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Culture may be defined as the totality of a peoples’ ways of life. This includes its beliefs,
attitudes, values, norms, customs, behaviour patterns, symbols, myths, language, food,
artifact, and other skills which members of society or community share as a framework
for interpreting the social world, including patterns of gender roles and relationships.1

Culture has also been defined as that

Complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, law, morals, customs and all other
capabilities and habits acquired by man as member of society.2

Therefore, culture determines or conditions gender roles and relations of a given society.
Over the years, it has become an ideology which provides justification for the oppression
of women, creates justification for their exploitation, and create adequate space for male
domination and control over women. In other words, culture as an ideology devalues
women and works in favour of men as reflected in various cultural rituals and
celebrations such as childbirth and rites of passage.

Cultural discrimination against women goes beyond violence in terms of beating. It

includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, sexual harassment,
intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortion,
forced sterilization, trafficking and forced prostitution. Violence against women is a
human rights abuse. The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against
Women3 defines it as any act of gender-based violence - that is, violence directed against
a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately - that results
in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women,

Kibiti, op. cit, note 4
UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, para. 1; CEDAW Committee, General
Recommendation 19, Violence against women (11th session, 1992), Compilation of General Comments and General
Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, UN Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 84 (1994), para 6.
(accessed on July 29th, 2007)
including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether
occurring in public or in private life. On a daily basis women are beaten and punished for
supposed transgressions, raped and even murdered by members of their family. In some
cases, vicious acid attacks leave them with horrific disfigurements. Girls and young
women are forced into early marriage by parents and relatives. In many communities, the
traditional practice of female genital mutilation continues to traumatize young girls and
leave women with lifelong pain and damage to their health.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is unequivocal that states parties
incur the duty to "recognize the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined in the Charter
and…to adopt legislative or other measures to give effect to them".4 The enjoyment of
rights under the Charter is the entitlement of every individual "without distinction of any
kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other
opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status".5 States parties’ duties to
ensure the elimination of discrimination against women is specifically codified in Article
18(3) in which reference is also made to "international declarations and conventions" of
relevance to the protection of women’s and children’s rights. The African Charter is
unique in stipulating a duty on individuals to "preserve the harmonious development of
the family and to work for the cohesion and respect of the family".6 This duty clearly has
relevance in the context of violence in the family.

The definition of torture under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment,7 is not limited to acts by state
officials, but also includes acts performed "with the consent or acquiescence of a public
official or other person acting in an official capacity".8 All the elements of torture, as

Article 1
Article 2
Article 29(1)
The Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 39/46 of 10 th December, 1984.
It entered into force 26th June, 1987 in accordance with Article 27(1). Nigeria became a state party in 2001. (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
Article 1(1)
defined by that article, can be present in domestic violence: it may cause "severe pain or
suffering, whether physical or mental", and may be "intentionally inflicted" for a purpose
such as "punishment" or "for any reason based on discrimination of any kind". An
example of a situation where a state may be in violation of the prohibition on torture that
is inflicted by individuals is marital rape, where it is not criminalized by law.9

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,

(CEDAW) sets out in detail the obligations of states parties to secure equality between
women and men and to prohibit discrimination against women. It expressly requires
states parties to "take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against
women by any person, organization or enterprise"10. If the state fails to offer protection
against discriminatory practices and abuses, or to bring to justice those who commit such
abuses and to ensure reparation for the victims, it is in breach of its legal obligations.
Many of the states that have ratified CEDAW have entered reservations to some of its
provisions. Nigeria, however, has ratified without any reservations.

Violence against women and girls are all too frequently excused and tolerated in
communities where women are assigned an inferior role, subordinate to the male head of
the family and effectively the property of their husbands. Husbands, partners and fathers
are responsible for most of the violence against women. The violence persists because
discriminatory laws condone and even legalize certain forms of violence against women.
Dismissive attitudes within the police and an inaccessible justice system compound the
failures of the state to protect women’s rights.

Violence against women and in the home is generally regarded as belonging in the
private sphere and is shielded from outside scrutiny. A culture of silence reinforces the
stigma that attaches to the victim rather than the perpetrator of such crimes. Such
practices cause trauma, injuries and death. Female genital cutting, for example, is a

An example is Article 16, CEDAW.
Article 2(e)
common cultural practice in parts of Africa. Yet it can cause “bleeding and infection,
urinary incontinence, difficulties with childbirth and even death,” reports the World
Health Organization (WHO). The organization estimates that 130 million girls have
undergone the procedure globally and 2 million are at risk each year, despite international
agreements banning the practice.11

Sexual violence is another problem. A local organization in Zaria, Nigeria, found that 16
per cent of patients with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were girls under the age of
five, a sign of sexual assault. In the single year 1990, the Genito-Urinary Centre in
Harare, Zimbabwe, treated more than 900 girls under 12 for STDs. Such assaults,
observed a WHO publication, put “African women and girls at higher risk of sexually
transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) than men and boys.”12

The expression Female Genital Mutilation gained growing support in the late 1970s. The
word mutilation not only established clear linguistic distinction from male circumcision,
but it also emphasized the gravity of the act. In 1990, this term was adopted at the third
conference of the Inter African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health
of Women and Children (IAC) in Addis Ababa. In 1991, the World Health Organization
recommended that the United Nations adopt this terminology and subsequently, it has
been widely used in United Nations documents.13

Amnesty International and the World Health Organization most often refer to the practice
as 'Female Genital Mutilation'. The use of the word mutilation reinforces the idea that
this practice is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, and thereby helps
promote national and international advocacy towards its abandonment. At the community
level, however, the term can be problematic. Local languages generally use the less
judgmental “cutting” to describe the practice; parents understandably resent the

“Female Genital Cutting” (accessed on July 25th, 2007)
“Female Genital Mutlation” (accessed on July 25th,
suggestion that they are “mutilating” their daughters. In this spirit, in 1999, the UN called
for tact and patience regarding activities in this area and drew attention to the risk of
“demonizing” certain cultures, religions and communities. As a result, the term “cutting”
has increasingly come to be used to avoid alienating communities. In 1996 the UNFPA-
sponsored Reproductive, Educative, And Community Health program coined the term
'Female Genital Cutting', observing that 'Female Genital Mutilation' may "imply
excessive judgment by outsiders as well as insensitivity toward individuals who have
undergone some form of genital excision.

There are several distinct practices of Female Genital Cutting that range in severity,
depending on how much genital tissue is cut away. Four major types have been
categorized, although there is some debate as to whether all common forms of FGC fit
into these four categories, as well as issues with the reliability of reported data.14 The four
major types are:

1 Clitoridectomy

Clitoridectomy involves the removal or splitting of the clitoral hood, termed

"hoodectomy" (or "clitorodotomy"), with or without excision of the clitoris. The clitoral
hood is the female prepuce, homologous to the foreskin of the male. This term was
devised in Sudan by the Anglo-Sudanese administration in 1946 in an attempt to
promote this "milder" form of Female Genital Cutting instead of the more severe
infibulation or pharaonic circumcision that was widely practiced.15 Removal of the
clitoral hood may be performed in order to increase sexual response.16

S Elmusharaf; N Elhadi, L Almroth (2006-07-15). "Reliability of self reported form of female genital mutilation
and WHO classification: cross sectional study". BMJ 333 (7559): pp. 124.
Elmusharaf_2006 (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
Margaret E. Davidson. “Female circumcision: What medical students should know”, Oxford Medical School
Gazette (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
Carol Ezzell. "Anatomy and Sexual Dysfunction", Scientific America, October 31st, 2000 (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
2 Excision

Excision refers to clitoridectomy (removal of the prepuce and the clitoris) plus the partial
or total removal of the labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, Excision is a more
extensive form of Female Genital Cutting compared to clitoridectomy and due to the
sewing together of the leftover labia minora epidermis, which contains sweat glands, a
buildup of sweat and urine in the closed off space beneath this closure can lead to local or
urinary infection, septicemia, hemorrhaging and cyst formation.17 This type of FGC is
also called khafd, meaning reduction in Arabic.

3 Infibulation

Infibulation is the most severe form of Female Genital Cutting and is called infibulation
or pharaonic circumcision (referring to the Pharaohs who were thought to practice this
form). Infibulation involves extensive tissue removal of the external genitalia, including
all of the labia minora and the inside of the labia majora, leaving a raw open wound. The
labia majora are then held together using thorns or stitching and the girl's legs are tied
together for two to six weeks, to prevent her from moving and allow the healing of the
two sides of the vulva. Nothing remains of the normal anatomy of the genitalia, except
for a wall of flesh from the pubis down to the anus, with the exception of a pencil-size
opening at the inferior portion of the vulva to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass
through. This type of Female Genital Cutting is often carried out by an elderly matron or
midwife of the village on girls between the ages of two and six, without anaesthetic and
under unhygienic conditions.

4 Other types

There are other forms which usually do not involve any tissue removal at all, but rather
the "cutting" is simulated with a knife as part of a ceremony. This includes a diverse

range of practices, including pricking the clitoris with needles, burning or scarring the
genitals as well as ripping or tearing of the vagina or introducing herbs into the vagina to
cause bleeding and a narrowed vaginal opening. This is found primarily among isolated
ethnic groups as well as in combination with other types.

Female genital cutting is today mainly practiced in African countries. It is common in a

band that stretches from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia on the East coast, as well as
from Egypt (that has just banned FGC18) in the north to Tanzania in the south. In these
regions, it is estimated that more than 95% of all women have undergone this procedure.
It is also practiced by some groups in the Arabian Peninsula, especially among a minority
in Yemen.19

The countries that practice FGC the most are Somalia, followed by Egypt, Sudan,
Ethiopia, and Mali. Among ethnic Somali women, infibulation is traditional and nearly
universal. In the Arab peninsula, Sunna circumcision is usually performed, especially
among Arabs.20


The discussion begins by examining the image of womanhood in Nigeria. Important

stages that mark the passage to womanhood are girlhood or maidenhood, wifehood and
motherhood. These stages also reflect the images through which women are perceived.
Such images influence and determine the responsibilities and roles that are ascribed to

BBC World News: Special Report on FGC. (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
Ethnic groups of African descent are more likely to prefer infibulation
females and what they participate in. Right from birth, girls are perceived in the light of
their future roles as prospective wives and mothers. Among the Igbo, at birth a baby girl
is referred to as "Akpa - ego" (bag of money), or 'unoaku' (house of money), or 'obute
aku' (source of wealth). These names are allusions to bride wealth, which would accrue
when the girl gets married and other benefits that would be derived through interaction
with prospective in-laws. Hence from infancy, the socialization of girls is tailored
towards equipping them with qualities that will enable them fulfill their expected future
roles as wives and mothers.

As young girls they are not encouraged to engage in much leisure activities as boys. The
virtues of self-control and industry are inculcated in them. Girls are often overworked
looking after younger siblings, receive early orientation for domestic responsibility such
as fetching of water and firewood, and running other errands in the domestic sphere.

On becoming an adult, it is perceived that the most important status a woman attains is
derived through marriage. Among the Igbo, it is expected that women must marry and
this is the reason why marriage has precedence over descent. Thus some Igbo maternity
songs that emphasize the importance of marriage for girls have been sung as follows:

"Be you as beautiful as a mermaid, the beauty of a woman is to have a husband. Be you one who has been
to the land of white people the beauty of a woman is to have a husband. If a woman does not marry, her
beauty declines…"

Nigeria is a male dominated society and women and girls are subordinate, whether they
are rich or poor, urban or rural, educated or uneducated. Women and girls face
discrimination and oppression from males. Domestic violence has been reported as a
matter of significant concern.21 Despite being almost half of the population, this
numerical strength of the Nigerian women and girls has not affected the age-long inferior
status the society bestows on them. Several factors have been adduced for the degrading

Priya Verma, “Nigeria: Half of women experience domestic violence”, Off Our Backs, Vol. 35, No. 5-6, 2005 (accessed on July 29th,
position of women in the Nigerian society most of which can be traced to the patrichial
system being operated and the gender insensitivity of not only the male folk but the entire
society including the women who have been socialized to accept the inferior status.

It is intriguing to note that the subordination of women and girls know no boundaries or
barriers and does not depend on the social, educational or economic status of the Nigerian
women. Consequently one finds that an uneducated and poor woman in the rural
community suffers as much subordination as an educated and rich woman in the urban

Gender inequality is experienced by the woman and is manifested in almost all aspects of
human endeavour in Nigeria. Cultural beliefs tend to contribute largely to Nigerian
women and girl’s gender discrimination and low status. Some of these beliefs have been
practiced for so long that they are embedded in the societal perception almost as legal
norms such that the laws of the land and international instruments, which protect the
rights of women, are flagrantly infringed under the guise of these age-long cultural

Furthermore, the effects of the many years of military misrule have negatively affected
the human rights treatment of the citizens of which women and girls are worst sufferers.
In addition the economic downturn as a result of the mismanagement and corruption of
the military governments has impoverished Nigeria, placing it as one of the poorest
countries despite her enormous natural and human resources. Nigerian women and girls
bear the brunt of poverty and constitute the poorest of the poor in the society consequent
upon which the Nigerian woman and girl suffers violations of her rights from conception
till she dies22 without redress by the society.

In Nigeria women suffer inequality and various forms of violence from the cradle until death. At birth a male
child is preferred and pampered, the girl child is not so welcomed. She undergoes female genital mutilation at tender
age, she is subjected to overburdening household chores to prepare her for the societal role of home keeping, she is
also given out in marriage at early ages to ensure that she does not become promiscuous and is married out as a
At birth the male child is preferred to the female, as she grows the female child suffers
various forms of violence such as genital mutilation or female circumcision. In the home
she is denied education in preference to her male counterpart and subjected to heavy
burden of household chores. As a child the female may be given out to marriage in some
cultures and or become victim of trafficking.

During marriage the woman suffers inferior status in the home; she is not part of
decision-making, denied inheritance rights as a child or wife and is a victim of domestic
violence and marital rape. In the society the woman is a victim of various forms of sexual
assaults without redress, denied access to credit and suffers poverty more than her male
counterpart despite her enormous contribution to the Nigerian economy especially in the
informal sector. The Nigerian women are underrepresented in the political arena in the
public or private sectors, which further lowers their status in the society.

Soldiers and security agents, deployed in repression of protests, have been implicated in
rape and violence against women, for example in Choba in October 1999. Women and
girls were killed in the Odi massacre of November 20, 1999.23 There have been violent
military options24 employed by the former Obasanjo government, to secure the oilfields
and pipelines.

As it is well known, health is high on the agenda of women’s issues. The HIV/AIDS
epidemic has had a significant impact on women.25 Many girls enter marriage at a young
age and their husbands are older and often have had multiple partners. Such girls are at
risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from their husbands. Women do not have the power to
resist sex with their husbands. Harmful marriage practices violate women's human rights

virgin. During and after marriage she is inferior to the man. She is also not allowed to inherit, and subjected to
physical, psychological and mental abuse and violence.
Zalik Anna, “The Niger Delta: ‘Petro Violence’ and ‘Partnership Development’ ”, Review of African Political
Economy, No. 101:401-424, 2004, p.406 (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
The Military in Nigeria just finished their bombardment of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria.
60% of HIV sufferers are women: “HIV/AIDS in Nigeria” (accessed on August
1st, 2007)
and contribute to increasing HIV rates in women and girls. In Nigeria, there is no legal
minimum age for marriage and early marriage is still the norm in some areas. Parents see
it as a way of protecting young girls from the outside world and maintaining their
chastity. Many girls get married between the ages of 12 and 13 and there is usually a
large age gap between husband and wife. Young married girls are at risk of contracting
HIV from their husbands as it is acceptable for men to have sexual partners outside
marriage and some men have more than one wife. Because of their age, lack of education
and low status, young married girls are not able to negotiate condom use to protect
themselves against HIV and STIs.26 There have been attempts to address the problem of
educating young women on their social and sexual rights.

One important indicator of women’s health problems is the maternal mortality rate. This
rate is 1549 per 100,000 live births in the northeast. The lowest rate is in the southwest at
165 per 100,000 live births. The figures, in the northeast, are among the worst in the
world. Lack of access to adequate health facilities is a major contributing factor. 27 Safe
termination of pregnancy is also an issue as women are exposed to unsafe abortions.28

The impact of the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF has fallen
heavily on Nigerian women. The deregulation of prices, devaluation of the currency and
cuts to welfare services have resulted in deepening poverty for most social groups.29
Women are the most affected by poverty in Nigeria.

There are some sensitive cultural issues surrounding Nigerian women. Women are further
exposed to the risk of AIDS by particular rites and customs. The most shocking is the

Child Marriage Briefing Nigeria, Population Council. September 2004 (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
“Women’s Reproductive Rights in Nigeria: A Shadow Report”, p.3. (accessed
on August 12th, 2007)
Qualls Alyssa, “Women in Nigeria Today” (accessed on
August 1st, 2007)
Pereira Charmaine, “Configuring ‘global,’ ‘national,’ and ‘local’ in governance agendas and women’s struggles in
Nigeria”, Social Research, New York: Fall 2002, Vol.69, Iss3; pg. 781 (Abstract)…(accessed on August 1st,
practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).30 Enforced as a check on women’s
promiscuity, and often justified as part of religious tradition, these horrific operations are
often carried out by local ‘physicians’ using unsterilized instruments. Such operations
carry considerable danger to the young girls’ health in themselves. The implications for
the spread of AIDS need not be spelt out. Female genital mutilation31 includes a number
of different procedures. There is no earthly reason why the girl-child should be
circumcised anywhere. The practice is carried on only for the reason of the self-
aggrandizement of men; for the sadistic reasons of curbing the sexual appetites of
women; and from keeping them from imagined promiscuousness. One wonders how the
excessive sexual appetites of some men and their promiscuousness are curbed. Do
women become promiscuous or prostitute by themselves or with themselves?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “States Parties
shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional
practices prejudicial to the health of children”.32 It has been said that FGM is a breach of
Section 34 (1)(a)33 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Despite
more than 25 years of efforts to curtail its practice, female genital mutilation (FGM) is
still a deeply rooted tradition in more than 28 countries in Africa and in some countries in
Asia and the Middle East. In the world today there are an estimated 100 million to 140
million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation. Currently, about 3
million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.

Inheritance rights also disadvantage women and girls in Nigeria. If the husband leaves or
dies, women usually receive nothing. They are left to bear the financial burden of the

A Law passed by the Federal Government in 2002 prohibits Female Genital Circumcision. FGM has been
outlawed in some states including Cross Rivers, Delta, Edo, Osun and Ogun, and moves are been made in Akwa
Ibom and Bayelsa for the passage of laws banning FGM.
WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have
defined FGM as “the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital
organs for cultural or other nontherapeutic reasons”
Article 24
The section provides: “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly no
person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.”
family. Due to customary laws, thousands of AIDS widows throughout Africa are denied
inheritance. African women do not own or inherit the land they cultivate or the houses in
which they raise their families. The laws give ownership of marital housing to husbands
and male relatives. Some women become so destitute that they resort to prostitution to
support their families.

Yet despite the codes of conduct indoctrinated into women, there are many who live the
precarious and dangerous life of the sex worker. The prime reason is a pressure even
greater than culture and religion: economic pressure. The economic situation plays an
important role in the spread of AIDS. Currently, Nigeria produces around 100,000
graduates every year. Of these, 90% join the teeming mass of unemployed youths.
Nigeria is richly endowed with human and natural resources, but mismanagement,
misappropriation and embezzlement in government circles have led to the masses being
reduced to abject poverty. The proportion of the population living on less than $1 a day
has reached 70% and is increasing, exacerbated by religious and ethnic upheavals that
result in death and the destruction of property.

In all this, women are worst affected. Girls are forced into prostitution to escape poverty.
Their choice is a stark one: die of starvation now or run a high risk of contracting AIDS
and dying a few years on. While the threat of hunger remains, no amount of preaching
against prostitution will change the situation. In a country with an AIDS pandemic like
Nigeria, their route for survival becomes an instrument of death.

Prostitution is illegal in Nigeria, but there are more than a million female sex workers and
HIV infection is estimated to be as high as 30%. They are forced into sex work, domestic
servitude and various forms of modern day slavery.34 As many as 20,000 Nigerian
women are estimated to be engaged in sex work in Italy alone. Trafficking is a product of

Charmaine, op. cit. note 73
the globalization of criminal networks. Women tend to be caught up in prostitution and
trafficking because of the desperate state of poverty in which they live.

Although, Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of

Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the concern of the human rights community
is the reluctance of the immediate past National Assembly, under former President
Obasanjo’s government, to domesticate the treaty amidst cultural and religious
misgivings about the prohibition of early marriages for girls, as well as fears that it seeks
to legalise abortion. There has been series of reactions to the set back suffered by the Bill
on CEDAW at the National Assembly recently. Many commentators described the non
passage of the bill by the National Assembly as 'throwing away the baby with the bath
water' while a few applauded the act and appealed to the National Assembly to ensure
that the bill does not see the light of the day. However, the Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, is one of the most ratified
human rights treaties. As at November 2 2006, 185 countries - over ninety percent of the
members of the United Nations - had become parties to the Convention. The Convention
is a comprehensive bill of rights for women and is based on the principles of equality
between men and women on the notion that women experience particular forms of
discrimination because of their gender.

Nigerian women’s low status in marriage also makes them vulnerable to violence from
their husbands. When men beat up their wives, there are no reprisals. Marital rape must
be suffered in silence. Fear of beating and rape keeps many women from questioning
their husbands’ sexual escapades. And submission frequently reaps a death sentence as
many women contract AIDS as a result of coerced sex. For unmarried girls, the situation
is even worse. If a rape is reported, it is the girl who suffers the shame, and all chance of
future marriage. It was "Folake" who was jailed after she accused a man of rape. A
domestic worker, she said her employer’s husband had forced her into his bedroom and
made her watch a violent videotape before forcing her to have sex. A medical
examination supported her allegation. Yet she was the one brought to court, charged with
slander for making the accusation, and remanded in prison until her family could raise the
bail money to have her released. The material evidence of the crime, handed over to the
police, was later said to have disappeared. No charges were brought against the man she

AIDS has added a further, nasty dimension to this situation. Odion tested positive to
HIV/AIDS in the city of Lagos. He went to his hometown of Igueben in Edo State from
Lagos and raped eight girls there within a month, after which he prepared a notice
entitled ‘HIV Carriers in Igueben’, typed out their names, and pasted copies on signposts
all over the town. Odion and the eight girls were arrested immediately. On interrogation,
Odion explained that he didn’t want to die alone and that he wanted to enjoy himself
before he died. The girls tested positive to HIV. In tears, they described how fear of
shame and rejection had prevented them reporting the rape.36 While rape continues to
thrive, checking the spread of HIV/AIDS becomes a Herculean task.

Countless women and girls in Nigeria are subjected to violence by some members of their
families and within their communities, as in many countries throughout the world.
Women of all ages and from all socio-economic groups, living in rural and urban
communities, are affected. The lack of official statistics makes assessing the extent of the
violence an almost impossible task, but studies suggest levels of violence are shockingly
high. More than a third and in some groups nearly two-thirds of women in Nigeria are
believed to have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence in the family.
"Fatima", a domestic worker aged 12 years old, was reported to have been doused with
kerosene and set on fire after she was accused of stealing meat from her employer. The
alleged perpetrator was charged in connection with her death, but the outcome of the

Amnesty International interview with "Folake", Lagos State, November 2004. (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
“Nigeria: Unheard Voices” (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
case is not known.”37 Under these circumstances, women’s ability to protect themselves
is minimal.

Inequality in the enjoyment of human rights by women throughout the world is often
deeply embedded in tradition, history and culture, including religious attitudes. While
respect for diversity and for diverse forms of social and cultural expression and identity
must guide all human rights principles, equally important is the recognition of the dignity
and worth of women as full human beings. International human rights law has repeatedly
stressed that women's human rights cannot be violated on the grounds of cultural norms.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
requests states to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women,
with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other
practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the
sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

Nigerian women are also exposed to health hazards, including the risk of HIV infection,
by the rites they must perform at the death of their husbands. The plight of a widow is
made worse by humiliating widowhood rites, which include requesting that a woman
drink from the water used in bathing the corpse of her husband and in many cases,
widows are also expected to go into confinement for weeks to prove their innocence from
any possibility of complicity in their husband’s death. Some widows are beaten for not
wailing enough for the death of their husband. The above examples are common in the
eastern part of Nigeria. A study on widow confinement shows that 45% of widows were
confined for varying lengths of time, 62% in South-South, 60% in North West, 51% in
South West, 48% in North East and 27% in South East.38

Guardian Newspaper Online, July 22nd, 2002 (accessed
on August 12th, 2007)
Brief overview of the legal status of women in Nigeria by Abiola Akiyode Afolabi (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
These religious rites are considered to be important in easing the journey of the soul of
the departed to the next world. The widow’s head is shaved with an unsterilized razor.
She may be forced to marry a relation of her late husband, who may not have undergone
an AIDS test. She is also at greater risk of being raped. Otibhor Edogar, from Ekpoma in
Edo State, is HIV positive. She could not pinpoint the actual source of her contracting the
infection, but she knows that, apart from the widowhood rites she was forced to perform,
she was raped by her late husband’s younger brother, Ebakole. She had refused the
village elder’s suggestion that she marry Ebakole. Otibhor ended her account weeping: “I
am dying and abandoning my only two daughters in this cruel world.” 39

Some of such acts of punishments and atrocities committed on widows can be

summarized as follows:40

 making the woman drink some of the water used in bathing the body of her dead
 sit on the bare floor or, at best, on a straw-mat or mattress;
 sit in a position where she would be looking at the body of her husband laid in
state, overnight, until it is taken away for burial;
 not to sleep on a bed throughout the mourning period of six months to one year;
 shave off her hair, wear rags, eat, drink and bathe in secrecy;
 eat and drink and bathe only from old and broken vessels;
 not to eat from food items provided for her husband’s funeral ceremonies;
 to accept a substitute husband, if still of child-bearing age, and not to become
pregnant during the period of mourning;
 not to look out to see what is going on for the funeral ceremonies of her husband;
 not to talk aloud or travel beyond a certain distance during the mourning period;
 to know that her own monies and properties belong to her husband;

This is well portrayed in the Nollywood Home Video, “WIDOW”
 to hands-off all monies, moveable and immovable properties of hers and her

The woman, if she unfortunately does not have a child, is sent away as soon as her
husband breathes last. Some of such women are not even allowed to participate in the
funeral of their husbands. If the woman has only girl-children, she could be allowed to
stay in the worst type of shelter, and at the pain of losing all the family possessions; she
would also be starving with her daughters; there is also the danger of having her
daughters married away very young, with or without her or their consent. 41

The catchphrase of the war against HIV/AIDS has been ‘Say No to Unsafe Sex’. How
realistic is this for women in Nigeria? It should be apparent from the discussion above
that their power to say ‘No’ is limited indeed. Decisions on safe sex are left with men.
Women are rarely in a position to insist on the use of a condom if their partners do not
want it. Nor can they protect themselves by using contraceptives without their husbands’
permission or they may be accused of infidelity. Campaigns for safe sex do not take into
account the conditions in which the majority of Nigerian women live.

The secrecy attached to women’s sexual experiences through cultural norms also
contributes in no small measure to women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Secrecy and
stigmatization also explain to a large extent why potential victims of HIV/AIDS often
refuse to be tested. Most women are therefore not aware that they are infected.

Women and girls in Nigeria suffer violence within the home. The battery of both wives
and girls are sanctioned culturally. It is seen in most cases as a form of discipline with a
restraint not to inflict grievous harm. "Seyi" said she was regularly subjected to violence
by her husband. After one assault, she was left permanently blind in her left eye. Her
husband had reportedly suspected her of having a sexual relationship outside their
In the case of Augustine Nwofor Mojekwu V Caroline Mojekwu [1997] 7 N.W.L.R. 283, the Court of Appeal
decided that the “OLI-EKPE” customs of Nnewi in Anambra State where males and not females inherit the property
of their father is unconstitutional. This custom was held as repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.
The judgment is welcomed and hopefully represents a shift in judicial attitudes to women’s rights issues.
marriage. She obtained dissolution of the marriage in the Lagos High Court, and later
sought damages for grievous bodily harm.42 There is no specific law to protect women
against domestic violence or wife battery in Nigeria unless a woman brings an action
under the general provisions against assault where domestic violence against the woman
is downplayed.

In a report by a Non Governmental Organization in Nigeria43 conducted on social welfare

officers to find out the prevalence of domestic violence, it showed that 55% of the cases
received in the last one year, was on women battering/maltreatment. Another nation wide
research has also shown that the police are reluctant to take action where cases of
domestic violence are reported to them. It is believed that it is a private affair and should
be settled by the parties or their extended family. Additionally, cultural, financial
consideration and the high cost of justice often prevent women from pressing charges
against their husbands or partners in cases of domestic violence against the women. The
failure of the law to provide adequate respite has further compounded the issue.

In the last decade trafficking in women and girls is assuming an alarming rate in Nigeria.
Nigeria has become a source, transit and destination country for both internal and
external trafficking. Until recently when a new comprehensive law44 was passed by the
Nigerian National Assembly and assented to by the then President Obasanjo, the
provisions of the Criminal and Penal Codes45 did not provide adequately for the crime of
trafficking in women and children. Section 34 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999,
prohibits slavery and torture while Sections 223-225 of the Criminal Code provides for
sanctions against whosoever trades in prostitution, facilitate the transport of human being
within or outside Nigeria for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and make

Suit no. ID/1202/2001, High Court, Ikeja, Lagos State, reported in Project Alert on Violence Against Women,
Annual Report and Accounts 2001-2003, p. 13.
Project Alert on Violence Against Women (Project Alert), Beyond Boundaries: Violence against Women in
Nigeria, Lagos, 2001, p. 71. (accessed on August 12th,
Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003
Criminal Code Cap. C38, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 & Penal Code Cap. P3, Laws of the Federation
of Nigeria 2004.
profits for it. The Penal Code also sanctioned this act in Section 278-280; it provides for
imprisonment for anyone who buys and sells minors for immoral purposes.

Research has shown that trafficking in women and girls are mainly for the purposes of
domestic services and/or prostitution. In places like Abakaliki, in Ebonyi State, and Edo
State, young girls are forced into the sex industry partly because most people believe that
they are unlikely to carry the HIV virus. Information provided by immigration
authorities46 in Nigeria has also shown that girls between the ages of 7-16 are transported
to Gabon and Cameroon from various points in the East of Nigeria. There are also reports
of trafficking of women and girls to Europe and particularly Italy. The report also shows
that over 20,000 Nigeria girls engage in prostitution in Italy. An unusual dimension
introduced to the crime of trafficking which makes the campaign against trafficking
difficult is the introduction of the oaths of secrecy which victims and their
parents/guardians have to undergo in traditional shrines. These oaths are administered by
traditional priests who use the body parts of the victim such as hairs, nails, pubic hair and
blood with a sanction not to divulge the secret of the identity of the traffickers, to hold
allegiance to the traffickers and promptly pay the traffickers the debt bondage. Failure to
abide by the oath is deemed to have serious repercussion sometimes death or insanity on
the victims and their relatives.47

The disinheritance of the girls and women in Nigeria, especially in Igbo culture is, in
effect, the disinheritance of daughters and wives, who are the very people that should be
considered first. The case of disinheriting daughters and wives, more so widows in Igbo

The Guardian Online, August 8th, 1998 (accessed on
August 12th, 2007)
Most of the women and girls trafficked to Italy and other parts of Europe are from Edo State of Nigeria. This fact
prompted the Edo State Government to pass a law with stiffer penalties against traffickers and their accessories
including the traditional priests who administer the Secret Oaths. The federal government also passed a national
legislation outlawing trafficking in Nigeria which law is more elaborate than the previous provisions of the Criminal
and Penal Codes. The new legislation did not however take sufficient consideration for the protection of the victims
and witnesses to trafficking. Nigeria has also signed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in
Persons especially women and girls but is yet to ratify it. - Law And Practice Relating to Women’s Inheritance
Rights In Nigeria: An Overview by Joy Ezeilo, University of Nigeria Nsukka, Enugu Campus (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
culture, cannot be more succinctly put than by Justice Nike Tobi, in his lead judgment in
the Anambra State Appellate Court, on 10th April 1997. This was when he showed a
change of heart and leadership, by taking the bull by the horns. He came up with a
pioneer and landmark decision in the Mojekwu vs. Mojekwu case48. In the judgment,
which was clearly in favour of girls and women, he wrote:

“All human beings - male and female - are born freely, without any inhibition on grounds of sex; and that
is constitutional. Any form of societal discrimination on ground of sex, apart from being
unconstitutional, is antithetic to a civil society built on the tenets of democracy, which we have freely
chosen as a people. We need not travel all the way to Beijing to know that some of our customs, including
the Nnewi “Oli-Ekpe” custom, relied upon by the appellant, are not consistent with our civilized world in
which we all live today, including the appellant. In my humble view, it is the monopoly of God to
determine the sex of a baby and not the parents. Although the scientific world disagrees with the divine
truth, I believe that God, the Creator of human beings, is also the final authority of who should be male
or female. Accordingly, for a customary law to discriminate against a particular sex is to say the least an
affront to the Almighty God Himself. Let nobody do such a thing. On my part, I have no difficulty in
holding that “Oli-Ekpe” custom of Nnewi is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.”

The judgment has been acclaimed everywhere as a landmark decision.


As stated earlier,49 violation of women's rights escalates the rate of HIV infections
throughout the continent. Sexual oppression combined with a high biological
receptiveness of viral transmission, put women at risk. According to Linda Osermen, of
the Inter-African Committee (IAC), violence against women are a reflection of a value
system which upholds and maintains the patriarchal power structure within which women
are subjugated and abused at a monumental scale as corroborated by the reports of
Special Reporters on violence against women and on traditional practices. The IAC
supports the adoption of the optional protocol by the Commission on the Status of
Women and has been dealing with the problem of harmful traditional practices for the
past 15 years.

[1997] 7 NWLR p. 283
At pages 35 - 40
The Interfaith International, represented by Geneva Arif, states that violence against
women are rarely mentioned in the Commission on the Status of Women unless it is to
condemn someone else for doing the violation. Women are vulnerable to rape and
violence during times of war, by enemy soldiers or during peace time at home. There
seems to be an appalling silence from some representatives, when these same acts against
women are committed within their home communities by male members of the
communities. In some parts of Africa, women who are perceived to have brought
dishonour to their family could be murdered by any man of the family. 50 This man will
only receive a sentence lasting from 3 months to 2 years.

Female genital mutilation is practiced within a large area from the Red Sea to the Atlantic
coast. The effects are irreversible and cause a lifetime of physical and mental suffering. A
member51 of the Research, Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of
Women, said there is tremendous denial in Africa about the issue of violence against
women and girls. The abuses suffered by the continent itself, ranged from slavery to
colonialism to the new economic order which has placed Africa on the lowest rung. As a
result, Africans have created a defensiveness about any criticism of their society. They
are very proud and they do not want to change their cultures or social systems. That
philosophy is "a recipe for suicide", she stated.

Women have paid a great cost. Whenever they speak out about violations of their rights,
they are told that they are becoming "western" or that they are adhering to the views of
international agencies. It is disturbing that the issue of violence against women is
escalating in Africa, largely due to the increasing conflict on the continent. There are the
old forms of culturally-based violence, as well as those emerging from socio-economic
disparities. Female genital mutilation and discriminatory inheritance laws, for example,
deprive women of certain basic rights, and expose them to human rights violations.

Honour killings: This is the practice of killing girls and women who are perceived to have defiled a family's
honour by allegedly engaging in sexual activity or other improprieties before marriage or outside of marriage.
Ms Toubia, “Violence Against Women and Girls”
(accessed August 1st, 2007)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),52 violence affects millions of
women in Africa. In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the World
Health Organization found that 50 per cent of women in Tanzania and 71 per cent of
women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands
or other intimate partners.

In South Africa, reports Amnesty International, about one woman is killed by her
husband or boyfriend every six hours. In Zimbabwe, six out of 10 murder cases tried in
the Harare High Court in 1998 were related to domestic violence. In Kenya, the attorney
general’s office reported in 2003 that domestic violence accounted for 47 per cent of all

According to David Littman,53 of the Association for World Education, the term
"traditional or customary practices" is a shameful euphemism for crime against women.
Female genital mutilation is performed every year on more than 1 million - perhaps up to
2 million - female babies, young girls, and women in 30 countries in Africa. This ancient
ritual should long ago have been termed "female torture".

Another source of concern is the exposure of African women to life-threatening illnesses

like HIV/AIDS. The women in the villages are often sitting ducks waiting to be shot.
Their husbands will return to their homes for the weekend and often refuse to use
condoms. It is particularly concerning that the rate of infection is higher among girls and
women than it is among men. Lack of education about the virus is a growing liability.
Studies have confirmed that better-educated young girls tend to start having sexual
relationships later. It is sad to note that in many parts of the world, cultural and social
conditions prevent young girls from receiving education. The implication is that many

“Make Violence Against Women History” (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
“Abuse of women escalates HIV infections in Africa”
(accessed on August 1st, 2007)
girls are denied the right to inform themselves about their sexual and reproductive rights
and options.

Studies have shown that women (for biological reasons) are more vulnerable than men to
sexually transmitted diseases and other opportunistic infections like HIV. This is
especially marked in girls whose genital tracts are still not fully mature. The genital
lining of the youth and girls in particular is still not well developed to protect the viral
transmission into the body. Older women have harder vaginal mucosal lining which does
not easily break during the act of sex, that of the young girls is still very tender and
breaks easily thus increasing chances of infection. Compounding biological vulnerability
is the fact that women are far more likely to be coerced into sex, or raped - often by
someone older, who has had greater exposure to the virus. Lack of empowerment also
causes the spread of AIDS. The youth are under the control of adults. Girls in particular
have sex with people older than they are. These people have more power over them such
that the youth are not assertive enough to negotiate for safer sex.

Violence against women can also take less overt forms. Young girls often have sexual
relationships with 'sugar daddies" that coerce them to have sex in exchange for gifts and
favours. Such unequal relationships also have consequences for women, in terms of their
risk of infection. Worldwide, women between the ages of 15 and 24 also account for half
of new HIV infections. Botswana is one of the countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS
pandemic. The impact of this pandemic is placing a heavy burden on the individual and
the entire economy. It is also observed that, while women and girls are especially
vulnerable to the HIV infection, there is also a disproportionate burden placed on them as
care-givers. In Africa, the rate of infection in teenage girls is six times higher than in
women over 35 years. About one in four teenage girls lives with HIV, compared to one in
25 teenage boys.54

The challenge is to find creative ways to change the social conditions that deny young
women the ability to control practices that increase their vulnerability for contracting
HIV. In many instances, women are still seen as sexual objects. Women bear the greatest
burden of HIV/AIDS. The majority of young women cannot protect themselves against
AIDS because they have to rely on their male partners who may decide whether or not to
use a condom.

Women are recognized as a fundamental force in the quest to eradicate poverty and
maintain the stability of families and societies. Without improving the status of women,
we cannot expect any real progress in society, and especially in the battle against AIDS.

According to a 1999 study on violence against women by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg
School of Public Health near Baltimore, United States of America, 55 abusers of women
tend to view violence as the only way to solve family conflicts. Perpetrators typically
have a history of violent behaviour, grew up in violent homes and often abuse alcohol
and drugs. The story of Janet Akinyi in Kenya is a case in point. In 2006 she filed for
divorce and custody of her children after her husband attempted to kill her with a knife.
She had endured violent beatings throughout her 10 years of marriage. “We used to be
okay until he started drinking,” Ms. Akinyi told Africa Renewal. “Then he would get
furious at anything and start beating me. He would say it is the only way to teach me to
respect him.”

Rosa’s story buttresses the spate of violence against women in Africa. Rosa’s husband
was murdered in 1989 during an uprising in Eastern Uganda. An illiterate housewife with
no independent source of livelihood, she was left with four small children to look after.
Soon after the funeral, rumours started circulating around the village that she had
connived with the killers in order to take over her husband’s property. She was in shock,
heartbroken at losing her husband and fearful of the future. The rumour spread like wild

“Women: War, Peace and Violence against Women” (accessed on August 1st, 2007?)
fire, and soon, Rosa found herself not only having to cope with widowhood but also
having to deal with the stigma and isolation that was caused by this malicious rumour.
Even the people she had considered her close friends begun to shun her and distance
themselves from her. She was branded a “witch and harlot.”

While still contemplating her next move, the parochial chauvinistic tendencies of the
culture were set in motion. Her husband’s relatives informed her that although she had
killed their son, they would not let her go away with his property. She had to choose one
of the relatives to “inherit her.”

She said that “my husband had only one brother and his wife warned me that if I chose
him to be the heir, that would mark the end of my life. I therefore picked on one of my late
husband’s cousins – not that I loved him but because I wanted to stay and look after my
children. If I had any choice in the matter, I would have preferred to bring up my
children as a single mother since my husband had left a big portion of land that could
ensure our survival.”

So in the quest to ensure the safe upbringing of her children, Rosa chose to be inherited
by a relative so that she could stay a member of the family. However, that was not the
end of the story, as she explains “this man also had his own wife. She called me names
and threatened to kill me. I had no alternative but to bear all these problems for the sake
of my children.”

Worse still, upon inheriting her, her “successor husband” took over her late husband’s
estate and she had to share the land with the other wife. This only increased the tension
and conflict in the home. Rosa soon became pregnant. Despite the added responsibilities
of another child she was not receiving any financial assistance from this “new husband”
except for the land that she was allocated to cultivate. Then after about three years of
toiling in this new situation, the past came back to haunt her. One day, her late husband’s
brother came back from the city, where he was employed as a teacher, and ordered Rosa
to pack all her belongings and vacate their home. He claimed that he had confirmed that
she was the perpetrator of her husband’s death. It was already night, so he threatened to
kill her if he found her still present in the morning. She said: “I ran to the Clan head,
who came and calmed him down and said we would settle the matter in the morning. The
next morning, I was shocked to have all my property thrown out of the house and I was
told to go back to my parents. The only reason I was given was that they had confirmed
that I was a witch. I was only saved by my father-in-law who said that he still needed me
around so that I look after him because he was ill.”56

Rosa’s father in law remained bed-ridden for a year. When he died, her brother in law
renewed her eviction immediately after his funeral. She laments that: “He sent me away
saying I was no longer needed in their home. I was in a dilemma and in the midst of all
this my “new husband” was unable to defend me. I had to leave the home and live as a
beggar. For over six years, I lived as a pauper and survived on hand outs from
sympathizers. Then I was told by one of the women in the village that an organization
called Woman of Purpose could help me solve my long lasting problems with my in-laws.
I went to the Woman of Purpose office in Agule and they were able to organize a
dialogue with my in-laws.” It was not easy to settle the long standing conflicts and
accusations. But by and by, Rosa was able to recover part of what she had lost. Although
the clan did not restore to her all that belonged to her, at least she was able to get some
land to support her and her family. It may not have been total justice, but at least the
voice of justice was heard and that in future, justice will triumph.57

However, violence against women, the Johns Hopkins study points out, goes beyond the
brutalization of women by individuals. The prevalence of the phenomenon, “cuts across
social and economic situations, and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world - so
much so that millions of women consider it a way of life.” In a report by the United

“Women and African Culture” (accessed on
August 1st, 2007)
This tale of the treatment of a widow in Uganda was submitted by WOMEN OF PURPOSE (WOP) From WRI
Newsletter 9 (accessed on August 1st, 2007)
Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2000,58 the agency noted that in interviews in
Africa and Asia, “the right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife” came
out as “a deeply held conviction.” Even societies where women appear to enjoy better
status “condone or at least tolerate a certain amount of violence against women.” Such
cultural norms put women in subservient positions in relation to their husbands and other
males. That inferior status makes women “undervalued, disrespected and prone to
violence by their male counterparts,” observed a 2003 report by the UN Development
Fund for Women (UNIFEM).59 Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former UN special
rapporteur on violence against women, agreed, noting that discriminatory norms,
combined with economic and social inequalities, “serve to keep women subservient and
perpetuate violence by men against them.”

Focusing specifically on Africa, Ms. Heidi Hudson found in a 2006 study by the South
African Institute of Security Studies60 that “the subservient status of women, particularly
rural women, in many African countries is deeply rooted in tradition.”

This is true to such an extent, Ms. Hudson added, that women can be perceived as objects
or property, a view reflected especially clearly in practices such as wife inheritance and
dowry payments. The impact of both practices was illustrated by a 2003 study on
domestic violence in Uganda by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). The study
found that families justified forcing widows to be inherited by other males in the family
with arguments that the family had “all contributed to the bride price” and that therefore
the woman was “family property.” Once inherited, a widow lost her husband’s property,
which went to the new husband. And if a woman sought separation or divorce, the dowry
had to be reimbursed. Often, the study found, “a woman’s family is unable or unwilling”

“Overall Status of Women in Africa” (accessed on August
12th, 2007)
“Women and Violence” (accessed on August 1st,
“Focus on Africa” http://www.worldreport06/women/women2.html (accessed on August 12th, 2007)
to refund the dowry, and her brothers may beat her to force her back to her husband or in-
laws “because they don’t want to give back cows.”

Former Tanzania’s President, Julius Nyerere, was an early critic of such cultural
practices. He noted in 1984 that denying women the right to inherit and own property
leaves them economically vulnerable and dependent. That creates a situation in which
“women in Africa toil all their lives on land that they do not own, to produce what they
do not control, and at the end of the marriage through divorce or death, they can be sent
away empty-handed.” Since Mr. Nyerere’s time, Africa’s economic decline has left many
women in even worse conditions. Their plight is so severe, noted a study by the WHO
and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 61 that many women see no
option but to remain with husbands who routinely batter them. The women stay because
men “serve as vital opportunities for financial and social security, or for satisfying
material aspirations.” Moreover, as such women are often both poor and uneducated,
“the combination of dependence and subordination can make it very difficult . . . to
demand safer sex or to end relationships that carry the threat of HIV/AIDS infection.”

The WHO found that women with at least a secondary education were more able to
negotiate greater autonomy and control of resources within marriage, have a wider range
of choices in partners and are more able to choose whether and when to marry. Such
capacities have often been associated with lower levels of violence in the home.

Most African women, in common with women all over the world, face a variety of legal,
economic and social constraints. Indeed some laws still treat them as minors. In Zaire, for
instance, a woman must have her husband's consent to open a bank account. Women are
known to grow 80 per cent of food produced in Africa, and yet few are allowed to own
the land they work. It is often more difficult for women to gain access to information and
technology, resources and credit. Agricultural extension and formal financial institutions
are biased towards a male clientele' despite women's importance as producers. Women

“Gender Violence” (accessed on July 29th, 2007)
end up working twice as long as men, 15 to 18 hours a day, but often earn only one tenth
as much. With such workloads, women often age prematurely.62

Female education affects family health and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and
fertility, yet there is a wide gender gap in education. Lack of resources and pressures on
time and energies put enormous constraints on the ability of women to maintain their own
health and nutrition as well as that of their children. As a result, women are less well
equipped than men to take advantage of the better income-earning opportunities that have
emerged in Africa. Although food and nutrition are women's prime concerns in Africa,
and they are the principal participants in agriculture, independent farming by women has
been relatively neglected. Women's family labour contribution has increased, but goes

In industry and trade, women have been confined to small-scale operations in the
informal sector; however vibrant these operations are and despite the trading empires
built up by the most successful female entrepreneurs, women's average incomes are
relatively low. Women are also handicapped in access to formal sector jobs by their
lower educational attainments, and those who succeed are placed in lower grade, lower
paid jobs. Elite women who wish to improve their legal and economic status must expect
to lose honour and respect. There is often sexism in job promotions and unpleasant
consequences if women stand up to men. There is often more respect for male
professionals than there is for female. Women often suffer employment discrimination
because they need to take time off for maternity leave or when a child is sick. Career
women often have to work harder at their jobs to keep even with their male counterparts.
Social attitudes to women are responsible for the gender differences in both the education
system and the labour force, as we will see below. Differential access to educational and
training opportunities has led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their
subsequent concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects. So,

“Women in Africa” (accessed on


August 1st, 2007)

although women play an important role in African society, they suffer legal, economic
and social constraints.



Domestic violence is a global problem. In Europe violence in the home is the primary
cause of injury and death for women aged 16 - 44, more lethal than road accidents or
cancer. Indeed, “violence against women,” said the then UN Secretary-General Kofi
Annan in 1999, “knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. It is perhaps the
most shameful human rights violation.” And, he added, it is “perhaps the most

In Pakistan for instance, Mukhtaran Bibi, a woman sentenced to gang rape by the Islamic
& tribal leaders of a village council in southern Pakistan, has testified at a court in
Punjab's Dera Ghazi Khan town about her ordeal. She described how the four men on
trial dragged her into a hut and raped her. Face-to-face with the men, who are on trial for
raping her, Mukhtaran Bibi described how she was asked to appear before the informal
village council to apologise for the alleged misdemeanour of her 12-year old brother. He
had been accused of having an affair with an older woman. He says the story was
concocted to cover up the fact that he had been sodomised by three men earlier in the day
and threatened to report the incident. She testified that when she apologised to the
council, made up of village elders in Punjab's Muzaffargarh area, one man said she
should be pardoned. But another man suddenly said she should be raped. She described
begging the council to save her, but they took no notice and four men raped her while
hundreds of villagers did nothing to stop the assault. Afterwards, Mukhtaran Bibi said she
was forced to walk home half-naked in full public view, covered only with a piece of

The impact of HIV/AIDS on women is particularly acute. Women are often

economically, culturally and socially disadvantaged and lack equal access to treatment,
financial support and education. In a number of societies, women are mistakenly
perceived as the main transmitters of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Together with
traditional beliefs about sex, blood and the transmission of other diseases, these beliefs
provide a basis for the further stigmatization of women within the context of HIV and

HIV-positive women are treated very differently from men in many countries. Men are
likely to be excused for their behaviour that resulted in their infection, whereas women
are not. “My mother-in-law tells everybody, 'because of her, my son got this disease. My
son is a simple as good as gold-but she brought him this disease.”64 In India for example,
the husbands who infected them may abandon women living with HIV or AIDS.
Rejection by wider family members is also common. In some African countries, women,
whose husbands have died from AIDS-related infections, have been blamed for their

Amnesty International’s research has shown that:

 The Russian government estimates that 14,000 women were killed by their
partners or relatives in 1999, yet the country still has no law specifically
addressing domestic violence.65
 The World Health Organization has reported that up to 70 per cent of female
murder victims are killed by their male partners.66

Mukhtaran Bibi (accessed on September 18th, 2007)
HIV-positive woman, aged 26 (accessed on September 18th, 2007)
Stop Violence against Women: "It’s in our hands", AI Index: ACT 77/001/2004. Page 4
htttp:// (accessed on July 29th, 2007)
 On average, two women per week are killed by a male partner or former partner in
the UK. Nearly half of all female murder victims are killed by a partner or ex-
 In 2004, in Spain 72 women died at the hands of their partners or ex-partner, 7 of
them despite having been granted protection measures.68

There is an increasing problem in Iraq of violence against women. According to the

"honour" system, a woman who has been raped or abducted is considered to have brought
shame upon her family. Under Saddam's regime, a rape victim would frequently be killed
by a brother or father to restore family honour unless she agreed to marry her abductor.
Many women are victims of this inhumane custom and practice.69

In Afghanistan, the Afghan Supreme Court dismissed a female judge for not wearing an
Islamic veil during a meeting with US President George W Bush and his wife last month.
Marzeya Basil was among a group of 14 female government officials who attended
computer and management course in Washington at the invitation of the US government.
Basil was sacked days after her return to Kabul for not wearing her scarf during the
meeting. It has been said that the decision for her removal was made by top authorities of
the Supreme Court. Deputy Chief Justice and vice-president urged Afghan women to
observe the dress code at home and abroad.

Whilst FGC is widely practiced out in the open by African Muslims and Ethiopians and
Eritreans of all faiths, it is practiced in secrecy in some parts of the Middle East. The
practice occurs particularly in northern Saudi Arabia, southern Jordan, and Iraq, and there

Azam Kamguian “International Humanist and Ethical Union Internationale Humaniste et Laique” Tuesday, 6
April 2004 (accessed on September 25th, 2007)
is also circumstantial evidence to suggest it is present in Syria, western Iran and southern

The practice can also be found among a few ethnic groups in South America and very
rarely in India (Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of the Shia Muslims of India 71). In
Indonesia72 the practice is fairly common among the country's Muslim women; however,
in contrast to Africa, almost all are Type 1 or Type 4,73 the latter usually involving the
symbolic pricking of blood release.

Amnesty International estimates that over 130 million women worldwide have been
affected by some form of FGC with over 2 million procedures being performed every
year. Due to immigration, the practice has also spread to Europe, Australia and the
United States. Some tradition-minded families have their daughters undergo FGC whilst
on vacation in their home countries. As Western governments become more aware of
FGC, legislation has come into effect in many countries to make the practice of FGC a
criminal offense. In 2006, Khalid Adem74 became the first man in the United States to be
prosecuted for mutilating his daughter.

Birch, Nicholas. "Female circumcision surfaces in Iraq" http://en/ (accessed on August
12th, 2007)
“Stop FGC” (accessed on August
12th, 2007)
US Department of State (June 1, 2001). “Indonesia: Report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female
Genital Cutting (FGC)” http://en/ (accessed on August 12th,
See pages 29 - 31
“Female Genital Mutilation” http://en/ (accessed on August 12th, 2007)