13 March 2014

Africa: What Does Security Mean to African Women?

Kampala — A Ugandan blogger argues that war crimes against women are rooted in a security struggle that women have to deal with day to day.

Mention African women and security, and thoughts likely dash to the many wars, past and present, across the continent. This is because of mass crimes committed specifically against women, not least the waves of sexual violence in eastern Congo, Darfur, Kenya during 2007's post-election violence, Liberia, Sierra Leone and now Central African Republic.

But security is something that many young African women far from the frontlines have to deal with every day. If we cannot protect women during what we believe are times of peace, how much more difficult is it for women to be safe in times when social protection gets eroded?

Stripped

In my country, Uganda, for the last 30 years, women who have predominantly lived outside war-torn regions may have not envisaged what they risk today: being publicly attacked in broad daylight with no one to offer help.

The past month has taught us that such assaults are not something saved for war times. Since the passing of the Anti-Pornography Law - which the public and media have widely called the miniskirt ban - we have witnessed more and more attacks on young women in various towns in Uganda.

Ironically, a law that its moralist drafters say was to control pornography, which is "blamed for sexual crimes against women", has instead increased such transgressions. So far, 10 women are reported to have been publically stripped and two were imprisoned on a court order for the length of their skirts.

Colonial oppression

The last time Uganda was obsessed with policing morality was when President Idi Amin banned miniskirts. Today certain Ugandan men are treating the new law as legitimation to back their assaults on women's bodies - mainly by undressing them publicly in the name of morality. These men claim they are offended by women showing their legs. They justify attacks by arguing that the minister in charge of the country's ethics has invited them to help police what women can wear.

Uganda isn't the first country on the continent that has tried to control women's dressing. There have been cases of violent public stripping of women in South Africa too. Such attacks on women are often shrouded in talk of 'African culture'. And when you ask what exactly 'African culture' is, you find it is just another colonial establishment.

In Uganda, a country with a corruption-ridden government that is running out of options, it is easier to focus the psyche of the populace on women's bodies as a battleground. What a way to preoccupy young Ugandans - most of them uneducated and living in a country with 83 percent youth unemployment.

The current legislative and rhetorical attacks on women's rights in Uganda are not only deplorable. They are also a manifestation of colonial oppression easily resurrected under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that subjugate men and women differently.

Navigating your security

For young African women, security challenges aren't just about wars, which are sometimes far away. For young African women, security means trying hard to get a decent job in a corporate world that employs fewer females. For young African women, it requires battling sexual harassment at the office if you ever get such a job.

A number of recent regulations - Uganda's Anti-Pornography Law being a case in point - are draped in misconceptions about what African culture really is. The result: being a young Ugandan woman today means I have to spend time measuring my hemline. And I have to do this while I also deal with plenty of other security challenges faced by my society - regions of conflict to urban crime, to name just a couple.

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