In January, one of Africa’s most outspoken feminists, Mona Eltahawy, gave a rousing speech at a TEDx talk in the United Kingdom. It began thus; “My body is mine, it does not belong to the state, it does not belong to the mosque, it does not belong to the church, the synagogue or wherever else you worship. It does not belong to my family; it belongs to me.” Back here in Africa, her words reflect a genuine claim that many African women are struggling to secure. In a continent still riddled with institutional and cultural chauvinism and surfeit with denigrating practices targeted at women, many on behalf of whom Ms Eltahawy professes those words are still boxed into misogynistic perceptions and seen as mere appendages without value, especially if without a husband.
One of the biggest threats often issued to women across several African societies is; “No man will ever marry you!” Persons offering this threat range from parents or family members, who could also render it as an advice or a warning, to religious and cultural leaders preaching it as a sermon. Even friends present it as savoire faire while bullies use it as a sexist slur. Regardless of its form or the channel from which it emanates, the threat of never getting married is often issued to get women to deny themselves their own wishes and aspirations, surrender their self-esteem, or worse still, to get them to accept physically horrendous and psychologically harmful practices. In Guinea, the latter is most prevalent.
This week, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) disclosed that 7 out of 10 women in Guinea aged between 20 to 24 have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) before their tenth birthday. “Non-excision of girls is considered dishonourable in Guinean society,” said the UN report. “Social pressure is such that girls may request excision for fear of being excluded or forced to remain unmarried if they do not suffer the practice.” While FGM has been banned in Guinea since 1965, the country has the second highest rate of FGM in the world, thanks to a Guinean society that permits and promotes the robbing of womanhood and the demeaning of women as weak stems whose existence is only validated by marriage.
Liberia, whose president—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—is a woman, is one of the three African countries, alongside Mali and Niger, yet to ban FGM. While banning the practice in many African countries (such as Guinea and some parts of Nigeria) has done little to end the abhorrent practice, the inability to formally ban FGM speaks of the institutional acceptance, nay promotion, of the practice. “In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Sande female secret society promotes and carries out FGM as part of a rite initiating girls into womanhood. FGM is a taboo subject and it is forbidden to talk about secret societies and their practices with non-initiated people, wrote the Guardian UK six days ago.” Punishment for such violations include physical abuse, forceful initiation and death threats – something Ruth Berry Peal, a Liberian woman who was forced to undergo FGM, and other women have faced for years after standing up against it.”
Unfortunately, FGM is just one of the several denigrations that African women face. In Nigeria, the kidnap of over 200 schoolgirls and their purported forced marriages by Boko Haram is a rather extreme exemplification of the widespread disempowerment of women through their denial of education, discrimination in career paths and forced marriages. Child marriages remain prevalent in northern Nigeria and even achieved a quasi-institutionalisation following the refusal of lawmakers, last year, to approve the amendment of the federal constitution to declare 18 as the minimum marriage age.
In southern Nigeria, the forced marriage of women takes form in the stigmatisation of unmarried, divorced and even widowed women. While the victimisation of widowed women often takes place in the hinterlands (some forced to drink the water used to bath their dead husbands in order to prove their innocence in his death), the public spiting of unmarried women is just as prevalent in urban neighbourhoods. A recent example of the latter is found in the public spat between popular Nigerian blogger, Linda Ikeji, and famous musician, Wizkid, whereby the latter insulted the former for still being unmarried in a widely shared Instagram post. Such widespread slurs aimed at unmarried women is among the reasons for the desperation to get married. And this is pervasive among Nigerian women and the consequent silence of those being abused in their marriages.
Being a woman comes with even greater dangers in war-torn areas such as South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, amongst others. With such conflicts often come a massive spate of rape of which young girls and unmarried women are the most vulnerable. Even war-free countries are not free of this despicable act, as seen in South Africa where university students are currently engaged in anti-rape protests.
Thus, whether through arcane practices, such as Female Genital Mutilation, widespread misogyny in the form of the demeaning of unmarried women, or violent abuse and rape, many African women are being held down by African societies and institutions, which are not doing enough to enshrine and enforce due respect and value. It is such boxing up of women that has inspired efforts like the Breaking Out of the Mould seminar in March which was organised by Gratia Fidelis Caritas (GFC), a group focused on empowering women, in collaboration with So Connected (SC) and Young Adult Professionals and Entrepreneurs (YAP & E). “It takes commitment for women to rid themselves of the harmful beliefs and indoctrinations they have been fed with all their lives,” said Minna Salami, a keynote speaker at the event. She urges women to unlearn everything society has instilled in them about being a woman and define womanhood for themselves. Mona Eltahawy’s message is reserved for men and institutions that seek to overtly control women, and it reads thus; “Stay out of my vagina unless I want you in there.”