Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that refunding of goods paid to a bride’s family after divorce was illegal, sparking celebration by rights groups who said women would no longer be “chained in violent relationships”.
In Uganda, as in many nations, the custom of the groom or his family paying a sum of money or property – known as a “bride price” – to the parents of the bride upon a marriage has a long tradition.
Bride prices are payments made from the groom’s family to the bride’s – the opposite of dowries paid in some countries, where the bride hands goods over to the man.
The Supreme Court ruled that refunding it upon dissolution of a customary marriage was unconstitutional, after local women’s rights group Mifumi launched an appeal following an earlier court decision, arguing the practice contributed to domestic violence.
“Refunding compromises the dignity of the woman,” Chief Justice Bart Katureebe said, according to the Daily Monitor newspaper, adding that paying a dowry back implied a woman was in a marriage as though on “loan”.
Mifumi said the judge’s decision was a “landmark in the history of Uganda” that meant women were “now free to walk out of an abusive relationship without fear” of how their family would pay back the bride price.
Mifumi said the payment of a bride price “reduces the status of women to cattle, to property that can be earned and paid for and exchanged for goods.”
The charity, along with 12 other individuals, first launched a 2007 petition at the Constitutional Court, arguing that the refunding of bride price portrayed women “as an article in a market for sale” amounting to “degrading treatment”.
The court however dismissed the petition in 2010, with the group then taking the case to the Supreme Court.
This is not ‘new’ news. UN peacekeepers have a long history of sexually abusing, exploiting and harassing women and children in places they have been appointed to serve, safeguard and stabilise.
Questions begin to arise. What do we do when those tasked with stabilising, destabilise further and those commissioned to protect victims, victimise them further? Where can these victims express their grievances?
This shameful practice by UN mediators has been (re)occurring for years, yet it goes under-reported. Where is the government that should be defending their exploited citizens? Where is our outrage as members of civil society? Where are the voices of the victims themselves?
Why do we not know them? Many stories go untold, cries go unheard and pain goes unfelt.
There are no answers and even worse, there are no questions. Just silence.
In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr: “In the end we remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”.
Sometimes I think we live in silent societies.
Silence as children are being trafficked and sold into prostitution amongst other things. Silence as rape victims are encouraged to be quiet and are told that they “tempted” their predators. In many cases, victims contract HIV/AIDS and other STDs and STIs and see an end to their dreams, hopes and very lives. Countless shallow arguments such as “she wasn’t dressed appropriately” and other utter nonsense are used to justify and encourage this rape culture. And let’s not forget teenage pregnancy, prostitution and other repercussions of these atrocities.
Silence as some cultures and communities find no fault in child marriage and force hundreds of girls into this living hell. Can you ponder the scars they carry? The pain goes deeper than the evidence seen on their bodies from the physical violence and abuse that accompany these situations.
There is a trauma that comes from objectification, a disturbance birthed when human beings are subjugated to inhumane conditions.
Authorities display no accountability for their actions and refuse to answer our questions. No questions asked, no answers given, no dialogue, no conversation. Speaking is a privilege our kind of democracy does not endorse. More silence.
Yet there are those who have escaped the prisons of fear and those who still hope and dream of being heard, but they have their spirits crushed by the blatant and brutal reality of having no platform. Still, there is silence.
Despite quietude, I hear rowdy noises of protests and hashtags supporting human rights and dignity and the people behind them, labelled (or sometimes label themselves) as “activists” – yet away from computers, crowds, lights and cameras there is no action. Only silence because in reality, many don’t understand the dynamics of the causes they advocate both on social media and in real life. And sometimes despite their verbosity and polished politics they don’t take too long to show us their ignorance. Who benefits from all these fake revolutions?
Activity at times creates the illusion of mobility.
Silence that is not merely limited to the absence of speech but silence that is the absence of true action and consideration. Lack of consideration as our privileges make us less aware of the plight of others. And to those of us who are aware and not only represent but embody a common struggle, we are bullied, threatened and manipulated into silence.
Conditions may not always permit us to act out the changes we want to make outwardly but that should not discourage us from acting inwardly. Every time we try to understand a situation we act, when we question we act, when we empathise we act, when we pray we act, when we have conversations we act! And this action should never be perceived as worthless in the grand scheme of things. Before anything is manifested on the outside, it has to be established on the inside. The love, understanding, compassion, courage and most importantly hope that we silently build in our hearts is never silence!
I want to hear the voices of the oppressed and I want you to hear them too, even if they are not on the news or radio, even if they are not hashtags, even if they are not on the internet, even if your peers don’t discuss it. Even if the only place we can hear, see and feel their pain is inside ourselves.
Refuse to bask in the oblivion of silence. Refuse to be silenced.
Eighty-three-year-old ‘Mathabiso Mosala lives in a bustling, chaotic part of Maseru. Her house is located on one of the city’s main roads, crowded with shops, pedestrians and heavy traffic. Street vendors line the pavement outside her gate, their shouts mingling with the incessant hooting of taxis driving past.
Mosala, or nkhono, as many fondly call her, is quiet and dignified in her appearance. The interior of her home is cool, silent and immaculately tidy, in sharp contrast to the noisy street outside. Polished ornaments sit still on shelves, and the smiling faces of her grandchildren and great grandchildren peek out of picture frames in the living room.
Despite her age, Mosala speaks with clarity and strength, and holds her listener in a steady gaze. She has many stories to tell. For the past five decades, she has been at the forefront of the Lesotho National Council of Women (LNCW), a coalition of women’s organisations that has worked tirelessly over the years to advocate for the rights of women in Lesotho, and to provide them with meaningful skills, opportunities and training.
The story of the LNCW begins in 1963, three years before Lesotho gained its independence, when Mosala and three other Basotho women boarded a flight to Israel. As the presidents of four separate women’s associations, they had been sent by King Moshoeshoe II on a study tour to observe some of the work being done by Israeli women’s organisations.
After six weeks, they returned to Lesotho feeling energised and inspired. Amongst the many things they had seen, they had been particularly impressed by the existence of an umbrella body that co-ordinated the efforts of a number of different organisations. The four associations joined forces, and the LNCW was born.
The women set to work, and steadily the LNCW grew. They began by establishing nursery schools, and then shifted their focus to opening vocational training centres. Four of these are still in operation, providing young people from poor backgrounds with training in a range of skills, including sewing, carpentry and business management.
Women’s money, women’s rights “We’ve successfully trained more than 5 000 people,” says Mosala proudly, her face breaking into a wide smile. “We’ve made it possible for women to make money for themselves, thanks to the skills that we have given them. Our centres are not expensive, and we’re not concerned with academic qualifications. If people have hands, they can be taught to use them.”
For the past fifty years, the LNCW has also played a key role in pressuring the government of Lesotho to pass a number of laws that protect women’s rights. Among these is the Legal Capacity of Married Person’s Act, passed in 2006, which gave Basotho women the right to own and manage property. Another milestone was Lesotho’s 1995 ratification, albeit with reservations, of the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).
Mosala speaks about these achievements with a hint of pride, but mostly with a firm and realistic view of how much still needs to be done.
“In the past, a woman used to be her husband’s wife, her father’s daughter, and even her son’s daughter, because by law the eldest son was the head of the family,” she says. “Now, a woman can go to the bank or buy a site without being accompanied by a man. Many things have changed for the better, but we still won’t be satisfied until Cedaw is ratified without reservations.”
“Women who live in rural areas need to be educated. Rural women still bring their husbands with them when they want to open a bank account, because they don’t realise they have the right to do it on their own. Another issue is that many legal documents are written in English, and especially in jargon. Just this morning I was reading the constitution; there are laws in it that even I don’t understand.”
Over the years, the LNCW has expanded, and it now serves as an umbrella body for 13 member organisations who work with diverse sectors of society on a range of issues, including HIV awareness, women’s rights and caring for orphans and the elderly.
Mosala’s experiences and achievements are just as varied. Her work with the LNCW has seen her deal with a long list of foreign donors, and she has travelled widely, representing the LNCW at seminars and conferences around the world. In 1993, she was nominated by King Letsie III to serve as a member of Lesotho’s Senate, a position she held for five years. She has also received many awards in recognition of her work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Lesotho African Women’s Awards ceremony in 2012.
“I am proud because I have helped many people put bread on the table,” Mosala says with a quiet humility. “I know that I have done something to make a difference in the lives of others, and I think that is something that people should aim for.”
Modern-day Lesotho However, despite her hard work and long list of achievements, Mosala’s voice often sounds tired, and her forehead creases into a frown at many points in our conversation. Her commentary on modern-day Lesotho is harsh, and paints a bleak, unforgiving picture of many aspects of the country.
“I have lived in this house since 1976,” she says. “Back then, this street was nice and clean. I used to be able to plant flowers outside my yard. It’s terrible now. I want to move. I am too old to live in such a dirty place. Our environment has degraded horribly. There are plastic bags everywhere, and there is no recycling of waste.”
“We are a country with many resources, and yet the majority of Basotho don’t benefit from these. We produce wool and mohair, but there is no processing plant in Lesotho. Our blankets are made across the river and sold back to us. The same thing happens with our water. I don’t have a vegetable garden because I can’t afford to pay for water, and yet we sell water to South Africa. We don’t even know how much we’re getting for the sale of that water, and what it is doing, for who?”
Mosala’s commentary comes at a pertinent time: Lesotho is about to hold its national elections, brought forward by two years after a politically turbulent 2014 saw an attempted coup and the dissolution of parliament. Her advice to voters is sharp and straight to the point.
“This country is in dire poverty, so why vote for somebody who is not going to take you out of poverty? Our politicians spend years in office and they do nothing. People complain that they have no food and no water, and yet they elect the same politicians back to power. Are we stupid? Are we brainwashed? Basotho need to be aware of their rights. They should elect people who will ensure their long-term empowerment, and they should hold those people accountable.”
“If the government is doing nothing, it doesn’t mean that you should sit around, complain and not take action. It took 30 years for our vocational schools to be officially accredited by the Ministry of Education, but we never tired in our efforts, and we continued with our work. Some things have changed for the better in this country, but many things haven’t. The next generation of young Basotho activists have a lot to do for the next 50 years.”
Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.
Welcome to Kenya, a country where some men with questionable logic want to strip women who are dressed in short skirts in order to made them ‘decent’. Yes, stripping for decency.
This incident follows the earlier attacks on three women (two in Nairobi and one in Mombasa) who were assaulted and stripped of their clothes for being ‘indecently’ dressed. The incidents shocked Kenyans and videos of the attacks were shared online, prompting mass outrage which resulted in the #MyDressMyChoice protest on November 17.
These recent acts of violence against women are a reminder of the bitter reality we have to live with. As a woman, I have to endure street harassment, cat calls, being groped, awkward stares, winks and worse. As a woman, I have to explain why I choose to wear a ring despite not being married. Or I have to explain why I am not yet married. I have to justify my actions or inactions. I have to hear stories of women who have been beaten up, burnt and maimed by their lovers, neighbours and strangers who picked on opponents who could not stand up for themselves.
Like the women of Kilimani, I have bought pepper spray and a Taser, because I need to protect myself from men. That is a reality.
I was one of the many protesters who marched in downtown Nairobi to vent my anger against the stripping and attacks on women. Last Monday, we women literally put our feet down, raised our fists in the air, and demanded our rights of freedom and protection. But the irony of it all unfolded as we slithered our way into the town.
As we surged forward in the protest, we were met by men in the area where one of the women was stripped. They immediately began to taunt us.
“Are you wearing any panties?”
“Why didn’t you come here naked so that we know that you are serious?”
“If you keep talking, we will strip you to teach you a lesson!”
They had no fear in the world, not even of the cameras recording their taunts and vulgarities. The shoved and booed us and no one stopped them.
The women in their numbers drowned out their abuses with more chanting and feet-stomping. The level of lawlessness was absurd. It was clear: stripping was one of the many things they would do to a woman if they decided she was indecently dressed.
As I retreated home after the protest I accepted, sadly, that there are hooligans and perverts in suits and on social media. I was scared that day. I am still scared, because I realise that the attackers do not need reason to decide their actions. They behave like the law, dishing out judgment and punishment as they please. They will strip and pat their ‘brothers’ on the back for a job well done.
This blatant impunity affirmed in me that this is not about what women chose to wear. There were pertinent concerns of violation of women and it is worse if some police officers are involved. Our authorities are not swift enough in bringing to book those responsible. There were no arrests after the first two stripping attacks. For the third attack, 100 people were arrested but it’s unclear what happened to them.
Who decides what is decent or not? After these recent events, I have to check the hemline of my dress or skirt before leaving my house. I have to check how revealing my shirt is. I have to consciously weigh whether my outfit would pass the decency scale. Because for as long as these hooligans and perverts roam the streets of Nairobi and other towns, deciding on who to punish for what they are wearing, I am not safe. Provided that these groups of jungle judges are walking around in their flowing robes of decency with some invisible tape measure to determine how short a skirt is, no woman is safe.
While it’s commendable that we have dedicated 16 days to raising awareness of violence against women, it’s not enough. We ought to have a mind-set of everyday activism because this is an everyday occurrence. We need to make this everyone’s business. The men who abuse women in public or in their homes or from behind their keyboards are all liable. We need to realise, men as well, that we are all safe only when we are ALL safe. If one person is in pain, violated or abused, it will flow back to the rest of us.
It is a funny thing, the African’s relationship with his Africanness. Like the Christian discusses ‘the flesh’ when falling into the temptation to commit sins, the African brings up the question of Africanness when defending his anti-social behaviour.
Although it may seem perfectly natural for me to choose anger in such a situation, I decided to skip that step and muse on the meaning of “decency” in the mind of the modern African.
To whom shall we credit such a notion, but the missionaries? To me, it seems the term is only ever used to demonise some part of the African population. Whether it is homosexuals, or women wearing miniskirts, the question of Africanness is only ever brought up when violations of human rights are committed by Africans. But where did such an idea begin?
It is easy to surmise my previous conclusion, with an examination of even the simplest look into African history. With the introduction of European missionaries to African society came the idea of “decency” – more so the idea that the scanty attire of traditional Africans was indecent.
For how else can this notion develop organically in the minds of people who live in one of the hottest climates in the world? Surely, it cannot. We cannot claim that an obsession with covering up the bodies of women – a very Victorian obsession – could have developed naturally in the minds of African people.
I say “African” and not “Kenyan” because this issue is not confined to one African country. Just last year Swaziland talked about enforcing anti-miniskirt laws that were penned during, gasp, colonial times. Even in my native Botswana, there was a time when young girls were warned against wearing revealing attire at the bus station. This is not a Kenyan issue, it is an African issue.
To take it further, this is not a dress issue, it is an identity issue. More specifically, this is a crisis of identity. There must exist some conflict in the mind of a man deeming a woman in a miniskirt indecent when only a century ago his ancestors deemed even less clothing perfectly acceptable. Particularly when events still exist in the contemporary setting where African women dress in said traditional attire without protest from the very men happy to police the dress of women in urban settings. The disjoint in logic can only be rationalised by a mind in conflict.
In condemning the miniskirt, the modern African joins in the tradition of condemning his ancestors – a tradition inspired by the European missionaries of the 18th century.
I say this because even those that condemned the behaviour of these men used words like “barbaric” and “primitive” to describe them – in other words, they used the language of colonialism. Even in the minds of those that deplored this behaviour, there swam images of some immoral ancestors that went about undressing women.
This too is a symptom of an identity crisis, of associating decency with Other, and then going further to associate the immoral acts committed in the name of correcting indecency with barbarism, or quite clearly pre-colonial Africanness.
Both assumptions are founded in missionary teachings, whether asserters know it or not. It is this idea that pre-colonial Africans truly were morally bankrupt. This is incorrect.
Even in the most patriarchal societies (if there is such a scale), I doubt that undressing a woman in public would happen without consequence. The dignity of a woman may have not belonged to her, but it belonged to somebody (likely, a father or husband) and doing whatever it took to violate it would not have gone unpunished. Our ancestors were not a group of speaking baboons: they too, had standards of conduct.
Ultimately, when situations like this arise, it is necessary that we examine our thinking and then act accordingly. We cannot allow people to use African culture as a scapegoat. We must be able to see if anything is to be deemed “barbaric” it is the idea that enforcing European missionary ideals in modern Africa is in some way “right.” We must examine our beliefs about decency and dignity and reconcile them with a switch in thinking: with an embracing of the realities that we inhabit. It should be a priority for us in this day and age to correct mentalities that defend any violations of basic human rights and use understanding of history to inspire the creating of environments that nurture and heal our social, religious and mental conflicts. And for this to be done, we should know that there are no [insert african nation] problems, but African problems.
Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 21-year-old mathematics major at the University of Botswana. She is currently slumming it in Finland. Follow her on Twitter: @SiyandaWrites