African viewpoint: Dates and women

A Congolese woman shouts as she participates in the 'World March of Women' in Bukavu, South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on 17 October 2010

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo flips through his diary and considers dates for women.

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Festival-goers in the UK link hands - one wearing a Make Poverty History bracelet (Archive June 2005)

Those rubber bangles everyone wore to make poverty history - excuse me while I snigger - but the lot of women in Africa has been little advanced by such a gesture”

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If, by some twist of fate you were born a man, it may surprise you to learn how many international days dedicated to women and girls dot our calendars.

Of course, in this age of austerity you may wonder too just how much is spent on such days - from the calendars that remind us to the events, to the T-shirts and the works of art, the speeches, the banquets and the public holidays that empty national treasuries.

What is the point of these days?

If, as is claimed by the statisticians, 57% of the world is female, why do we need an international day of the girl child, an international women's day, mother's day and all those other days that remind us that mother Earth is made up mainly of mothers and would-be mothers?

For lazy newshounds, these days are an ideal opportunity to copy and paste press statements from Geneva or New York or some refugee council and bamboozle us with figures of the raped and abused, the dispossessed and the suffering and to fill in some airtime and column inches with worthy causes until the next year.

Business as usual?
South African government poster about its 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children South Africans are being urged to wear white ribbons to symbolise peace

In the meantime, men do not begrudge these days, they do not march on African parliaments demanding a day of their own, for explicit in their silence is the tacit admission that despite their numerical disadvantage, men still run the world.

And so the women can fuss and shout and wave their banners on the centenary of International Women's Day come 8 March 2011, but on 9 March it may well be business as usual.

And what a messy and shameful business it has been.

Over in the South African parliament last Thursday, action was unfurled with the launch of "16 days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children".

And through the government information website we can learn that: "The 16 days… is an international campaign that takes place every year from 25 November to 10 December, which is International Human Rights Day. The period includes Universal Children's Day and World Aids Day."

And since many women are humans in search of rights too, and happen to be the bearers of children and are also more adversely affected by the Aids pandemic, it is safe to assume that these special days will be for them too.

South African President Jacob Zuma's information department goes on to urge his citizens to wear a white ribbon during this period for "a white ribbon is a symbol of peace and symbolises the commitment of the wearer to never commit or condone violence against women and children."

But if by another accident of fate you were an alien visiting this planet, you would surely be pressed to demand even more days for womankind.

Horrific headlines
Somali women wait in line at a checkpoint for medical care provided by the African Union mission in Somalia, January 2010 Thousands of women have been displaced in Somalia by the nearly 20 years of conflict

Despite all these international days and the multitude of charities and non-governmental organisations dedicated to their cause, a glimpse of the headlines during these special days would tell you that wearing the white ribbon may indicate a kind of "cool cause pose", like those rubber bangles everyone wore to make poverty history - excuse me while I snigger - but the lot of women in Africa has been little advanced by such a gesture.

A bride on her honeymoon raped and murdered, a female cadet in the navy raped and murdered, a 70-year-old man allegedly rapes a nine-year-old, children and infants raped and abused, school gang-rape - the headlines are endless. And that's just headlines to do with rape.

But let's not pick on South Africa, the continent's soundest economic powerhouse.

Has Zimbabwe's 2006 Domestic Violence Bill had any effect on the marauding militias who used rape and abuse as political persuasion back in the election of 2008?

Will the young and oh so silent President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila say something about the gruesome tales emanating from the east of his country where the rapists come in armed hordes and care not whether it is men or women they abuse?

And true to the abundance of hypocrisy in human nature, there are shrines in our spiritual lives dedicated to women - from saints to visions to ancestral worship to the revered maternal earth goddesses - yet women miners in the DR Congo are still working with their bare hands.

Taking on tradition

The common denominator, of course, is men.

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There are still men out there who believe a Ministry of Women's Affairs is where a man goes to report his wife's infidelity”

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An abject lack of attitudinal adjustment has been hanging over gender issues - and as long as these special days exist for commemoration and reflection, African governments seem happy enough to rumble along imprisoning the rapists and rapping the knuckles of the abusers when the punishments should much more fit the crimes.

Despite living in a 21st Century world stuffed with female technocrats and secretaries of state, there are still men out there who believe a Ministry of Women's Affairs is where a man goes to report his wife's infidelity.

Those of us who are not living in a lawless Somalia where 13 year olds can be stoned to death for adultery and those of us who have mothers, sisters and daughters, can attest to the fact that girl children are as important to our continent's development as are the sons feeding the wars with fresh corpses.

The women must be equally educated and valued.

The problem, though, a writer once told me over a beer being served by a particularly memorable waitress, is that women have no name.

They are born with their father's and may die with their husband's.

As glib as that may sound coming from a man thinking out loud, is that the problem?

If women realised that their traditional roles perpetuate their oppression, then surely everything would change?

And those who mark our calendars with patronising tokenism would have to give a worthy cause much more than 16 days.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's latest column, please use the form below. A selection of views will be published.

"If women realised that their traditional roles perpetuate their oppression, then surely everything would change?" It's a good question that is too often asked by the wrong people--having a simple answer (and anything that is both sociological and simultaneously simple has most certainly been OVERSIMPLIFIED) to the complexities of women's social issues is never really an answer at all, but in all actuality, just a snide remark or a slogan that may be found on a tshirt or on glenn beck's evening news agenda. Sometimes, as an academic, I get caught up in moments called "cultural relativity" or that very general mental tonality of open-minded-mindedness and refute the question--how to defeat women's oppression--and proclaim a cauterized 57% of the population--stuck in statistics of rape and illiteracy and poor maternal health. But this article pushes us past the stuck feelings of academia back into a zone full of hidden solutions and creative thought--and this zone is certainly more than a 16-day worthy cause.

Olivia Snarski, Chicago, IL, USA

Very interesting. While eloquently outlining women's subservient place in many parts of the world and the appalling statistics of violence and abuse they suffer at the hands of men, this article appears ambivalent on the campaigns which highlight this. They may not be the answer, but they are a start.

Michael O'Halloran, London

I am not surprise that this is coming from a male. The dates will reduce if the World, especially men zero down on their perception and lesser treatment towards women and girls. Why not talk about the many dates that observed other societal problems. HIV/AIDs, disabilities, Tolerance,discrimination, migrants...and the list goes on. Oh yes, it has to be women again?

Facia Harris, Monrovia, Liberia

The dates are by no means a solution to the actual issues. However, for those 24hrs before business as usual, matters that would otherwise be swept under the carpet are aired. The dates might not have a significant impact but they certainly got your attention. Thats a start.

Ruvimbo, Zimbabwe

Participating in women's rights activism days and campaigns is far from being a cool cause campaign. Though it may merely be a gesture or symbolism for those who have little or no concern with the cause, those dates and rallies are still increasing awareness of the brutality that women face daily. I agree that far much more has to be done for women in societies that they are marginalized besides the acknowledgement of suffering, however these 16-365 days of activism, is that stepping stone. I am glad that in some countries women freely march and can lobby their concerns in government but there are still too many women who do not have a voice and could never dream of an end to their misery. It's these women that these days of activism support- when males in the society 'who go about their business' during these days realize that stoning women, raping them and increasing to their vulnerability to HIV and other diseases is not tradition or culture then women will stop calling for more days of activism. Until that day when males worldwide realize that women deserve to be treated like human beings besides their culture or background as in many cases they prevent this from happening, I and millions of other women around the world will support these dates and continue fighting.

Tatenda Mujeni, Zimbabwe

What exactly are we doing for women on these dates we call theirs? Are we really delivering change for those who grow up thinking there is no other way than living in a man's world, one so caught up in the traditional belief that men are superior? or just telling the world what is already known?the article made me question...

Gshen Zewdie, Addis Ababa,Ethiopia

Okay, so now we know that Women's Awareness days aren't helping, no mention of what is helping.

Richard Weiss, Columbia, South Carolina, US of A

I agree with most of Farai's observations.Clearly in Africa where it is customary for men to expect obedience from women, they consider they can impose sex on women.Only education, and inclusion of equal rights of dignity, and freedom for both sexes will improve the terrible treatment of women. It would help if rape was treated as a violent attack and thus had an appropriate penalty imposed and carried out on perpetrators.

Alastair Clarke, Leamington Spa / UK

Girl child education is very neccesary - it is the first enpowerment they need and there are no better enpowerment for the girl child then this.

woko chijioke, port harcourt city, Nigeria

The more we get educated, the more we hold important high post positions that men feel entitled to, the more we see rise to the ill treatment that comes from men only just to prove a point that they rule the world. What is so wrong to just claim couple of days in a year to be recognised and given a platform to voice out what we go through as women on daily basis?

Nkae, South Africa

Why so many days dedicated to womem and girls? For the same reason that there's also days against other kind of discrimination. Yes, because in the 21st century, and despite being 57% of the humanity as the author said, womem is still facing all the atrocity mentionned in the article. And again, YES we do need a special day for all these causes to wake up the world and remember those that are comfortably sitted in their chairs that there still so much to be done for the full respect of the human rights in world.

Zaida Silva Gomes, Praia, Cape Verde

I want to thank Farai. An African man who has given his point of view. I do agree that it's business as usual when the spotlight is taken off women and children. I also think the wearing of these wristbands is purely self-indulgent fashion-following in the UK, and that it does nothing to help people in need. Teenagers wear these bands but don't give a second thought to people in need, or the cause about which they wear bands. They don't donate money, they don't educate themselves on the real issues beyond reading a blog or what a 'celebrity' has to say on the matter. Also, in the UK Women's Day is often a self-indulgent luxury of the fluffy left wing. It has no impact on the every day person's life in the UK, or every day woman's life in the UK.

Catherine, Middlesbrough, UK

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