Violence aimed at women has been accepted and condoned throughout centuries of human development around the globe. Violence against women is defined as violent acts inflicted upon women and girls because of their gender and includes femicide, rape, violence from intimate partners, and human trafficking (Medie, 2019). Besides, it is important to include such harmful processes such as early marriage and female genital mutilation (Medie, 2019).
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While research on violence against women has been widely documented in Europe and America, the accounts of the issue remain understudied in the African context, even though the extent of the problem was never less significant. Therefore, even though violence against women is a global issue that remains prevalent in authoritarian or highly religious contexts, the levels of some types of violence that the population experiences are especially high in Africa.
Violence During Colonialism
The issue results from the multi-faceted interaction of factors that operate at different levels, including the international level. As mentioned by Medie (2019), historical records suggest that the acts of violence against African women, including non-partner sexual violence and intimate partner sexual violence, occurred during the colonial era. Throughout the period, the perpetrators of non-intimate-partner sexual violence included colonial officers and the troops they commanded.
Cases presented at colonial courts would rarely result in offenders’ convictions, and the sentences were predominantly light (Medie, 2019). However, the majority of incidents concerning violent acts against women were addressed within the limits of a specific family or community, with both traditional leaders and relatives being in the center of resolution.
In the colonial area, violence against African women was significantly overlooked and often made a norm. As found by Feinstein (2019), sexual violence was used as a tool for enforcing enslaved women from Africa into submission as well as to further slaveowners’ profits through breeding. According to the historian, on slave plantations and ships that were bringing slaves from Africa, raping enslaved women was performed to establish the dominance of white masculinity (Feinstein, 2019). These findings are supported by Scully (1995), who studied the issues of sexual violence against women in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony in South Africa.
The researcher found that many acts of sexual assault, which is classified as violence against women, were justified by slaveowners as their words were considered more reliable than the claims of slaves regarding being assaulted (Scully, 1995). Notably, the “sexual tyranny” of slaves was encouraged with the Colonial America laws as a means to enhance slaveowners’ economic and social gain (Wyatt, 1992). African American women were the main targets of such tyranny, with the offspring from rape of women-slaves increasing slave populations and the holdings of owners (Wyatt, 1992).
Following the negative legacy of slavery and the use of women as objects for sexual pleasure and targets of violence, human trafficking bears importance in the context of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even though human trafficking occurs in different regions globally, it was and is endemic in Africa. The challenges to which the continent has undergone such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, economic and political instability, hunger, and many others (Bello & Olutola, 2020). Such challenges were made worse by tensions and insurrections, leading to the rising rates of population displacement.
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In an unfavorable environment, illegal activities had the capacity to develop. The scale of human trafficking in Africa, which included predominantly women and children, came from the alarms raised by developed societies, activists, and non-governmental organizations in the 1980s and 1990s (Bello & Olutola, 2020). For example, anecdotal reports suggested that human trafficking in the region assumed alarming rates in the mid-1990s (Bello & Olutola, 2020).
Specifically, the trafficking of young girls and women in rural areas of Ghana, Mali, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and others enabled forced labor in cocoa plantations in Urban Cote D’Ivoire (Bello & Olutola, 2020). The rates of trafficked individuals would correlate to increasing political and socioeconomic challenges. Women would leave their homes to get some work opportunities and would fall victim to traffickers.
It should be noted that in the continent, South Africa serves as the key destination point for traffickers because it is considered to be the economic hub of the region. Within South Africa, women and children get trafficked from rural regions to cities such as Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg. Most girls and women would work as domestic servants in wealthy homes (Bello & Olutola, 2020). Children and men would seek job opportunities as street beggars, vendors, as well as laborers on farmlands. In East Africa, however, women from Uganda and Kenya are trafficked to the Gulf region for the purposes of prostitution (Bello & Olutola, 2020).
The ongoing crises that captured Uganda allowed for creating an avenue for the leaders of the rebellion to kidnap children, young girls, and women from the opposition camps and force them into prostitution (Bello & Olutola, 2020). Nevertheless, even though the alarms were raised and there were considerable efforts of the international community to save young women and kids from human trafficking in Africa, limited success has been recorded.
Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM) must also be considered in the context of exploring the history of violence against African women, especially since the 2000s marked significant progress concerning changing the attitudes toward female genital mutilation (Wakabi, 2007). Even though the practice remains widespread across the continent, Egypt, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania have had some improvements.
Female genital mutilation refers to the partial or complete removal of the external genitalia of an individual or any other injury to the genital region for reasons other than medical. The practice is considered violence against women by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020) as well as girls and women’s violation of human rights because it often causes severe bleeding and infections, problems urinating, as well as complications in childbirth. FGM is carried out predominantly on young girls between infancy and adolescence, with adult women being subjected to the procedure less frequently (WHO, 2020).
In countries where FGM is considered a social norm, which is predominantly central and Northern Africa, there is a social pressure to conform to what the population has been doing for centuries (WHO, 2020). There is a fear of being rejected by the community, which perpetuates the violent practice, which results in some of the regions universally performing FGM without questioning its harmful effects. Besides, the practice is often reinforced by the beliefs regarding what is considered acceptable sexual behavior of women, such as the standard to ensure virginity before marriage as well as fidelity to one’s husband (WHO, 2020).
FGM is considered a tool for reducing women’s libido, which, in turn, is expected to help them avoid sexual acts outside of marriage. It is also notable that historically, the impact of community and religious leaders has been immeasurable in setting the standard for female genital mutilation (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). While FGM occurs among all religious groups in Africa, there are some distinctions. For instance, on the one hand, in Niger, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, and Northern Sudan, Muslim women are more likely to undergo genital mutilation than Christian (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). On the other hand, in Tanzania and Kenya, Christian women were more likely to undergo genital mutilation than Muslim women (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). This shows that religion is not the only denominator for encouraging FGM in Africa, with social standards and expectations of countries also influencing the frequency of the practice’s occurrence.
The history of abandonment approaches toward FGM dates back to the beginning of the 1900s when colonial authorities and missionaries in Africa put emphasis on the adverse effects of the practice and called it “uncivilized, barbaric and unacceptable in the eyes of Christianity” (Muteshi & Sass, 2005, p. 17). However, the efforts of abandonment were not received well by African communities as they saw it as a measure of colonial imperialism.
In colonial Kenya, for example, FGM was believed to remake girls into women and was celebrated. The attempts of European and American feminists of the 1960s and 1970s to persuade Africa otherwise also failed because they were perceived as impositions of foreign cultures and values by more powerful countries (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). More recent efforts have been supported by increased funding and collaboration with international organizations and philanthropic foundations; however, the processes were not systematic to make any significant progress.
Domestic Violence Against Women
Finally, it is essential to discuss the history of domestic violence in Africa because the challenge remains unaddressed, with the issue comprising of two interrelated narratives (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). The first concerns the changes in women’s experience of violence, while the second tracks the modifying definitions of the “problem” of domestic violence (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). Historically, family structures in Africa have shown significant levels of variability, with the normative structure, in which a family is made up of a husband, wife, and children, being a relatively new modification (Muteshi & Sass, 2005).
It must be noted that the way in which family structures transformed did not capture much of Africanists’ attention, which leaves the current discussion limited to the stereotypical understanding of African families. However, it is known that much of marriage in Africa occurred through bridewealth, which enabled high control of women’s labor and sexuality by their husbands within the enhanced patriarchal authority (Muteshi & Sass, 2005). Because of the high levels of control and the extreme dependence of wives on their husbands, as well as loose legal frameworks, domestic violence has been deeply embedded into the social landscape of African countries.
Up to date statistics on domestic violence in Africa show that 51% of women in the region report being beaten by their husbands feel that the act is justified (Christiaensen, 2016). The explanations of them being ‘punished’ include going out without their husband’s permission, refusing to have sex, failing to look after their children, or arguing back (Christiaensen, 2016). Even though that a third of African women have experienced domestic violence, their attitudes toward the issue show how deeply has the patriarchy embedded itself in the social structures of the majority of countries throughout the region, with the rates of acceptance of domestic violence reaching 77% in such countries as Mali and Uganda (Christiaensen, 2016).
In addition, the connection between a country’s overall level of development and acceptance of domestic abuse is weak, which means that the socioeconomic background should not be viewed in isolation as a contributing factor. While poverty and the lack of education have an undoubted influence on the increased occurrence and acceptance of domestic violence, the social standards and expectations regarding family life cannot be overlooked.
To summarize the exploration of the history of violence against women in Africa, the cultural and social norms of most of the countries in the region have placed women in subservient positions in relation to their husbands and men in general.
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Due to this inferior status, they get undervalued, disrespected, and prone to be subject to the violence of different forms. The discriminatory norms, combined with persistent social and economic inequalities, have served to keep women within a tight framework of norms expectations that limit their human rights and freedom of choice. Such practices as female genital mutilation have been historically perceived as essential for preparing women for family life and increasing their social status. This shows that women in Africa have been treated as property, with their status not expected to change significantly any time soon if the international community and local governments continue overlooking the problem and ignore the continent’s female population.
Bello, P. O., & Olutola, A. A. (2020). The conundrum of human trafficking in Africa. Web.
Christiaensen, L. (2016). Domestic violence and poverty in Africa: When the husband’s beating stick is like butter. Web.
Feinstein, R. A. (2019). When rape was legal: The untold history of sexual violence during slavery. Routledge.
Medie, P. A. (2019). Women and violence in Africa. African History. Web.
Muteshi, J., & Sass, J. (2005). Female genital mutilation in Africa: An analysis of current abandonment approaches. PATH.
Scully, P. (1995). Rape, race, and colonial culture: The sexual politics of identity in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony, South Africa. The American Historical Review, 100(2), 335-359. Web.
Wakabi, W. (2007). Africa battles to make female genital mutilation history. The Lancet, 369(9567), 1069-1070. Web.
WHO. (2020). Female genital mutilation. Web.
Wyatt, G. E. (1992). The sociocultural context of African American and white American women’s rape. Journal of Social Studies, 48(1), 77-91.