African Women’s Movement

Stephen DeAngelis

August 05, 2008

When Zimbabwe finds itself in the news, the story is generally about Robert Mugabe, the dictator who has sunk one of Africa’s potentially prosperous nations to the bottom of the economic heap. His latest act of tyranny, of course, was conducting a farcical presidential election. As I’ve written on numerous occasions, corruption and bad leadership are two of the most devastating challenges that must be overcome in Africa. Because top down leadership is so difficult to find, many bottom up movements have achieved some measure of progress in different areas. One of those movements, surprisingly found in Zimbabwe, is a women’s movement that is helping that gender overcome centuries of abuse [“Women Forging New Bonds to Break Old Chains,” by Nora Boustany, Washington Post, 17 June 2008]. Boustany’s report begins with the experiences of Betty Makoni, a women’s rights activist.

“At the age of 6, Betty Makoni could already count change. She roamed the alleys after dark, a basket on her head, selling tomatoes and candles near Zimbabwe’s capital. One night, a neighbor lured her and three other girls, ages 10, 12 and 14, into his shop and raped them. ‘He believed if you extract the blood of virgins and smear it over the walls of your business, your fortunes would multiply. It was 1977,’ before the end of white rule, she said, ‘and we had no access to the police.’ Today, Makoni is a prominent activist, part of an emerging network of female leaders who started programs in their own communities, branched out to the national level and later forged bonds with global organizations to provide protection through education, legal counseling and grants.”

This is a classic example of how “communities of practice” can unite to improve the world. To read more about communities of practice, see my blog Communities of Practice and Development-in-a-Box. Boustany goes on to report that the community of practice in which Makoni is involved is not only making an impact in the developing world, but is reaching out to the developed world as well.

“Their efforts have helped women and girls around the world counter the effects of sexual violence and other injustices through such mechanisms as counseling, the media and dance in societies dominated by men and shaped by cultural and religious sensitivities sometimes at odds with women’s rights. Makoni was in Washington [in May 2008] to lobby U.S. legislators for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, which aims to integrate U.S. efforts to end gender-based violence into U.S. foreign assistance programs. The bill, introduced last year by Sens. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-Del.) and RIchard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), would extend into the international arena a 1994 act to combat violence against women in the United States. The legislation, introduced in the House this spring, seeks to link foreign assistance and diplomacy in about 20 countries, said Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs. The bill’s other goals include reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS, boosting prosperity in impoverished countries and alleviating conditions that invite terrorism.”

As I noted in a recent post, nation-states remain important even in (I would even say “especially in”) a globalized world. Influencing nation-states is best done by other nation-states and that is the reason that the women’s movement is reaching out to the U.S. and other developed countries.

“‘It is essential that American legislators look at and be forced to deal with this issue pragmatically as a leading public health problem in the world,’ said Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women, a foundation that provides grants to groups advocating in behalf of women’s rights. Ramdas said the organization has received more than 3,500 appeals for help. Some are handwritten, others are typed in Arabic, Hindi, Swahili and other languages. ‘We got a letter from Yahalon, Mexico, that was dictated to the village priest and signed with thumbprints,’ she said. And one was from Makoni.”

Before continuing with Makoni’s story, I can’t resist underscoring how important educating girls is for the future of the planet. The fact that a village full of women in Mexico can’t even sign their own names in the 21st century is an indictment against a government that has too long been dominated by male politicians. We will never be able to bring people out of poverty when we apply only half of our brainpower and half of leadership potential against the challenge. Boustany underscores the kinds of miracles that can be worked if women are educated — Betty Makoni is her star exhibit.

“After attending college, Makoni returned to Chitungwiza, her home town, to teach at a high school. One day, a 13-year-old girl told her she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Soon, other girls came forward, and Makoni started a club to counsel the group of 10. The next week, 50 girls showed up. There are now 35,000 Zimbabwean girls in such clubs, part of the Girl Child Network. As a result, Makoni said, boys behave more cautiously, refraining from taunting girls at their first signs of puberty for fear of disciplinary action at school. Her efforts have also helped jail men for abuses and exposed crimes of senior officials.”

Boustany goes on to report that Africa is not the only place where grassroots women’s rights movements have taken hold.

“In 1990, Shreen Abdul Saroor and her family were displaced from the Mannar region of northern Sri Lanka by a militant group fighting for a separate Tamil state. She started working with some of the 75,000 other Muslims evicted to the eastern region of Puttalam, and was struck by their conservative Islamist transformation. Secular women who once donned saris were wearing head-to-toe burqas, gloves and black veils that prevented them from making it down a street without an escort. Young women were being bullied into covering up. … She started a volunteer group to tend to the displaced. Her Mannar Women’s Development Federation brought together 15 Muslim and Tamil women, and started off with a $30 micro loan to a woman who wanted to start a pancake stall. Their activities spread to 36 villages, launching small industries for roasting cashews and canning fish paste. Supervisors monitoring their progress began seeing bruises on the women and hearing about brawls. Mullahs and Catholic priests were brought in to counsel the men. For the women, the federation provided guidance and legal coaching, and sought court orders when needed. … The most brutal beatings occurred at night when men returned from work, so Saroor and her colleagues held silent vigils outside the homes of vulnerable women. ‘The issue stopped being private and became public,’ she said.”

Although the challenges change from region to region, the bottom up approaches for countering them are much the same. One of the areas with a well-known gender problem is the Middle East.

“So-called honor killings make victims of as many as 5,000 women and girls each year, mostly in the Middle East and Asia, according to the U.N. Population Fund. In Turkey, media attention fueled public outrage over the practice and led to a change in the law that allowed all charges against a rapist to be dropped if he married his victim. In 2004, Guldunya Toren, 22, from a village in southeastern Turkey, was shot by her brothers for refusing to marry the rapist who had impregnated her. She survived, but the brothers tracked her down in the hospital and shot her dead. The tragedy both angered and inspired Vuslat Dogan Sabanci, chief executive of the Hurriyet publishing group. She urged editors to expose honor killings as crimes and to cast shame on the tradition. Hurriyet launched a crusade for change in its coverage and organized bus trips for doctors and lawyers to raise awareness. A new editorial policy included instructions not to refer to women as helpless victims. The rest of the media followed, as did celebrities. With funding from European and private sources, a 24-hour hotline was set up. Turkey’s government launched its own hotline to assist women in distress.”

Although progress has been made, Boustany reports that there is a long way to go.

“To keep their sons from serving jail time for honor killings, families began urging daughters accused of dishonor to kill themselves with poison or other means. ‘There is this silent genocide going on against these women,’ Ramdas said.”

One of the challenges that is receiving increased attention is human trafficking. I believe I read recently that there is more slavery going on today that at anytime in the history of the world (an estimated 27 million people). Whether that is true or not, human trafficking remains a problem that needs addressing. Boustany continues:

“Trafficking is deeply rooted in economic inequality, Ramdas said. In India alone, the wives and daughters of an estimated 10,000 farmers who committed suicide last year because of meager crops migrated to cities, many becoming sex workers. Abused women often are unable to bear or raise healthy babies.”

The fact that women feel empowered to help other women is a good sign. It is a trend that will only increase as women are provided more opportunities to be educated and to serve in business and government positions.