Time for Change: Gender Equality in Africa

Author: Michael Addaney[1]

Gender stereotypes are described as preconceived ideas whereby males and females are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles limited by their sex.[2] The UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (African Charter) recognise that women suffer continued and systematic discrimination due to their sexuality with the most pervasive one being violence against women.[3]

These international instruments observe that violence against women is strongly influenced by the traditional gender role expectations that men are financially responsible for their families while women perform domestic chores.[4] Therefore, most women in Africa depend on men as their sources of livelihood and are thereby engulfed by oppressive attitudes that permit serious violations of their rights to be settled out of the legal system.[5]

This has influenced the traditional view that men are superior while women are vulnerable and incompetent decision-makers who need to be protected and controlled by men.[6] Society expects women to be passive and submissive to violence as a tool to correct them. Due to this most men subject women to violence with the justification of disciplining them, a practice which has devalued and subordinated women in society.[7] Society has privileged men as disciplinarians making violence against women often private and hardly contested by actors.[8]

Therefore, violence against women has then become an acceptable tool for training women to be submissive to men as well as responsive to their stereotypical gender roles in relationships and society in general.[9] In Africa, human rights laws are failing to address violence against women perpetrated by their intimate partners because the courts are influenced by cultural values and traditional norms.[10]

The CEDAW Committee opines that any action that instils fear and insecurity in the lives of women is a hindrance to the attainment of gender equality.[11] Violence against women is a major barrier to women in achieving equal standing in families and in the society. General Recommendation 19 of the CEDAW observes that violence perpetrated by men against women ‘annul the enjoyment of their fundamental human rights including the right to life.’[12] Violence against women through a vicious manner can arbitrarily deprive a victim of her life.

Further, violence against women also deny them of their right to dignity and deprive them of enjoying equal status in the family through limited access to and control of family assets. It also erodes the dignity of the women because it targets their self-esteem.[13] This ‘reflects the great scorn for women within patriarchal societies where harmful stereotypes sustain men’s superiority to women.’[14]

In most parts of Africa, the enforcement of laws protecting the human rights of women face serious barriers by gender stereotypes based on religion and culture manifesting through traditions, customs, and norms. These are used as excuses by many government authorities to justify their lack of responsiveness to serious violation of women’s rights in their countries. Most human rights laws are not enforced because state authorities contend that their culture limits the interpretation of those laws and sometimes rejects such laws completely. These practices make it difficult for perpetrators to be arrested, prosecuted, or punished in Africa.[15]

Generally, traditional gender relations confer some rights and obligations between men and women.[16] Customary laws which regulate gender relations do not recognise women and men as equal and even the recent constitutional guarantees of gender equality in most African countries have not been able to eradicate such stereotypes.[17]

The societal move towards gender equality remains gradual[18] even though most African countries are parties to the ICCPR, CEDAW, and the African Charter.[19] Cultural practices must also be justified by national laws in tandem with contemporary democratic values of human dignity, freedom, and equality.[20]

African states must identify harmful gender stereotypes regarding women sexuality and design appropriate affirmative action laws, policies, and programmes to dismantle them.[21] In this regard, governments should prioritise the education of women and girls to empower them as well as reserve strategic positions for women in the corporate world.[22] Gender neutral marriages should promoted as a tool to enforce equal status of spouses[23] because marriage equality has the cogent ability to dismantle the stereotype that men are superior to women in a broader sense as traditional couples can easily fall into heteronormative patterns.

Appropriate human rights laws protecting the status of women need to be enforced through the execution of gender-responsive policies and programmes in African countries. Alleviating stereotypes would improve women’s ownership of properties and increased their participation to political, cultural, and economic development.

[1] Michael Addaney holds BSc Development Planning and Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the University of Cape Coast respectively, both in Ghana. Michael is a Corporate Member of the Ghana Institute of Planners (Social Policy option) and a candidate of MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria in South Africa. His research interest focuses on International Humanitarian Law, Conflict Transformation and Security Studies, Public Policy Analysis and Child Rights.

[2] PJ Grossman ‘Holding fast: the persistence and dominance of gender stereotypes’ (2013) 51(1) Economic Inquiry 747

[3] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)

[4] W Amien Recent developments in the area of women’s rights in South Africa: Focus on domestic violence and femicide (2001) 1

[5] ‘African women and domestic Violence’ World Changing, 1 December 2007 Available at http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007653.html (Accessed on 3 April 2015)

[6] NC Cantalupo, KPS Shin & LM Vollendorf ‘Domestic Violence in Ghana: The Open Secret’ (2006) 7 Georgetown Journal of Gender and Law 531

[7] RJ Cook & S Cusack ‘Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives’ (2010) University of Pennsylvania Press

[8] Cantalupo, Shin & Vollendorf (n 6 above) 531

[9] T Cheryl et al ‘Developing legislation on violence against women and girls’ (2011) The Advocates for Human Rights 3

[10] Cheryl et al (n 9 above) 3

[11] UN CEDAW ‘Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies’ General Recommendation 19

[12] UN CEDAW (n 11 above) 21

[13] Cheryl et al (n 9 above) 14

[14] K Stefiszyn ‘Nigerian schoolgirl kidnappings, not just an act of terrorism’ AfricLaw 19 May 2014

[15] JE Bond ‘Gender, discourse, and customary law in Africa’ (2010) 83 Southern California Law Review 509

[16] T Manu ‘The passage of domestic violence Legislation in Ghana’ (2006) The Pathway for Women Empowerment 2

[17] Manu (n 17 above) 4

[18] L Monroy ‘Marriage Act: Definitions of marriage are evolving’ (2014) Skullross

[19] J Fenrich & TE Higgins ‘Promise Unfulfilled: Law, Culture, and Women’s Inheritance Rights in Ghana’ (2001) 25(2) Fordham International Law Journal 261

[20] R Holtmaat & J Naber ‘Women’s human rights and culture: from deadlock to dialogue (2011) 151.

[21] Cheryl et al (n 9 above) 14

[22] R Posner ‘How gay marriage became legitimate’ the New Republic 17 September 2013 available at http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113816/how-gay-marriage-became-legitimate (Accessed on 1 April 2014)

[23] Posner (n 13 above)