In a bold new strategy, women’s rights advocates in Africa are using clever, non-confrontational techniques to win power for women. It’s all about getting the men on board by convincing them equality is in their own interest. Plus, read more about taking action on Giving Beast.
For activists focused on women’s rights in Africa, this fall brought a whirlwind of conflicting news. First, the devastating: On Sept. 28 in Guinea, during protests against the ruling military junta, masses of women were publicly assaulted and raped by government forces. The sexual violence, which took place at a sports stadium in the coastal capital city, Conakry, echoed that of other conflict around the world. But this time, images of the stripped, humiliated women were captured on cellphone cameras and distributed internationally, resulting in a Page One New York Times exposé.
A week later, across the continent in Somalia, came a human rights victory. Fourteen villages in the country’s northeast Puntland region publicly vowed to abandon female genital mutilation, declaring the Koran does not require the procedure. Two thousand people, including local village chiefs and religious leaders, attended the ceremony to announce the policy change, which was the culmination of a two-year education effort by women’s rights organizations.
The idea that it is men’s duty to protect “weak” women is deeply ingrained, but activists have found they can use this to their advantage.
At the center of both these stories is an undeniable, yet uncomfortable truth: The fate of women in traditional societies is often in the hands of men. It is men who perpetrate sexual and domestic violence, and men who have a stranglehold on political power in societies obsessed with sexual chastity and obedience. Women’s rights activists have learned that without the support of men there is little hope for empowering African women. Since the 1990s, a number of advocacy groups have developed sophisticated strategies for pursuing feminist aims through non-threatening outreach to men, eschewing the sort of Western paternalism that, in past decades, allowed local opinion leaders to brand opponents of female genital mutilation and proponents of family planning as latter-day colonialists, to be resisted by right-thinking Africans.
• Read More on Giving Beast “We have men talk to other men,” explains Judithe Registre, director of development and outreach at Women for Women International, which works with female war survivors. “It’s becoming more and more the fashion. You can’t focus on the victims as though they are the problem. The source of the problem is not women.”
The Puntland ban is a perfect example. With the Maputo Protocol of 2003, a major victory for international feminist groups, African Union nations committed to outlawing female genital mutilation, in which parts or all of a woman’s labia and clitoris are cut off. But local efforts have been far more effective than international edicts in eradicating the practice, which is deeply ingrained as a rite of passage and supported by many women.
“Women are the ones with the attitude that we must cut our daughters,” says Molly Melching, who first traveled to Africa in 1974 as a University of Illinois exchange student in Senegal, and now runs Tostan, an NGO that works to eradicate female genital mutilation. “That is because they think the men will require that, and also because it has led to them having a certain status in society. It’s like their initiation into a higher level of womanhood.”
Melching refers to the procedure as “cutting” rather than “mutilation” because the less judgmental term allows Tostan staffers, most of whom are African, to better communicate with—and hopefully sway—supporters of the practice. Thanks to education programs developed by Tostan and adopted by the United Nations, more than 4,000 villages in Senegal, Somalia, Gambia, and Guinea banned female genital mutilation in the past decade while retaining the non-violent aspects of the coming of age ritual, such as feasting, dancing, and discussion of sex and marriage among women.
• Giving Beast: Take Action, Make a Difference Tostan targets local religious and political leaders with a human rights message, as opposed to talking about women’s rights or sexual equality. In part, that’s because sexual difference is incredibly important in African village life, with proscribed gender roles for each chore. The idea that it is men’s duty to protect “weak” women is deeply ingrained, but activists have found they can use this to their advantage.
“When a woman’s husband dies, often she is going to be married to his brother,” Melching explains. “If you’re going to fight against that practice, you are going to get a lot of resistance from the men. They think it’s important to protect women and make sure they aren’t left out in the cold.
“The first thing to do is to say, ‘Let’s look at why you did this. Is there another way to protect women so that the sexual part of this is not involved?’”
Women for Women International also appeals to traditional domestic roles in its campaign against military rape. A key message for army commanders is that women who have been abused often become ill, and are then unable to fulfill their household responsibilities. Registre explains: “You start from somewhere that makes sense to them. You could take a purely moral stance by saying, ‘This is fundamentally wrong.’ But if they could get there, they probably never would have raped.”
Of course, there are risks in relying on traditional gender ideologies to bolster women’s health and anti-violence efforts; this same mind-set resists girls’ education and supports child marriage. Ann Cotton, the founder and executive director of the Campaign for Female Education, or CAMFED, says that in countries like Malawi, attitudes about educating girls have changed, with many families sending all their children to primary school. What’s more difficult is shifting gender expectations in the home, where girls are often subjected to hours of grueling physical labor each day, while their brothers play or sleep. “The pounding of maize, the collection of water,” Cotton says. “An hour and a half of domestic work before school means a girl is not going to be highly receptive educationally.”
To save girls from this fate, CAMFED pays for thousands of them to attend boarding schools. But it also pitches parents on female education as a way to protect future generations—of boys. “Boys born to educated mothers are likely to thrive far better than boys born to mothers who haven’t had the opportunity of education,” Cotton says. “The education of men does not have such a profoundly beneficial impact, in terms of child health, maternal health, food security, and economic advancement.”
The hard sell to African men doesn’t mean, though, that African women aren’t acting independently to change their own lives, or to move their communities forward. “I remember this one woman saying she didn’t realize how much power she had,” Registre recalls of her work in the Congo. “She realized her daughter had no time to actually study. What she started doing was actually having her son help her daughter fetch the water. And that was it.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at The American Prospect. Her writing has also appeared in Slate, BusinessWeek, and The New Republic.