Confronting the Issue of Sexual Violence in Africa

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Dr. Denis Mukwege has been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo who for many years has been treating women who have been victims of sexual violence due to the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Mukwege’s patients have been women of all ages, including little girls. Many of these women were not only violently raped, but were also horrifically mutilated as well. Mukwege has not only been treating victims of the war, but he has been a very outspoken about ending the atrocities being committed in the Congo. This has made him a target of violence. In 2012 he survived an assassination attempt.

The Congo is one of many African countries that have been confronted with the issue of rape being used as a tool of war. During the civil war in Sierra Leone women were subjected to being tortured, mutilated, and raped. Sexual violence has also been rampant in the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. A report on the civil war in South Sudan found that one in four adolescent girls had considered suicide due to the trauma that they experienced, which has included sexual violence. Sexual violence has also been commonplace in the Darfur conflict in the Sudan. The issue of sexual violence against women in Africa is not only one that is related to armed conflicts, as South Africa demonstrates. South Africa has been labeled as the “rape capital of the world.”

Over the years certain Western commentators have used the violence and conflicts in Africa as evidence of Africa’s inherent backward or savage nature. These conflicts are viewed as a sort of atavism, in which Africans have returned back to the state of savagery that Europeans found them in prior to the colonization of Africa. These acts of sexual violence against African women certainly fit with the Western narratives about African men having violently uncontrollable sexual urges. The justification for castrating and lynching African American men was the notion that African American men were violently raping white women, although, as Ida B. Wells-Barnett demonstrated, the reality was that white men were actually the ones committing acts of sexual violence against African American women. European men also brutalized and raped African women during colonialism. In Namibia, for example, German men raped many of the Herero women. By accusing Africans of being hypersexual, European men were engaging in what psychologists refer to as “projection.”

The other reality that must be pointed out is that African societies were generally societies in which the abuse of women was not tolerated. In West Africa, for example, women had a tradition in which they would collectively organize to harass any man who abused or offended a woman until that man apologized and made amends for his wrong doing. This is known as “sitting on a man” by the Igbo people of Nigeria, but this practice has other names in other parts of West Africa. Women in countries such as Nigeria, Togo, and Cameroon used this very tradition to protest against colonialism.

In South Africa the Zulu king Cetshwayo was questioned by some Europeans about a situation in which a man who attempted to assault a woman had killed himself. Cetshwayo explained that the man had killed himself because he knew the punishment for his actions would have been death. In Zulu society there were very few crimes which were punished by death and assaulting a woman was one of those crimes. The colonial reports noted that the Basotho people under Moshoeshoe’s leadership did have any form of capital punishment — this was not uncommon in Africa — and that rape was punished by a fine. Among the Acholi/Luo people of Uganda, rape was virtually unknown, which is why their traditional judicial system, which is known as Mato Oput, had no provisions for punishing the offense of rape. Rev MacBaker Ochola explained: “For example, gangrape was unknown among the traditional Acholi/Central Luo. Therefore Mato Oput is not applicable to gang-rape. Though rare, father-daughter incest also has no provision for Mato Oput. Indeed, rape, cannibalism, incest, etc., mostly appear in folklore of the Central Luo attributed to the Ogre (Obibi).” The kingdom of Kanem-Borno was said to have been so safe that “a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”

I could go on and list more examples, but the point is that, contrary to what some may believe, the issue of sexual violence in Africa is not related to any type of inherent savagery or barbarity within African people. Rather, the problem stems from the erosion of many of the traditional institutions which empowered and protected women. The problem also stems from the political instability in Africa, which again traces its roots to manner in which colonialism has eroded African traditions. Finding the roots of the problem is the easy part, but correcting the issue is a serious challenge because African leaders themselves do not want to confront the issue. The rest of the world sees Mukwege as a hero for the work that he has done in the Congo, but the Congolese government has tried to censor any media related to his work because it exposes the deplorable situation that exists in the Congo. The Congolese government would much rather ignore and cover up the abuse.


Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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