The culture struggle, African Union and eliminating violence against women

In this latest contribution to the Working Group's blog series, Karmen Tornius, provides a summary of their latest research article, which focuses on the African Union's responses to the pan-African policy problem of violence against women.

This article was written by Karmen Tornius (Danish Institute for International Studies)
This article was published on
Image of African woman walking past a mural.

Since decolonization, and the parallel rise of women’s rights discourse within the United Nations forums, competing narratives around ‘African women’ have been mobilized historically across the continent. There is the pan-African discourse which acknowledges women’s role in anti-imperialist struggles and lends itself to arguments that women should be able to enjoy the fruits of liberty equally to their male counterparts. The alternative discourse fetishizes cultures, traditions and religions and misrepresents these as justification or excuses for violence against women. The African Union’s task to provide ‘African solutions to African problems’ is then significant for African women. Little to no research addresses how the African Union has dealt with the culture struggle of women in its member states and the development of violence against women as a pan-African policy problem.  My recent paper in African Studies Review discusses how the relationship between culture and gender discourses has changed over time, entangled with processes of colonialism, decolonization, emergence of African socialisms, end of the Cold War and advent of African feminisms. Crucially, the analysis reveals a re-emergence of colonial-flavored tropes which hyper-focus on cultures and traditions as the primary source of harm for women.

The article posits that a decolonial reading of culture and gender in Africa could recover considerations regarding non-normative factors that perpetuate violence, such as militarization, global political economy, but also histories of violence. Moving away from ahistorical, static representations of culture as primarily harmful has the potential of enriching the women’s rights toolbox and improving development interventions. At the heart of this article is the concern expressed by post-colonial and decolonial scholars like Amina Mama, Anne McClintock, Ifi Amadiume, Maria Lugones, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí and many others, that gender policies in the post-colonies fail to consider the complex colonial histories of policing gender and sexuality, and the reconfigurations of these in the colonized societies.

The analysis is based on interpretive policy analysis of nine African Union policy and legal frameworks that directly address violence against women and interviews with actors involved in policy negotiation. Additionally, I reviewed archival documents from African regional conferences between 1985-1995 to understand the development of the policy problem. At the heart of my analytical strategy was to understand how the problem of violence against women is represented in those documents. Inspired by Carol Bacchi’s post-structural policy analysis, the approach is also concerned with the silences produced in developing a policy problem, what kinds of alternative problem formulations are excluded, and who do these specific problematizations benefit.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) and United Nations Economic Council for Africa (UNECA) organized three conferences between 1985-1995 which produced African common positions for the UN World Conference on Women: Arusha Strategies in 1985, the Abuja Declaration in 1989, and the African Platform of Action in Dakar in 1994. The Arusha Strategies are clearly informed by African nationalisms and decolonization, highlighting how the colonial experience has weakened African cultural systems in ways that enhance gender-based discrimination. It speaks of rebuilding a culture based on ‘autonomy, self-reliance, and equality’. The Abuja Declaration in turn encourages knowledge production on traditional practices, as well as positive impacts of African heritage for women. Knowledge of positive or empowering cultural resources for women continues to be scarce. The African Platform of Action, negotiated in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1994, abandoned the potential reconstructive aspects of African cultures and, for the first time, linked violence against women with harmful traditional practices. The African gender discourse blended into the globally dominant discourse of women’s rights, which had increasingly demonized undefined and apolitical ‘culture’ as the cause for violence against women.

What my paper reveals is that regardless of this shift towards a culture/violence nexus, the African Union’s Maputo Protocol (African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women, adopted in 2003) was outstandingly nuanced regarding the relationship between cultures, traditions and harm towards women. Unlike the earlier conference outcomes, the Maputo Protocol directly addressed violence against women as well as harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation. While doing so, it did not present the two as intrinsically linked and acknowledged that cultures and traditions may entail elements that are harmful to women. Additionally, the Protocol includes an article on eliminating ‘harmful practices’ instead of ‘harmful traditional practices’, elaborating the need to ‘eradicate elements’ in socio-cultural values, beliefs and practices that tolerate and exacerbate violence against women (see in the Maputo Protocol, Article 4.2. d). Therefore, the African Union managed to introduce an unparalleled level of sensitivity to the relationship between ‘culture’ and violence against women, which I argue, is indeed inconsistent in the UN’s frameworks. That said, the policy analysis shows that the later normative frameworks did not follow this precedent and instead increasingly linked violence against women to traditional and socio-cultural norms.

There’s a discursive legacy of powerless Third World Women who are living in pathological cultures of violence, in societies that are waiting for enlightenment and civilization. Indeed, the ‘culture vs rights’ debate has its own story in African countries, whereby both colonizers and nationalist governments have mobilized ‘culture’ in different ways to justify subjugation of African peoples. This is why, this article argues, it is worrying to see the African Union gender frameworks reproducing colonial tropes instead of meaningfully interrogating ‘culture’ as one of the many systemic factors that may perpetuate harm against women.

Photo by Karmen Tornius.