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Gender: A New Apartheid?
[Commentary] Religion often plays a critical role in how women are perceived in society
Fungai Rufaro Machirori (fmachirori)     Print Article 
Published 2007-08-22 12:02 (KST)   
Think apartheid, and the most prominent thought that comes to mind is usually that of the oppressive political system that existed in past times in South Africa, which robbed all non-white people of their political rights and power. But think again of apartheid and imagine the same separatist ideals as they apply to women in what can be called a 쁤ender apartheid, as one participant at the recent African Network for Strategic Communication in Health and Development (AfriComNet) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, put forward.

The term was posited by Bogaletch Gebre of Ethiopia셲 Kembatti Women셲 Self-Help Center who was recently a recipient of an international award for health and human rights for her work in challenging gender disparities existing in Ethiopia that have heightened women셲 vulnerability to all forms of violence. 쏥ender apartheid has created the institutionalisation of violence, she declared, speaking against the many norms that allow for the subordination and dehumanisation of women.

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She told of how, often, women were disempowered to determine their own destinies, giving examples of practices such as female genital mutilation that had caused women and young girls much emotional and physical pain. And when performed in unsafe settings, Gebre noted how the practice heightened the risk of HIV transmission. According to the 2005 Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey, more than 74 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation and cutting.

Many of the scenarios that Gebre depicted drew gasps of disbelief and tears from the audience, with one description of how a man had hacked off both his wife셲 legs with an axe, after discovering that she was taking contraceptives to prevent further pregnancies, being particularly distressing.

쏻e know how to mitigate HIV, if only we have the courage, she added, this time recounting how one woman at her centre had demanded an HIV test before sleeping with her husband who had been away working for several months. 쏽our big stick may hit me, but I will heal, the woman had declared. 쏝ut HIV will kill me.

It was such courage and empowerment that this practicum aimed to highlight, in light of the evident linkages between gender based violence and HIV. Sub-Saharan Africa estimates show that almost 60 percent of those living with HIV in the region are women, the main reason for this being that women and girls enjoy no social and economic leverage to make sexual decisions and take action to create positive change in their situations.

One participant, Njoki Ndung셵, charted the arduous process of getting Kenya셲 parliament to pass the sexual Offences Bill into an act of law, noting the gross disparities in women셲 representation in the country셲 political sphere. Currently, there are an estimated 18 female members of parliament in a house of over 200 parliamentarians -- a figure far below the 1997 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development, which proposed that by 2005, at least 30 percent of positions in political and decision-making structures in the public and private sector should be held by women.

The role of domestic violence and marriage was also discussed. 쏷he only time a woman feels power is when she is readying her daughter for marriage, noted a participant from one of the nine African countries represented. In a video recording shown by the Health Communication Partnership (HCP), a woman tells of being beaten in her marriage to the point where she decided to seek a divorce, but, she said, 쏧 knew I had joined the group of people who are not respected, because in our custom, being married is respectful.

Lack of societal leverage was also noted as a reason for many female-headed households, in Kenya turning to the option of brewing and selling traditional alcoholic beverages as a means of income generation. In the process of opening their homes to drinking, it was noted that these women were ironically endangering the safety of the young girls within their households, who risk being raped by inebriated clients.

Discussions around alcohol and substance abuse were prominent throughout the practicum, with alcohol abuse being cited as a risk factor for contracting HIV. Women, already unable to negotiate condom use, were put at greater risk of transmitting HIV by intoxicated sexual partners who might use condoms when sober, but neglect this preventive measure under the influence of alcohol. The linkages between violence, alcohol abuse and HIV were identified as important areas for further research and advocacy in HIV programming.

The role of men in care giving for HIV positive relatives, often assumed to be a female prerogative, was also challenged. 쏻here are the men? questioned Carol Breslin of the Ethiopian Medical Missionaries of Mary, adding that religion often plays a critical role in how women are perceived in society. Dr. Haliru Yahaya of Nigeria added his voice to this concern, mentioning that in his country, AIDS is still seen as a woman셲 disease, and HIV care and support as activities that men need not engage themselves in undertaking.

South Africa셲 Men as Partners (MAP) challenged this norm by advocating reforms in which men should be viewed as agents of change as well as supportive partners in challenging the social dominance of oppressive and gender-insensitive norms. Fittingly, the team from MAP gave their presentation on the eve of South Africa셲 Woman셲 Day commemorations. 쏻e need communities, not programmes, for societal change, emphasised Dumisani Rebombo, a senior programme officer with one of MAP셲 programmes. Evidently, the onus for postive change lies with individuals taking up the personal responsibility for transformation.

And while this practicum proved that gender apartheid was a pervasive system working in societies to fuel both gender-based violence and HIV, it also provided stories of individual and collective courage, and proved that with continued advocacy for, and implementation of, gender-just legislation and policies, this apartheid, like it셲 racial counterpart, might finally be abolished. Recommendations made at the practicum will be put forward at the meeting of East, Central and Southern Africa (ECSA) Health Ministers to be held later in the year.

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Fungai Rufaro Machirori

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