal, The Lancet, has found that half of the children surveyed – over 300, all of whom were abducted at an average age of 12 had been seriously beaten – 77 percent had witnessed another person being killed, 39 percent had killed another person, and 39 percent had abducted other children. Over one-third of the girls had been raped while 18 percent had given birth while in captivity.

In places like Swaziland women are relegated to a position of second citizenship. Women in Swaziland are not permitted to own property or acquire bank loans. In South Africa, the noted scholar Patrick Bond writes: “The most impressive gain for women within the state might have been the ruling party’s quota on political representation in parliament (30% women) and the number of strong women members of Cabinet, albeit with overwhelmingly anti-labour, anti-feminist, anti-environmental and anti-democratic credentials.

“Witness minister of public administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi’s harangues of striking civil servants and their unions, health minister Tshabalala-Msiming’s hostility to anti-retroviral medicines for victims of rape and for preganant women to prevent HIV transmission, minerals and energy minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s attacks on environmentalists concerned about the harm done by extractive industries; and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s blunt refusal to criticise Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical regime, including its systematic sexual violence against women.”

So, what is to be undone? You ask.

Well, the AU plans to launch a campaign in the coming year to highlight the abuse of women in conflict-ridden areas. The campaign will also focus on child brides and sex slaves, according to the UN news agency. A trust fund will also be launched for women to promote skills training for women, with a special focus on improving their lives in rural areas.

Although it does not sound like a radical empowerment programme, it is definitely a good start – recognising women’s rights, that is, and let us hope it is not mere rhetoric.

Mandisi Majavu is a freelance journalist and an undergraduate philosophy student at University of South Africa.