On Sunday 12 May, many countries across the world including in Africa, celebrated Mother’s Day – a noble and worthy tribute to women. But at the same time, days like these should also serve as reminders to terrible evils that befall mothers and women in Africa. Gender-based violence is one such. In Gabon, First lady – Sylvia Bongo Ondimba – a mother herself, is taking a lead denouncing the scourge. She recently lead a major march in Libreville to raise awareness against GBV in her country. In this poignant OpEd, she shares her views.
By Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, First Lady of Gabon
Violence against women and girls is a global scourge that is finally attracting the attention of the international community. However, responses are often inadequate or incomplete.
In Gabon, the issue affects us more than we think. According to a 2016 national survey on gender-based violence commissioned by UNFPA, the rate of physical violence against women is 58.5%. This violence occurs mainly in a domestic context, where 71% of cases are due to excessive alcohol consumption by male partners.
It is difficult to measure the damage wrought on survivors and it is all the more devastating because it often remains hidden. Breaking the taboo, forsaking silence, means exposing oneself to the risk of being rejected, humiliated by society, stigmatised or discriminated against by legal systems, social services or health providers.
The impact on survivors goes deeper than the initial physical and emotional pain. At a psychological level, survivors can find their personal development compromised by the inability to build a positive self-image or sustain relationships. Beyond the individual, gender-based violence insidiously impacts communities and societies by eroding trust and fracturing families.
Encouragingly, Gabonese legislation has made significant progress in recent years by adopting laws on domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual harassment in the workplace. Our country has also ratified most international treaties in this area, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
However, there are legal gaps in women’s rights, as well as persistent discrimination in the legal framework, particularly in the Labour Code, the Criminal Code and the Civil Code, which is largely silent on gender-based violence and marital rape.
Sometimes, when laws do exist, they are not fully enforced. Their implementation is hampered by the resistance of certain customary practices that discriminate against women and girls in the home or society, thus hindering their development.
It is high time to raise awareness of these issues and put an end to abuse that undermines our society. I was touched by the heartfelt cry of thousands of women in every province of the country calling for change. In their name, the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation for the Family organised a peaceful, civic march on 17 April, the day of the Gabonese Woman, to say that a society that violates fundamental human rights and humiliates and mistreats a majority of its members is self-destructing and in decline.
Accompanied by civil society actors, political decision-makers, representatives of associations and religious communities, I decided to march to protest all forms of violence against women and girls.
Let’s be clear. This is not a feminist movement. This is not a gender war, but an expression of civic awareness on the part of men and women, adults and young people, who want to challenge legislators. Their credo: gender-based violence no longer has a place in our country.
It is important that women’s rights are enshrined in law and their enforcement guaranteed. It is equally important that survivors of violence and their families receive appropriate support and services.
Civil society activists have understood this, as have associations that already active on the ground and working tirelessly in our communities. The Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation for the Family team met with them, listened to them to understand their concerns and together with them, defined ways to strengthen their activities.
In order to encourage these important actors in the fight against gender-based violence, my Foundation has created the “Agathe Okumba d’Okwatseghe” prize, in honour of a great lady, a pioneer and champion for women’s rights in our country. The winners, local advocates on gender-based violence, will be able to benefit from financial support to enable them to act more, better, and faster.
Our mothers, sisters and daughters are counting on us. We will not fail them.