WITH violence against women receiving greater public attention — the recent gang rapes in India and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp included — the focus by the Commission on the Status of Women on gender-based violence is timely and necessary.
The United Nations’ (UN’s) annual evaluation of member states’ progress on gender equality concluded with a landmark agreement this month calling for accelerated action to protect women and girls from violence.
"Africa, with its complex and historical issues of culture, of politics and of conflict, has a very high incidence of (gender-based) violence," UN Women deputy executive director Lakshmi Puri told Business Day.
"How much it is more or less than other regions is difficult to say, because one major challenge we face is documenting and (collecting) data on violence. But what is clear is that violence against women in Africa is widespread and that it takes many specific forms."
Domestic violence affects 50%-70% of women in Africa and yet less than half of sub-Saharan African countries have specific laws against domestic violence, she says. A study commissioned by UN Women has found that 3,000 harmful customary practices continue to be observed in Africa.
"FGM (female genital mutilation) is something very specific to Africa," Ms Puri says. About 90-million African girls have undergone genital mutilation, with about 3-million more at risk each year, she says.
In addition, an estimated 14.1-million girl brides marry annually, and 15 of the 23 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa, Ms Puri says. She describes the trafficking of women and girls — part of the sex industry and as slave labour — as "the silent pandemic", adding that despite regional agreements it remains a serious problem.
The recent increase in conflict in Africa — from Mali, to the Central African Republic, to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo — has also had a dramatic effect on the safety of women in these countries. "Sexual violence is a weapon of war," says Ms Puri. "For example, in Rwanda it is estimated that 250,000 to half-a-million women were raped (during the genocide) … and in the Congo, almost 1,000 rapes every month are being reported."
Internal displacement as a result of armed hostilities worsens the situation. "It renders women particularly vulnerable to violence because they don’t have the safety of their homes even, they are in refugee camps, they are moving around and they are easy prey."
There is also a financial cost to countries’ economies. "Violence against women is not only a human rights issue … it’s also very clearly an economic development issue," Ms Puri says. "There is first of all the cost to victims and survivors themselves, the cost to the state to deal with the whole issue and (create) infrastructure for response and prevention, and the opportunity cost to the economy."
Reliable figures for the costs to African countries are not available, so she cites the examples of Australia and the US. The Australian government estimates it is losing about $14bn a year due to violence against women, and the US calculates a $6bn deficit in healthcare costs and lost productivity.
Ms Puri believes a number of factors contribute to the continent’s "unacceptably high levels" of violence against women.
"Poverty, illiteracy, protracted armed conflicts and also weak legal and institutional mechanisms continue to challenge our common efforts to bring an end to this scourge," she says.
"What is very heartening is that there is pan-African movement. There is a kind of traction, and we need to use that to the maximum to make sure that African governments and all stakeholders acknowledge the responsibility that they have."
Budget allocation and prioritisation are essential if progress is to be made. As is political will. "We need to have a political commitment — specific strategies and action plans which can be implemented and making institutions first of all gender-sensitive … whether we are talking about police stations or the judiciary," she says. "All of this is happening, but it needs to be accelerated, co-ordinated and multisectoral. (Governments) have to be accountable and they have to be doing more."