On November 5, 2015 the Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa (LAWA) fellows Funmi Adeniyi, Maeref Tewoldebirhan Alemayehu, and Elizabeth Anne Makumbi held a discussion on the opportunities available through the program and the changes that still need to be made in their home countries to protect women from gender based violence.
The conversation began with background information on the LAWA program. LAWA started in 1993 at Georgetown University Law Center as a program to train women’s human rights lawyers from Africa who are committed to advancing the status of women and girls in their home countries. The fellows then introduced themselves to the audience. Funmi Adeniyi previously worked with the Federation of International Women Lawyers, where she helped produce a training manual for grass-roots organizations working with women who have suffered from gender based violence. Maeref Tewoldebirhan Alemayehu served as a Judge and as an Assistant Judge in Addis Ababa City First Instance Court for six years. Elizabeth Anne Makumbi is a social media guru who has represented the women’s movement in post-apartheid South Africa.
The fellows primarily spoke about the prevalence of violence against women, lack of accountability, and representation of women in government and the legal field. In most African countries there are laws in place are to protect women’s rights, yet cultural bias allows violence against women to continue. The fellows argued that cultural ideas of violence need to be changed moreso than legal framework. Violence against women is not seen as a crime, so women are unable to receive help after they have been victimized. For example, in South Sudan women who are victims of rape are often revictimized by families that are unwilling to provide love and sympathy after the crime. One solution to address the problem of victimization may to be create a new category of crimes that encompass gender based violence.
The conversation then moved to the adjudicatory power of African courts. In many African countries courts do not have adequate female representation, making legal and cultural changes for the protection of women’s rights difficult. In South Africa, there are less than five women working as partners in top law firms so firms hesitate to become involved with gender based violence. In Uganda, a law was in place as recently as 2007 that criminalized adultery for married women but allowed married men to cheat without consequence. Given male dominance in the legal field, laws like these continue to promote sexism and deny women protection. In fact, without women’s rights lawyers, the Ugandan adultery law would still be in existence today.
Despite the significant challenges, changes are on the horizon. Uganda now has a strong female caucus in Parliament which has been able to enact legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation. In South Africa, laws already exist to protect women against violence. With the help of civil society organizations, more can be done to hold legislators and law enforcement officials accountable for upholding laws that protect women.