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Article

Peace A. Medie

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.

Article

Jill E. Kelly

Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets. After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.

Article

Genocide, defined in international law as killings and related mass atrocities that are committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” has negatively impacted countless communities across Africa over the centuries. The resulting historical literature is strongest regarding those genocides that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries due to a tendency to privilege written sources. Within this literature, African women’s experiences remain understudied compared to the experiences of men, despite widespread recognition that genocides often affect people differently according to their gender identity. However, in looking at the widely studied examples of colonial genocides in Belgian-occupied Congo (1885–1908) and German-occupied Namibia (1904–1908), and the subsequent genocides in Burundi (1972), Rwanda (1994), and Sudan (2003–2008), it becomes evident that perpetrators have targeted women in particular ways as part of their broader efforts to exterminate unwanted communities. While women are frequently killed alongside men during genocides, the literature on these case studies abounds with examples of sexual violence, particularly rape, that the perpetrators inflict upon women as part of their efforts to undermine the social vitality of their intended victims’ communities. Women’s experiences of genocide are often far more diverse than the literature’s singular focus on sexual violence suggests, however. The case of Rwanda demonstrates that women can also serve as combatants and perpetrators, while the case of Belgian-occupied Congo reveals that women can lead resistance movements in opposition to genocidal violence. Similarly, German-occupied Namibia and Rwanda demonstrate that women can serve important roles in rebuilding their communities and advocating for recognition and reparations in the post-genocide period. Scholars are beginning to pay greater attention to women’s diverse experiences of genocide, but there is a great deal of research to be undertaken, particularly regarding how different facets of women’s identities, such as class, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, among others, shape their experiences of genocide.

Article

Marie Saiget

The history of women is characterized by nonlinear and gendered social, political and economic processes. In particular, the history of Burundian women’s collective actions has been embedded in the contested and violent trajectory of the Burundian state. Burundian women’s collective actions refer to a broad range of interactions: from protest, and social mobilizations to institutionalized actions. These interactions have been shaped by both global and local social structures, and by complex conflictive and cooperative relations between the Burundian state, political parties, women’s organizations and movements, and external actors (colonial powers, international organizations, non-governmental organizations). Women’s experiences in Burundi’s pre-colonial patriarchal society are little known, with the exception of the glorified Queen-mothers. German and Belgian colonial policies (1886–1962) reinforced and rigidified pre-colonial social constructions of ethnic and gendered social identities and roles, assigning ordinary women to the domestic sphere and sanctioning their social inferior status along with ethnic lines (Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa). After Burundi’s independence, the one-party military regime organized and supervised the first forms of women’s political participation through the Union des femmes burundaises (1962–1980s). The democratic transition of the early 1990s led to the creation of autonomous women’s organizations and networks, which were extended during the civil war (1993–2005). Burundian women actively contributed to national and grassroots peace processes. In particular, a delegation of seven Burundian women participated in the negotiations held in Arusha (1998–2000), with observer status. Post-conflict struggles for women’s rights posed the central issue of women’s political representation, with the adoption of gender quotas from 2005, but left aside other issues after 2010, such as women’s right to inherit land. In Spring 2015, Burundian women were present in protests against the president’s third mandate; with the women’s march being the first to reach the city center in March 2015. Women’s organizations kept mobilizing towards women’s rights after the electoral crisis, in exile or within Burundi, though facing important financial constraints and political repression.

Article

Felix Brahm

Guns have loomed large in many African societies since early modern times. This has much to do with their military and economic potential, but also with the influential social life they often obtained. Being instruments of destruction in the first place, the history of guns is closely connected with various forms of violence, especially with warfare and hunting; however, the significance of the gun went far beyond this. Guns were, for instance, applied in every-day protection of crops and livestock and integrated into ceremonies and festivities; they became signifiers of royal and chiefly power, objects of gender identification, attributes of professional groups, and markers of social status and racial difference. Studying the social life of guns allows for new insights into the material foundations of cultural domains and the construction of social hierarchies; at the same time, it demonstrates that the social and cultural meanings of objects, including guns, are never stable and are subject to constant change. The history of guns in Africa is also one of appropriation and domestication of foreign technology, rising consumerism, and efforts to overcome dependency from importation. The presence of guns often had strong impacts on social and natural environments, both physically and mentally. Studying gun violence and arms regimes from an historical perspective helps us to better understand processes of political centralization and fragmentation, practices of resistance against colonial rule, and also the forming of authoritarian regimes and criminal organisations. The ambiguous history of the gun resonates in contemporary images and memories, connected with both order and violence and liberation and oppression.

Article

Christopher Tounsel

Since the late 19th-century, Southern Sudanese have experienced Anglo-Egyptian colonialism (1899–1956), national independence with Northern Sudan (1956), two civil wars that resulted in South Sudanese independence (1955–1972, 1983–2005), a civil war within the new nation (2013–2018), and the conclusion of that conflict (2018). Southern Sudanese women’s experiences within, and contributions to, this stream of cataclysmic events has been harrowing and significant. This tumultuous history is rife with harsh realities. Women and girls have consistently had unequal access to education compared to their male counterparts, been subjected to sexual violence, marginalized from the political sphere, and faced a multitude of socioeconomic constraints and hardships. Many social scientists, furthermore, have argued that women’s vulnerabilities have increased as the result of lengthy militarized violence. However, in the midst of these realities, women have found ways to make important contributions not only as mothers, wives, and daughters but also as soldiers, teachers, activists, agriculturalists, and in various other positions during each of the postcolonial liberation wars. While women’s political participation has been encouraged since South Sudan’s 2011 independence, war, sexual violence, and socioeconomic inequalities have kept the female population in a vulnerable position.

Article

With a population of 186,000 (2012) and an area of 1,001 km², the twin-island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea is the second smallest country in Africa. Following the decline of the once prosperous plantation economy after independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has largely become dependent on foreign aid. More than half of the population lives in poverty, especially women, children, and people in rural areas. After fifteen years of socialist one-party rule, a multiparty democracy was adopted in 1990. The local Creole population, called forros, is descended from white colonists and African slaves who settled the hitherto uninhabited islands from the late 15th century. The minority of descendants of African plantation workers from the first half of the 20th century tends to assimilate into Creole culture, while the angolares, descendants of a maroon community from the 16th century, constitute a distinct sociocultural group. According to 2012 census data, 80 percent of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic, while 20 percent is nonreligious. African beliefs in witchcraft and other occult forces frequently coexist with Christianity. The kinship system is bilateral where descent and inheritance are passed through both father and mother. Infant baptism is an important ritual, whereas initiation ceremonies for adolescents, including male and female circumcision, are non-existent. The dominant conjugal union is the customary union, while the formal marriage is a rare exception and only practiced by the educated elite. Polygamy is a common practice, but a man’s different wives never live together in the same residence. Local society considers polygyny and male dominance as a natural condition of men. Despite their subordinated role in family and society, individual well-off or educated women have always achieved considerable prestige and recognition. During the socialist regime, legal equality between the sexes was guaranteed and the emancipation of women was promoted, at least officially. Since the 1990s, several externally conceived campaigns, government programs, and new legislation have combated gender inequality and discrimination against women.

Article

Women’s experiences of conflict have been the subject of increased international attention since the end of the Cold War and this has been accompanied by a concomitant growth in attention to the role of women in peace and security initiatives in Africa. Alongside the rise of humanitarian interventions, new trends have emerged in the realms of conflict resolution, accountability, and post-conflict transformation. As a result, post-conflict experiences in Africa in the 21st century have revealed numerous opportunities for the advancement of gender justice. Experiences from countries emerging from conflict on the continent provide some important examples of promoting women’s rights through accountability mechanisms, furthering access to government, producing gender-sensitive reform, challenging discriminatory laws, and advancing economic opportunities. However, while women’s needs and rights have been increasingly recognized through international and national commitments, women continue to face widespread gender-based violence as well as socioeconomic challenges in the aftermath of conflict. Thus, understanding intersectional experiences of conflict and the role of enduring gender power relations are critical to revisiting how transitions might be transformative.