African leaders duck the tough religious and cultural issues

Date: January 1, 1970
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Addis Ababa, 22 November: A 13-year old girl begged for mercy moments before a mob buried her up to her shoulders and stoned her to death. The Somalian youngster is said to have pleaded “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me!À before her horrific execution in front of a 1,000-strong crowd in late October.

Convicting a girl of 13 years for adultery is illegal under Sharia Law, but the authorities argued that she lied about her age. Amnesty International and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the girl, identified as Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, was raped while travelling to see a relative in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital.
Her family is said to have tried to report the crime to the militia who control Kismayu, only for Aisha to be arrested and accused of adultery. None of the men she accused of rape was detained.
The stoning that sent shockwaves around the world last month formed a somber backdrop to the Sixth African Development Forum on gender violence and women’s empowerment hosted by the Economic Commission for Africa last week.
For the 400 delegates from around Africa meeting in the Ethiopian capital, next door to Somalia, the brutal stoning under Sharia law brought home the cruel realities of papers, facts, and figures on culture, religion and gender violence.
Many participants, including traditional and religious leaders, left the three-day ADF VI forum feeling that the event ignored the tough issues of culture, religion and tradition.
 “We are meeting here talking about issues of gender based violence and no one has said anything regarding the Somali girl. I think it’s important to note, at this forum, that something needs to change,” said Mbuyiselo Botha who works for Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa. “Traditional leaders are custodians of morals, who else and where else are these harmful practices better raised?”
Muslim Imam Handemine Ould Salek, who heads a network of Imams for the rights of women and children, expressed exasperation that Islam was once again being pointed out as a religion that fuels gender based violence.  “Islam protects women, the holy Quran exhorts men to cherish their wives and daughters,” he said. Commenting on the Somali stoning incident, Salek said some countries instituting Sharia law do so in ignorant ways.
Catholic nun and former head of the Zambian Gender Unit (now Gender Advisor to the Commonwealth Secretariat) Dr. Auxillia Ponga maintained, “There is no religion or culture that would perpetuate bad things. All the holy books have one thing in common they talk about being morally upright and doing good to each other.”
Fatumata Mohaoudin from the Islamic Women’s Association in Morocco noted that, “The conference invited all people from civil society, faith-based organisations and traditional leaders to discuss the issues of women in the context of tradition and religion, which have taken the brunt of the blame for gender based violence. Yet, there very little time was allocated to discuss cultural or religious practices in detail. If we continue to merely talk about issues like this, then we will not solve anything.”
She noted that the conference leaned towards looking for support and action from the United Nations (UN), regional bodies and national governments to address gender violence, but these institutions could do little to change culture or religion.  So, while it was important to get support from such entities, real solutions lay with the custodians of culture and tradition. Thus, more focus should have been on this community.    
Salek agrees with her. He said he came prepared to discuss in depth the Islamic culture and laws that people have identified as fuelling violence against women, to share information and help create a common understanding, as a way to work towards finding solutions to harmful practices.
Chief Sango Phathekile Holomisa of South Africa had a bit more luck. In his own words, he said he was going to (ab)use his position as chairperson of  the session on Gender, HIV and AIDS to share his strong feelings on the topic. Like other traditional leaders, he noted the lack of discussion on cultural and traditional issues that perpetuate gender violence.
For example, while much discussion focused on the role orphanages and other institutions in caring for people affected by HIV or violence, there was very little discussion on the extended family as the traditional model of care.
“We should have expounded more on the values of the extended family and interrogate the reasons urbanised Africans suddenly change and do not want to take in family in times of crises. We could then have understood how to tackle this problem of caring for orphans.”
Holomisa who is also a member of parliament in South Africa said abstinence was another issue that had been repeatedly talked about at various fora but there was no discussion on how this should be done.
“I hear of abstinence and how youth must delay sexual debut like in the past, but I have not heard any discussion on how we can do this. Again, if we looked at our traditional practices concerning sex, we would find a way of advocating abstinence. This is an extremely serious matter which should have been given due consideration.”
In addition, he says educated Africans should do more than just follow conventional wisdom. They should analyse their traditional and cultural practices like property grabbing to find out where the practice came from and why. That was the only way a solution could be found to stop women from being disempowered or violated. The solutions would not come from UN resolutions; it would come from having alternative cultural solutions. 
“We have to promote African solutions to our African problems. It is us that have the problems with the way in which we treat women, so we must deal with them in our own way. Some of the problems that we have now would not be there if we go back to our traditional roots and see where we came from and why we lived the way we did.”
“We need to look at ourselves, as urbanised Africans and see how we can find solutions to our problems and not talk around the problems.”
Zarina Geloo is a writer from Zambia and Joyce Chimbi from Kenya. This article is being distributed by the GL Opinion and Commentary Service as part of a joint initiative by GL and the Economic Commission on Africa to publicise key issues arising from the sixth African Development Forum that focused on women’s empowerment and ending violence against women.  

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