Science - May 22, 2008

Impunity perpetuates violence against women

‘Male feminists should push issues of gender and violence against women to the top of the political agenda in Africa,’ say Aggrey Yesigomwe from Uganda and Kinge Robert Anyoni from Kenya. Together with fellow students of the Management of Development master’s programme, they organised a special programme of events on violence against women during the conflicts following the elections in Kenya. The event took place on Wednesday 14 May at Van Hall Larenstein in Wageningen.

VHL students serve Kenyan lunch during the Violence against Women day they organised.
The belated International Women’s Day programme was the students’ contribution to the course they took on Social Inclusion, Gender and Rural Livelihood. The aim of the day was to denounce the vulnerable position of women and children in political conflicts in Africa, and it started with theatre. The student actors demonstrated the vulnerability of women in their homes and the general disdain for women in African society in a touching way. The play also showed the paralysis and absence of government officials and the police in times of conflict. In the discussion afterwards, students suggested that communities need to unite and that victims should organise themselves, with help from ngo’s and development workers.

The morning continued with two contrasting talks that pinpointed the problems Kenyan society must deal with if it is to prevent violence against women. Antony Otieno Ong’ayo from Kenya, a researcher at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, underlined the students’ view that the victims ‘of the whole affair’ in Kenya are women. At the Nairobi Women’s Hospital for example, eighty percent of the cases treated in the aftermath of the violent outbursts following the presidential elections in December were sexual violence related. However, there are no figures available on how many women were physically abused during the riots. Humanitarian aid did not reach the rural areas because access was blocked by security forces, said Ong’ayo. Moreover, shame and impunity for the perpetrators prevent women from coming forward. According to Ong’ayo, political will is the key to a long lasting solution to the problem of violence against women. ‘We need adequate laws to protect women: legislation can be a very powerful symbol.’

In contrast, the Kenyan ambassador to the Netherlands, Professor Ruthie Chepkoech Rono, emphasised the need to change the socialisation process. ‘Laws are very important, but if we don’t change our perceptions, nothing much will come of them. In schoolbooks women are depicted doing housework and as being helpless. In the district where I come from, I am the only female professor. People always think a professor is male and wonder how a woman can be a professor.’

Chepkoech Rono believes that a positive and more balanced view of women will lead to better protection of women by the community. She advocates training for government officials, social welfare workers and police officers. The tradition of women staying at home and men being away, which makes women and children vulnerable during violent outbursts, has to change too. ‘Men need to participate effectively in the daily lives of their families. Men and women complement each other: we may have our biological differences, but gender roles are constructed by society. Men and women should be seen as equally important. That is the only way men will ever respect women,’ said the ambassador.

The busy morning was followed by a wonderful Kenyan lunch, and in the afternoon an auction of local masks and handicraft raised money for refugee camps in Kenya. After a film on the rape of women in Congo by both soldiers and rebels, the day ended with a performance by a Kenyan singer.

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