Women’s rights activists discuss abuse in Africa
Women’s rights activists presented a new perspective on struggles women face in Africa yesterday during the Center for Women’s Global Leadership’s “Talking Back and Creating Change.”
The event, which was held at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building’s conference room on Douglass Campus, hosted three female human rights defenders who spoke about their various personal experiences in dealing with the issue of women’s rights issues in Africa.
Savi Bisnath, associate director at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, said the panel discussion was a unique opportunity to hear from African women themselves about their experiences.
“Often, their experiences are filtered to us,” Bisnath said.
She said she hopes to raise awareness of the issues the activists face during their work, such as violence against women and the situation of women in armed-conflict situations.
Ruth Ochieng, who has researched and documented the treatment of women in Africa during conflict and post-conflict situations, spoke about how academics and activists sometimes approach human rights issues differently.
“As activists, it is not just about the numbers, but also about the meaning of the [personal] story,” Ochieng said.
She also discussed how human rights activists often fail to factor in the situation of women when assessing conflict situations. Human rights activists only began to pay attention to how conflict situations affected women in recent years, in part because of her activism, she said.
“There was [once] no literature of what happened to women, even in women’s academia,” Ochieng said. “Often, the discussion was simply one line that said women were raped.”
Hannah Korocho, who works with government officials in the African country of South Sudan as a member of parliament, said South Sudanese women continue to face many challenges, despite women’s rights making some progress since the end of the civil war.
She also said even though South Sudan’s constitution reserves 25 percent of all government positions for women, the actual percentage of women in government jobs is actually around 10 percent.
Jolly Kamuntu, a radio journalist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shared her story on how her women’s rights work involves gathering the personal stories of women experiencing sexual violence. Kamuntu also said her work was dangerous, since where she lives and works — she could be raped at any time.
One of Kamuntu’s journalistic projects revolved around her being an eyewitness to an incident where a group of armed men gathered all of the women in a village to publicly rape them one by one.
She said she worked with a human rights organization to install a phone in every village and then began to teach the women of the village how to use SMS cards, so that their stories would be fed into a database and publicized to raise awareness of sexual violence.
“That was how the world began to know about rapes in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo],” Kamuntu said.
Ochieng said in African society, the biggest women’s rights issues often involve economic issues.
“In many African nations, women are not allowed to own property,” she said. “So, if her husband dies, the property goes to the brother and for her to get access to the land, she must marry the brother.”
Ochieng also said she was frustrated by the lack of control women have over their personal decisions.
“Why should I be told to produce 11 children when I only wanted to have two children?” she said.
Kamuntu said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the highest rate of sexual violence against women in the world. She also said United Nations peacekeepers often stand by when women are raped, since they are only there to observe the post-conflict situation and not to intervene.
“Someone should ask these UN peacekeepers what they would do if they see a woman being raped a few feet away from them if they were not in uniform,” said Abena Busia, chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies.
Kamuntu said the University could help advance her work by analyzing how the money spent on human rights work correlates with results, while Ochieng said academics can help by analyzing personal narratives in economic terms.