Violence, in all of its forms, touches girls and women’s lives in Africa. While there is evidence that girls and women do participate in violence, research has shown that a significant proportion of them have also been victims. Violence against women describes violence inflicted on girls and women because of their gender and includes femicide, rape, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking. It also includes harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage. While it is a global problem, the levels of some forms of violence against women are particularly high in Africa. The problem is caused by a complex interaction of factors operating at multiple levels, including at the global level. Historical records show that acts of violence against women, including intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, were perpetrated during the colonial era. During this period, perpetrators of non-partner sexual violence included colonial officers and troops under their command. Cases brought before colonial courts sometimes resulted in the conviction of the offender, but sentences were generally light. However, incidents of violence against women were mostly resolved within the family or community, with relatives and traditional leaders playing a central role. The post-independence period has seen increased attention to violence against women. Activism by women’s movements contributed to placing the issue on the agenda of states and of international organizations such as the United Nations. Sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors during wars in the 1990s also served to draw attention to violence against women. Consequently, most African countries have amended colonial-era rape laws and have adopted new legislation to address acts such as intimate partner violence, early marriage, and female genital mutilation. Many of them have also created specialized criminal-justice-sector institutions to address various forms of violence against women. These actions on the part of states have been influenced by women’s movements and by pressure from international organizations such as the United Nations. While this demonstrates progress on the part of African states, there is a large implementation gap in most countries. Thus, girls and women rarely benefit from the progressive laws on the books. This demonstrates that there is much work that needs to be done to address violence against women in Africa.
Peace A. Medie
African law and justice systems in the early 21st century are the result of over a thousand years of religious and cultural influences and political change on the continent. As customary and Islamic laws became reinterpreted and formalized by colonial states, women experienced the effects of successive periods of religious and political conquest as an entrenching of patriarchal control in the family and personal law sphere. The 20th century saw African women’s resistance rise from the grass roots as an important force for national liberation. African women’s legal activism grew after political independence and African women lawyers were part of global feminist movements. In the wake of dramatic political changes across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the global sphere of rights post-1989 became an enabling frame for women’s legal activism. Political transitions to multiparty democracy, the liberalization of African economies, and a wave of constitutional reforms strengthened women’s rights and gender equality guarantees. The 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of regional and pan-African women’s legal activist organizations, including the Action Committee of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Women in Law and Development in Africa as well as the adoption of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. In the 21st century, while social, economic, and legal inequalities persist in spite of many gains for women’s rights, some African women lawyers have risen to occupy the highest echelons of the judiciary in several countries and in international courts.
African feminist thought refers to the dynamic ideas, reflections, theories and other expressions of intellectual practices by politically radical African women concerned with liberating Africa by focusing women’s liberation, and as such cannot be easily defined or captured. However, the conditions out of which Africa’s feminist movements form, and the intellectual labor that they carry out in the pursuit of women’s rights and freedoms can be explored and discussed. African feminist thought is the potentially limitless product of movements that are themselves constantly in the making, succeeding in changing the conditions of their formation by their very existence. African feminist political thought can be traced to the world’s women’s movements that formed in the context of transnational liberal and emancipatory political discourses of the late 19th and 20th centuries of European empire. Out of these liberal emancipatory reformist, international labor, communist, socialist revolutionary, and Pan-African Diasporic and African nationalist movements were all formed. However, following the flag independence of over fifty nation-states, women who joined the anti-colonial freedom movements have had to pursue further struggles in independent nation-states, because Africa’s new states often hesitated or reverted to conservative patriarchal views when it came to extending freedom and equality to African women. It is as citizens of new nations that 20th century African women have formed independent feminist movements that continue to demand freedom, equality and rights, for example, by seeking freedom of movement, political representation, educational and economic equality, and perhaps most commonly of all, freedom from sex and gender-based violence. Contemporary publications and writings by African feminists are the primary sources consulted here, because of the need to correct the spurious mis-representation of African feminism as “un-African,” a position that hinges on the definition of feminism as exclusively Western. This view is advanced by conservative African men and women who seek the restoration of pre-colonial cultures, as well as in some of the early scholarly literature on the subject. African feminism is a radical proposition: it refers to the liberatory political philosophies, theories, writings, research and cultural production, as well as the organizing work of the transnational community of feminists from Africa. These respond to objective conditions of global systemic inequality that have led African women to resume the struggle for freedom and liberation. African feminists in 2019 identify with earlier generations of women freedom fighters but enunciate visions of a future in which the women of Africa will be afforded human rights and freedoms, on a continent liberated from a global neoliberal capitalist system that continues to marginalize the vast majority of the world’s peoples and exploits natural and human resources to a degree that now threatens planetary survival.