The past week has most certainly been a disturbing one for anyone concerned with the rights of women.
In the U.S., Missouri Representative Todd Akin attempted to justify his vehement anti-abortion stance, stating that in cases of “legitimate rape,” a woman is highly unlikely to fall pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Closer to my home, South Africa this week experienced what has come to be known as the Lonmin Massacre. The event, which plunged South Africa into a week of
national mourning, involved the deaths of 34 striking miners at the hands of police. In a statement echoing the idiocy of Akin’s, Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute, a fundamentalist conservative Christian research organisation, stated: “Abortion-on-demand, driven by radical feminist activists and the homosexual agenda, lie at the heart of the culture of death.” The South African “culture of death,” he believes, was the cause of the Lonmin massacre.
Both of these statements are alarming to those who appreciate women’s rights. As a South African student, active global citizen, and adamant supporter of women’s rights, I think it’s necessary for all of us to take a closer look at the issue of the rights of women.
As young Africans, we are often taught to look to the U.S. as the ideal model of liberal democracy and human rights. Featuring in school textbooks, university syllabi, and most significantly ingrained in the minds of many Africans, is the idea that the U.S. has the “right” formula for the running of a successful society based on liberal premises of human rights. This is part of the reason that so many people across Africa flock to American cities seeking a better life. With the U.S. being a key signatory on most of the foremost treaties on human rights—and still often remembered for the strength of civil society protest in the 1960s—the country is seen as more than an enforcer of human rights; it is a beacon of equal opportunity to which many look for hope.
I have spent a fairly large amount of time in the U.S. most recently with the South African-Washington International Program (SAWIP). It is clear to me that the U.S. is deserving of many of the above-mentioned accolades. However, in the field of women’s rights—as many Americans themselves are contending—the U.S. is not deserving of much praise.
Africa is often typecast by the rest of the world as a place where women’s rights barely exist. “African culture” (as if there is one such homogeneous entity) is blamed for the constant subjugation of women. Practices such as polygamy and dowry payments are used to justify arguments as to how African women are commodified by this “African culture.” These points of view are often then used to further justify why Africa is the continent of darkness and while usually subtle, the point made in many articles and debates is that “Western culture” remains superior to “African culture.”
I have absolutely no intention of dismissing the very pressing concerns relating to the rights of women in Africa. Problems of unequal inheritance and land-ownership, coupled with the physical threat of rape – often as a tool of warfare – are undeniably huge problems that African women face. Errol Naidoo managed to twist the Lonmin massacre into an event that is the fault of women who exercised their own rights over their own bodies. However, this is not a uniquely African issue. While the subjugation of women manifests in different forms in various cultures – and arguably some of the worst of these are in African cultures – the rest of the world is in no way innocent in the persecution of women, least of all the U.S.
Todd Akin’s remark was just the most recent event in the hostile climate against women being fostered in the U.S. – seemingly largely by the Republican party and conservatives in particular. Many in the country have labelled this the War on Women. Conservative politicians attempt repeatedly to increase barriers to affordable health care for women, including decreasing access to the contraceptive pill. Equal Pay for women is a contested sentiment. Issues surrounding abortion appear to have reached unprecedented heights, with states undercutting Roe v. Wade and legislating the exact manner and circumstances under which abortions can occur. Essentially, American conservatives wish to own the bodies of women and legislate their internal biology. It seems to me that this is not a far cry from many practices in various parts of Africa that Americans are quick to denounce as ‘primitive’ and unacceptable.
Political representation is a sphere in which the U.S. fares embarrassingly badly. 17.2 percent of the representatives and senators on Capitol Hill are women. This places the U.S. at 79th according to world rankings on the representation of women in the legislature. By contrast, Rwanda is placed first with the majority of their Parliament consisting of women; South Africa is seventh. In fact, 22 African countries place ahead of the U.S. by this measure.
As part of SAWIP, I recently had the privilege of interning in the U.S. House of Representatives and experiencing this gender division first-hand. I had the somewhat unique and remarkable experience of not only interning for a Congresswoman, but interning in an office in which all of the D.C. staffers are women. For me, this made the contrast between this office and the very male-dominated buildings of the Capitol somewhat alarming. Congresswoman Donna Christensen is a formidable force on the Hill, highly respected by her colleagues and staff; her staffers are nothing short of exceptional. While interning in the office, I encountered some of the “power women” in Congress; Nancy Pelosi, Rosa DeLauro, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Donna Edwards filled me with confidence in the U.S. political system—many of the women in Congress make up for their minimal representation by being all the more phenomenal. It is my personal, and notably very biased opinion, that if there were more women in Congress, it would be infinitely more efficient and useful in the future.
Further, on the note of exceptional women, the SAWIP team was honoured to hear Hillary Clinton speak on her recent Africa trip. She spoke eloquently and accurately on issues of African and South African development and the respective positions of South Africa and the U.S. in the globe. She was balanced in her view of both Africa and South Africa—both complementary and critical. During her speech, I was struck by how many more Hillary Clintons the world needs. She is an incredible woman and a role model to people across the world; she also presents a balanced view on African issues.
In the wake of particularly problematic statements for women’s rights this past week, Africans should not look uncritically to the U.S. for anything, least of all in the sphere of women’s rights. Nor should Africa accept hypocritical and unnecessary criticism from the U.S. or elsewhere about the treatment of women in “African culture.” The entire world has much work to do when it comes to the rights of women. In a much-applauded remark, Hillary Clinton stated: “Now I’ve often heard it said that African problems need African solutions. Well, I’m here to say that some of our global problems need African solutions too.”
I couldn’t agree with her more. However, in order for Africa to produce solutions to both African problems and global problems, as Africans we need to be more self-critical and importantly, more critical of others. We cannot look blindly to any one country for a prototype, least of all in the vital field of women’s rights.
The South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) is a six-month leadership, service and professional development program that recruits 15 high-potential South African students from three top South African universities each year in pursuit of its mission to inspire, develop and support a diverse new generation of emerging South African leaders from multiple disciplines.