The African Union declared this decade, 2010-2020 as the African Women's Decade. In Africa, political leaders have signed on to a range of human rights treaties and declarations of commitment, including CEDAW, Resolution 1325 and Resolution 1820. The Maputo Protocol specifies that there should be clear protections for women from sexual violence in situations of armed conflict.
However, now nearly three years into the African Women's Decade, there's not nearly enough to show for all the rhetoric. Women in Africa still face grave threats of sexual violence in and out of conflict settings.
While this disconnect between rhetoric and action is hardly unique to Africa, the contradiction between political commitments and lack of political action by the AU and its member states was brought into stark relief again over the last few days.
Just last week, on November 20th, residents of Goma in North Kivu, DRC, found themselves under the control of M23, a rebel group headed up by Bosco Ntaganda, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including the use of rape as a weapon of war and sexual slavery.
The UN Group of Experts report on the DRC leaked in October and officially released just a few days ago is unambiguously clear that the M23 forces are funded and coordinated by the Rwandan military and also receive significant support from the Ugandan government. Both governments have significant interests in eastern DRC's rich mineral deposits and poorly regulated mining industries.
To date, no action has been taken by the African Union to sanction Rwanda or Uganda. The AU website offers no comment at all. The South African Development Community calls for the “immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma” but fails to mention its backers. My government, South Africa, similarly calls for peace but says little to indicate it will use its substantial influence to put pressure on Rwanda or Uganda.
While male political leaders fail to respond adequately to pervasive rape in conflict, a growing number of men across the continent are taking up the challenge and working with women's organisations to end men's violence.
Whether the Congo Men's Network in Goma, Abantangamuco or Umoja Now in Burundi, the Rwandan Men's Network in Kigali, HopeM in Mozambique or Men's Association for Gender Equality in Sierra Leone, men are increasingly joining with women's rights activists to educate themselves, and other men about women's rights and gender equality, and taking action to demand that their governments implement gender related laws.
At the age of twelve, Pascal was forced to witness the rape of his sister. David was unable to prevent rebel forces from abducting and raping his pregnant wife. Each gave serious thought to joining rebel forces to exact revenge but chose not to, in part because of the depression and trauma they both struggled with as a result of the violence they had witnessed and suffered.
Whilst living in a refugee camp, David was approached by a UNHCR protection officer, Lynn Ngugi, who convinced him to participate in camp activities aimed at preventing endemic sexual violence.
Now, a decade later, David is the director of the Men's Association for Gender Equality in Sierra Leone where he coordinates activities intended to increase men's support for Sierra Leone's three new gender equality laws. He also coordinates Sierra Leone's fledgling MenEngage country network.
After years of moving steadily southwards from Burundi, Pascal was invited to join a Men As Partners workshop at a clinic in Johannesburg's inner city. He was initially resistant to the ideas of gender equality discussed there but returned for subsequent workshops because they gave him a forum to discuss his trauma. He now works for Men's Resources International in Amherst, Massachusetts and is an emerging leader in the field of gender equality work with men and boys. He recently established Umoja Nowin Bujumbura to “to build sustainable peace in Africa by uniting men and women to promote gender justice and equality, and to end sexual and gender-based violence”.
David and Pascal remind us that men can play a critical role in addressing men's violence against women and are often motivated to do so out of a sense of solidarity and commitment to social justice or by their personal connection to women affected by violence—their neighbours and fellow community members, their colleagues, mothers, sisters, partners, wives.
Their lives and the lives of many other men like them bear testimony to the importance of developing initiatives and tools to support men to act on their convictions that violence against women is wrong and that they have a role to play in stopping it and in supporting gender equality and women's leadership.
By Dean Peacock, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network