When Mrs Akinyi filed for divorce in Kenya after her husband tried to kill her, she had to borrow money to pay her legal fees.
“I have already spent KS35 000 (Approx. Frw245, 000),” Akinyi says. She tried to get legal aid, she says, but was told there were many cases that were more urgent than hers. “Some women have been waiting for five years to go to court. They have to rely on free public defenders who have far too many cases.”
Many women like Akinyi suffer from domestic and other forms of violence in Africa. They find it hard to pursue justice, partly because of poorly functioning justice systems and partly because of the very high costs that can be involved.
“We need free legal services for women,” says Saran Daraba Kaba, a former government minister in Guinea who is now executive director of the Mano River Women’s Network. “We also need well-trained lawyers who can help victims make informed decisions.”
The network has set up free legal clinics in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and trained local lawyers to assist women, Daraba Kaba reports.
Activists working for women around the world have won the adoption of international agreements as well as national laws in some countries that protect women against violence. But millions of women in Africa continue to suffer.
In 2005, the World Health Organisation found that half of women in Tanzania and 71 per cent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other violence from husbands or other intimate partners.
According to Amnesty International, one woman in South Africa is killed by her husband or boyfriend every six hours and, in 2003, almost half of all homicides reported in Kenya were caused by domestic violence.
The United Nations committee responsible for the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women stated in 1992 that violence against women was a “violation of their internationally recognised human rights” and “a form of discrimination” that “nullified their right to freedom, security and life”.
Laws change slowly
More than 10 years later, the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem) found that only 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and 89 countries worldwide had adopted laws specifically outlawing domestic violence.
Among them is South Africa, where the Domestic Violence Act was adopted in 1998 when there was the lowest number of female parliamentarians since the end of apartheid in 1994.
In New York, during the 2007 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Kenyan MP Njoki Ndugu spoke about the challenges of getting parliaments to pass laws that address the situation of women.
“The motion to amend the sexual violence act had been introduced several times since independence, and failed,” Ndugu said. “Each time, it was seen by the male members of Parliament as giving too much power to women.” Some male parliamentarians, she added, “argued that stricter anti-sexual violence laws would lead to men being falsely accused of raping women”. Others told similar stories about Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, a Bill outlawing sexual violence was adopted only after certain sections were removed, including a provision making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.
In Rwanda, where almost half the legislators are women, several laws protecting the rights of women have been adopted, including one giving females the right to inherit parents’ property.
This was especially important for women who survived the 1994 Genocide and who would otherwise have been dependent on, and possibly subject to abuse by, male relatives.
In Senegal, a nine-year-old girl was raped in 1996 by a community and political leader. The Association pour la Promotion de la Femme Sénégalaise provided legal counsel and led a campaign protesting against the man’s attempts to force the girl’s family to withdraw charges. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the first such conviction in Senegal.
But new laws are not enough. Law enforcement and court mechanisms have to be friendly and accessible to women, says Mary Wandia, the Africa women’s rights coordinator for Action Aid International. “The police force is often not interested in domestic violence,” she observes.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, believes there is a need “to ensure that all those who respond to violence against women -- whether they are police officers, judges, lawyers, immigration officials, medical personnel or social workers -- are sensitised and trained to provide a response that is compassionate and comprehensive”.
In Rwanda, gender desks have been set up in police stations, staffed mostly by women trained to help victims of sexual and other violence.
They investigate charges and ensure that evidence is available for court proceedings. Last year, more rape cases were prosecuted than ever before, with almost half the perpetrators convicted.
The gender desks have “improved reporting and response to these crimes”, says Josephine Odera, Unifem’s director for Central Africa.
“What we need now is to expand this approach to more countries.” Experts say that education is crucial in changing social attitudes that see women as inferior beings. And both women and men need to know that the entire community gains when women are protected.
“Too many women are subjected to violence and made to feel shame ... for crimes committed against them,” says Safiye Cagar, the UN Population Fund’s director of information.
“The real shame,” she noted on International Women’s Day this year, “belongs to a world that allows such crimes to continue.”
Reprinted from UN Africa Renewal