The Epidemic of Sexual Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa

Today sexual violence in society is an issue attracting global attention. From the protest inspiring events in India to the June 2014 ‘Global Summit to End Sexual Violence’ hosted in London by the odd pairing of William Hague and Angelina Jolie. Much of the attention has focused on sexual violence in conflict. However outside conflict, sexual violence is horrifyingly widespread on the African continent. Despite this Africa has largely seemed to avoid the self-evaluation that India, put under an international microscope has been forced to conduct.

While incidents of sexual violence in both Egypt and India have attracted international attention, sexual violence in Sub-Saharan Africa for the most part seems to escape the attention of all but Human Rights Groups. For this reason there is a lack of international judgement and pressure that has come to bear, especially in the case of India, where real attempts are being made to attack the societal issues that allow a culture of sexual violence to form. Indeed, however influential large NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are, all their reports and condemnations cannot match the impact of one statement by a world leader, and the behind the scenes politicking we are unfortunately not privy to.

Truly the issue of sexual violence in Africa can be described as an epidemic, in which very few countries are spared. The statistics are overwhelming and paint a traumatic picture of the state of women on the continent. According to a detailed report from Unicef on the issue of sexual violence worldwide, in a number of sub-Saharan countries one in five girls between the ages of 10 and 14 report suffering some degree of sexual abuse. The problem seems to be far worse in some countries with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea showing some 70 percent of adolescent females enduring rape or other forced sexual acts, with Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe all showing results of around 50 percent. As the statistics show the problem is not limited to countries beset by conflict.

It is a mistake too often made to aggregate sexual violence purely in terms of rape. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and spousal battery are a widespread and serious problem across the continent. in addition crimes seen as far less serious, and in some areas referred to by various euphemistic phrases for flirting such as groping, and objectification point to the greater issue of inherently misogynistic societies creating a sense of acceptance of unacceptable gender practices. FGM despite its significant dangers and inherent misogyny is a widely accepted practice throughout sub-Saharan Africa. With the lowest recorded occurrence of the practice in Uganda with 5 percent of the female population subjected to the practice, whilst Somalia shows the highest rate of FGM with over 90 percent of Somali females going through the procedure. Additionally domestic violence, although not always technically sexual violence serves as a good indicator of societal attitudes across the continent. According to a 2005 World Health Organization for much of sub-Saharan Africa spousal violence was an occurrence that a majority of women could expect, with figures of 56 percent in Tanzania, and 71 percent in Ethiopia reporting some form of violence by a husband or intimate male partner. These statistics serve to illustrate that if we allow ourselves to become too focused on one aspect of sexual violence or violence against women we run the risk of losing sight of the breadth of issues faced by sub-Saharan Africa. An effective response to these problems cannot simply focus on the issue of FGM or sexual violence in conflict, but must attempt to strike at the deeply held misogyny that lies at the heart of all these issues.

The realities for women in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in rural areas are effectively medieval. Sons are the valued above daughters, boys can contribute to the family business, and can eventually continue the family line. Daughters on the other hand serve little more purpose than domestic help, with the possibility of later perhaps being traded for livestock in a marriage agreement. Sons will often be fed better than daughters because a family needs a son to grow up big and strong, and often only sons will go to school. All these factors establish women in the eyes of society as little more than property, and patterns that prevent girls and then women from achieving self-determination, unable to survive without the security provided by a husband. Indeed a combined study by the World Health Organization and the UN program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) noted the response they heard from many women who had been victims of domestic violence on the continent that they saw no other option than to stay with the men who beat them because they “serve as vital opportunities for financial and social security, or for satisfying material aspirations.”

As of 2011, only 21 out of 49 Sub-Saharan nations had specific laws against domestic violence. Even Kenya, one of the traditionally more progressive African nations only outlawed domestic violence in 2003. Even this Kenyan law was only passed in a watered down version, removing a section that would have outlawed marital rape. Part of the reason for the scarcity of laws against domestic violence likely comes from the depressing fact that they are and would be hugely unpopular. Multiple studies by both the UN Population Fund in 2000 and a 2014 report by Unicef separately found that the right of a man to beat his wife was a deeply held conviction across the continent, held by both adult and adolescent males. Lack of laws against domestic violence do not condone sexual violence, nor does an ambiguous attitude towards domestic violence, however both serve to place women, in the psyche of many men in a vulnerable position. One can easily see how in the mind of a person who believes that in certain circumstances the beating of a wife or woman is justified, that in certain other circumstances sexual violence might also be justified. This especially seems to be true in the case of women who men see as not fitting a ‘woman’s role’, this is especially noticeable in the high amount of ‘corrective rapes’ that are inflicted on lesbians around Africa. Such a widely held beliefs, begin to deter the enforcement of laws intended to prevent such actions. Women across the continent are faced constantly with a predominantly male justice system who turn a blind eye to violence against women, and whose members are far too often perpetrators themselves.

The problem seems to be most stark in Somalia, a country the Economist in 2012 described as “the worst place in the world to be a woman.” Al Shabab the Islamist militia control vast swathes of the country and use sexual violence as a tool to control the population, while cloaking the activity in Islamism. The Shabab, seeing themselves as warriors of Islam, claim that refusal or resistance of their sexual advances is tantamount to heresy. Forced marriage is a common practice. The Economist recounts a story of a girl, living in a displaced persons camp, caring for her brothers and sisters, next door to another girl with whom she shared chores. The Shabab showed up at the friend’s house wanting to marry the girl. The girl’s father refused, so the Shabab killed him. They dug a hole in front of her friend’s hut, dragged her friend out, buried her up to the neck in sand and stoned her to death. Then she herself was gang-raped by five Shabab militiamen in front of her brothers and sisters. The horrors of this story are only magnified by the fact that it seems to be such an ordinary Somalian experience.

The Shabab brazenly use sexual violence as a tool of war. Forced marriages will usually last for less than a month, and are simply for the purposes of sexual gratification, to improve the flagging moral of their troops. Additionally, reports indicate that the continued battles with the Somali transitional government have come to bear on the Shabab’s finances, and in some areas they are unable to pay their fighters. Thus forced marriages serve the additional purpose of de facto payment for their fighters. There are even stories of women, even family members, being used as no more than currency or a bribe to pass Shabab roadblocks by people desperate to escape Shabab territory. Where sexual violence is worst in Africa, those who should be acting as guardians of those vulnerable to sexual violence become actors. In Somalia, African Union soldiers have been accused of committing acts of sexual violence. This gives women who suffer no place to turn, and over a long period of time turn such acts into expected and sometimes an accepted part of life.

And with women prevented from accessing healthcare mortality rates from the procedure are likely high, although because much of the practice occurs in Shabab controlled areas there are no official statistics to support this theory. There is seemingly little hope for the women of Somalia, especially in Shabab controlled areas, where there have been reports of women being beheaded for reporting sexual violence. Things are marginally better for women in areas seized from the Shabab, in which NGOs are able to establish women only camps or medical centres where women can finally feel secure from the threat of sexual violence. Despite this there are also reports of incidents of sexual violence perpetrated by TFG soldiers (Somali Armed Forces) which go unreported but similarly unpunished.

South Africa offers a particularly interesting study when exploring sexual violence in Africa. While not comparable to Somalia in terms of the extent of the problem, South Africa is equally incomparable to Somalia in a political and sociological sense. Despite this South Africa also suffers from a significant problem with sexual violence. It is enviable in comparison to many other sub-Saharan countries in having institutions that should prevent serious societal issues like sexual violence from taking hold. There is a democratic government, a functional justice system, a free press that can, and has shone a light on the issue, and in many places a progressive populace. This highlights just how difficult a challenge the continent faces, if a country with an enviable governmental and law enforcement structure can struggle so much what hope have countries such as Somalia or South Sudan.

South Africa has a serious sexual violence problem. More than 30 percent of South African girls have been raped by the time they are 18, and someone is raped every four minutes. In just Gauteng province, the smallest South African province, which contains both Johannesburg and Pretoria, 37 percent of men surveyed admitted having raped a woman. In 2012, 66,196 incidents of sexual assault were reported to the police, with the vast majority of incidents going unreported. These reports resulted in only 4,500 convictions. When all forms of sexual assault are taken into account there are over 200,000 reports made every year, with the actual amount of attacks likely to be significantly higher, considering how many incidents will go unreported.

There are two indelibly linked factors that stall significant progress to curb the continent’s vast sexual violence problem. The ineffectiveness, and corruption of justice systems in relation to sexual violence, and the complete impunity with which perpetrators feel free to act. An incident from South Africa illustrates this issue perfectly. In a Soweto bar in the final days of 2013 a 22 year old man quietly sat sipping his beer having only thirty minutes earlier raped a 17 year old girl at the very table where he now comfortably sat. No one in the bar, aside from the girl who had been attacked, thought to contact the police, and the man considering his actions so trivial had not even bothered to move before the police arrived. This story is indicative of what South Africa has in common with countries that suffer from high incidents of sexual violence: a fundamental mistrust of those whose job it is to prevent and prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence. In South Africa this mistrust is far from baseless. Fifteen South African police officers were arrested over five months in late 2012, and early 2013 accused of committing acts of sexual violence inside and outside of the workplace. In one case an officer was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who had come to the police station to report domestic abuse.

Indeed, even the country’s President, Jacob Zuma, has stood trial for sexual assault. In 2006 a mere three years before his election as President Zuma was accused of raping the HIV positive daughter of a family friend. He claimed that the woman had provoked him by wearing a skirt, and sitting with her legs uncrossed, and that it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy a sexually aroused woman. Startlingly Zuma was acquitted. The statements made in this trial perfectly illustrate one of the most fundamental issues around sexual violence in Africa: the views held by so many men that justify sexual violence in so many different contexts, and who use sexual violence as a tool to enforce their position as the dominant gender.

The cases of South Africa and Somalia perfectly demonstrate the dichotomy that exists across the continent and the resulting prevalence of sexual violence. There is a lack of any institutions capable of tackling the issue, deeply held societal views that serve to justify acts of sexual violence, and law enforcement who are being at best dismissive of the crime and at worst perpetrators themselves. It is a problem especially, but not exclusively, in conflict areas that those who are nominally in charge of preventing violence of any kind including sexual violence become perpetrators. Most damning has been the accusations made by Human Rights Watch of serious crimes against women being committed by African Union troops in Somalia. The AU troops were accused in September 2014 of attacking women who had fled rural Somalia for the promise of safety in protected camps in Mogadishu. There Human Rights Watch say the AU troops committed gang rapes, used humanitarian aid to bribe women into sexual activity, and raped those who were seeking medical assistance. A girl of twelve interviewed for the report claimed she was raped by a Ugandan soldier. The report accuses Ugandan and Burundi troops of sexual violence. However this isn’t the first time African Union troops have been accused of sexual violence, with soldiers wearing the same uniform but from other nations having been accused before. This presents a serious problem for the African Union, who desperately wish to be able to solve African problems themselves, but rely on foreign funding to support their efforts. If African Union troops continue to commit human rights abuses, the EU and USA will withdraw funding and once again Africa will find itself completely reliant on foreign intervention.

Again there is no easy fix for this problem, away from home, with little to no oversight AU troops are free to act with relative impunity. Figures within the military infrastructure are unlikely to allow an issue as insignificant as violence towards women stand in the way of a successful military operation. In addition to actions by AU troops, the Congo has seen a great deal of violence against women perpetrated by, both armed rebel groups and Congolese security forces. The failure of national and international criminal courts to prosecute those responsible for crimes against women during the civil war has allowed the use of sexual violence as a legitimate practice for any armed force in the country to take hold. Now both armed rebel groups and government security forces commit acts of sexual violence to maintain control, intimidate and punish with very little fear of punishment for their crimes.

The lack of effective policing, by either a police or military force, is the greatest fuel for sexual violence on the continent. In some cases persons commit acts they know are wrong but don’t fear punishment from an effective law enforcement. However, all too common, and an altogether more difficult problem, is that of people who commit acts of sexual violence without thinking they are doing anything wrong. Without an infrastructural response to sexual violence, from an aggressive policing, combined with a governmental determination to alter any societal norms that justify the crimes, there is no hope that we will see any decrease in the number of women on the continent who have experienced and will experience acts of sexual violence.

Sadly there is scant reason for hope that any significant progress will be made in tackling the issue of sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa, at least in the short-term considering how ingrained in society the issues that lead to sexual violence are. However, there are a small number of projects and initiatives that can point the rest of the continent in the right direction. In Rwanda, a country that one might assume lacked any infrastructure to combat sexual violence, ‘gender desks’ staffed by women have been established in police stations. These desks have ensured that cases are investigated and have led to a huge increase in incidents of sexual violence being reported. Burkinia Faso in 1996 outlawed the practice of FGM, simply introducing a law would likely have little effect. However in conjunction with introducing the law, the government launched a vast public education programme, including adding the topic to school curricula, and creating a telephone help line for girls. According to a report released by Plan International these measures have had a significant impact in reducing the practice of FGM.

Obviously all these measures require a governmental infrastructure that a number of African countries simply don’t possess. However it does show the multifaceted approach that must be taken to tackle issues so deeply ingrained in the psyche of a populace. A first step for all countries who wish to curb sexual violence should be to have more participation by women in law enforcement. As shown in the case of Rwanda women who have been a victim of sexual violence will be understandably more comfortable reporting the crime to a woman. Additionally women in law enforcement will be more likely to take claims of sexual violence more seriously. Not only would having a female presence in police stations be beneficial, having females in positions of influence within the law enforcement infrastructure would begin the process of establishing an institutional attitude that takes cases of sexual violence more seriously. To allow these changes to occur in many places where it is most needed there would need to be an improvement in female education, and an adjustment of societal attitudes towards women in employment and education. These are by no means simple issues to tackle. However they are a relatively realistic first step in combating the multi-faceted issue of sexual violence.

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Categories: Africa

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One Comment on “The Epidemic of Sexual Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa”

  1. Eleanor Dent
    November 24, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    A very distressing read. Thank you for having the courage to research this and to write the article.

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