Monday, August 29, 2011

Reflections on African struggles for gender equality

I feel incredibly moved and inspired by the courage of young men and women who are publicly confronting the abuse of women in their homes and communities in Africa and Muslim countries.  I felt profoundly hopeful when I read the story of a young woman in Kenya who had grown up in an egalitarian household where her father treated her and her 6 sisters as the same as her 3 brothers.  This woman Njoki Wainaina, went on to found a campaign for men to fight for gender equality in Kenya. I was really amazed that her father was one of the few men who campaigned against Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriages of girls and in favor of women’s education.
I wish I had grown up in her house.  I would have had the love and support that my own father denied me for being a woman.

Her African father is far more progressive than my father.  Having grown up in a Western Jewish household, my father is horrified by FGM and forced child marriages of girls and supportive of women’s education.  But he also harbors very backward views of women’s roles in society, believing that women exist primarily to produce babies and serve men and not to pursue their own careers and contribute to the broader society.  Our respective experiences shows that there are some backward, highly patriarchal men like my father in Western societies and some highly progressive and feminist men like her father in more traditional African societies. 

I am greatly moved and inspired by the story of Pascal Kelvin Akimana, a young man in Burundi who has used his experience as a survivor of horrific child abuse and a witness to barbaric domestic violence to become an advocate of women’s rights.  This young man grew up in a horrifically violent household.  As a teenager, his mother was forced to marry the man who made her pregnant.  The couple had three other children as well.  

Mr. Akimana is 27 years old and grew up in a rural area close to the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura.  His story is drawn from a report on African male contributions to the struggle against domestic violence and the spread of AIDs.  The title of the report is   Working with Men and Boys: Emerging Strategies from across Africa to address GBV and HIV/AIDS.  The outstanding report can be accessed here.
Mr. Akimana’s childhood was a living hell in every sense of the word. He said,“My father used to assault my mother every day, in front of the entire family, and no one said anything.” Page 23. Can you imagine growing up in such a cruel household and being forced to watch your father terrorize and brutalize your mother every single day of your life?  What I find particularly significant is the fact that his whole family colluded with his father against his mother.  By remaining silent in the face of witnessing such horrific abuse, they were aiding and abetting the perpetrator and abandoning the victim.  Their behavior reminds me of how often my family colluded against me whenever my father attacked me verbally and emotionally.  I was always alone and abandoned when my dad terrorized me, and when I went on a cruise in 2008, my aunt warned me that I was on my own if my dad abused me.  My grandmother never spoke up even once against my dad terrorizing me even though she witnessed this abuse quite often, and only rarely did my mother challenge my father’s abuse of me.  I knew that I couldn’t count on anyone else’s support when I was under attack, and I was the only one who ever spoke up consistently against my dad’s abuse of my mother.
His father was also a sexual pervert who forced his wife to have sex with him in front of their children.  This behavior is completely immoral and is way beyond the pale of civilized, appropriate conduct.  In addition, his father also cheated on his mother. Thus, his  father turned sex into a weapon to be used against his wife and children.
Mr. Akimana eventually realized that most of the men in his village were assaulting their wives, and that men routinely used violence against their wives as a means of controlling and terrorizing them.  Men also use violence against their wives in order to assert power over them.  Mr. Akimana said,”To my father, beating and assaulting my lovely mother was the way of proving his manhood.” Page 23.  He also lamented the fact that his mother never received any support from the older women in the village or her family.  The women in her family and village considered male violence against women to be such a normal part of everyday life that they could not see anything wrong with it. 
His father also used horrific cruelty against his children as a means of controlling them.  He not only beat his children frequently but also verbally abused them, thus depriving them of the love and support that they need from their father in order to become emotionally healthy adults.  His father finally expelled his mother from the home and burned her clothes.  In addition, in accordance with the cultural norms of Burundi, his mother was forced to abandon her children when she was kicked out of her own home by her husband.  Thus, his mother suffered the loss of connection not only with her abusive partner but also with her children.  I can’t begin to imagine the pain of this mother who could not visit, love, care for, or talk to her own children.  Her sense of loss as a mother in exile would have been un-imaginable.   
Once his mother was expelled from the home, Mr. Akimana and his sisters were at the mercy of his father and step-mother.  Like my dad’s mother, who was brutally beaten by her step-mother after her own mother died when she only six years old, Mr. Akimana and his siblings suffered great cruelty at  the hands of their step-mother.  In addition, his father used to viciously beat the children as well.  he would punish, torture and discipline me -- as he used to call it, “like someone who had killed”.  His father tried to force him to sever all ties with his mother by beating him severely after he had visited his mother.  The father knew instinctively that their mother might be a source of liberation for his children, and so he tried to destroy the relationship between his estranged wife and her children.  In contrast, my father encouraged me to retain contact with my mother because she is complicit alongside him in their joint abuse against me.  Thus, if I were to resume contact with my mother, I would be putting myself at risk of falling once again into my father’s clutches.  For this reason I am not in contact with my mother or grandmother at this point.

He was only 12 years old when the civil war and genocide in Burundi broke out in 1993.  In 1993, 50,000 Tutsi civilians were murdered by Hutu extremists in Burundi in revenge for a Tutsi genocide against Hutus which killed virtually the whole educated Hutu class in the 1970’s.  Burundi has a tragic history of genocide and ethnic conflict which is similar to neighboring Rwanda.  He fled with his sister to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which was like going from the frying pan into the fire.  As soon as they arrived in the DRC, he was forced to watch his sister being raped by soldiers of the notoriously underpaid, brutal, and corrupt Congolese army.   When he tried to call for help to protect his sister from this assault, he himself was severely beaten.  Can you imagine being a 12 year old refugee boy who is watching your own sister being raped and being unable to help her?

So he endured not only severe physical child abuse from his father and becoming an involuntary witness to daily domestic violence by his father against his mother.  In addition he was also a refugee from a civil war and genocide and witnessed his own sister being raped.  And he suffered all this trauma before he turned 13 years old. He said:

It was because I experienced all this violence and abuse in my family, in my community  and in my whole country that I decided to work on advocating for women’s rights. Whenever I hear or see an abused woman I see and remember my mother, and I remember what my mother and I went through. It is for this reason that I have no regret or doubt about  advancing human rights, embracing gender equality, promoting healthy relationships and  continuing to strive to end sexual and gender-based violence in my community, society and
the entire continent.  (page 24).

I am tremendously inspired by his courage and determination to use his personal experience as a survivor of child abuse, refugee, and witness to domestic violence and rape to become an effective advocate for women’s rights.  He can make a powerful contribution to the struggle against domestic violence and child abuse in his native Burundi and across Africa. Like him, I am also trying to use my personal experience as a survivor of severe emotional child abuse in order to challenge both child abuse and domestic violence.  I also want to use my international relations background and understanding of Africa and other global regions in order to challenge male violence against women and children on a global level.  Like him, I also think of my mother whenever I see any woman choosing to remain in an abusive relationship.  I cannot rescue every woman who chooses to stay with an abusive partner, but I am moved by my mother’s experience to try to empower other women to leave their abusers. 

He also makes a very fascinating point. He says the problem is not only that men are trained to hit women.  The flip side of the coin is that women are trained to expect men to hit them.  And for this reason, when Mr. Akiwana began dating, many girls rejected him because he refused to hit them.  They were confused by his refusal to use his male privilege as an excuse to establish his domination over them by force.  He said,”Many girls expect me to be violent or to behave in a violent manner. When I behave the way I want to, they keep pushing me back in the gender box.” (page 25).  So not only men but also women have to unlearn familiar and comforting forms of domination and subordination.  Men clearly need to stop hitting women, but women also need to stop expecting men to hit them.  Women in many countries are so conditioned to being hit by men that they don’t know anything else.  Thus, rather than perceiving a kind and feminist man as a gift and a friend, many women view a liberated man as a potential threat to them.

I also strongly believe that Western racism and assumptions of cultural superiority over Africans is morally and logically wrong.  The exchange of ideas between the West and Africa is a two way street, and I really do believe that the West can learn as much from Africans as Africans can learn from the West.  Once again I find that I learn some vital lessons from the African experience which are universally applicable to the global human experience and my own personal life journey. 

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