TIMES SELECT: How women are treated in African cultures is deeply flawed

As a young African male, I have been forced to confront how my culture contributes to gender-based violence

03 September 2020 - 05:00 By Aneshu Jahura
Women weep inside the Clareinch post office where UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered. Not much seems to have changed a year later, says the writer.
Unending nightmare Women weep inside the Clareinch post office where UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered. Not much seems to have changed a year later, says the writer.
Image: Esa Alexander

Almost every other week my social media feed is filled with terrible stories about women in SA raped, murdered or both, often by men they know. In reality, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

It has been a year since the brutal rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, and not much seems to have changed. Women are still regularly raped, abused and mistreated in our communities. Is SA simply full of evil men who hate women? Is substance abuse to blame? Or are gender-based violence cases just isolated incidents occurring at the same time? As a young African male, I ask myself these questions nearly every day.

Growing up in SA exposed me to many different environments and experiences. Although I was a black child of African heritage, I was fortunate enough to have been raised with a mixture of Western norms and traditional African values. This made our family progressive while staying true to our identity. From a young age my family raised me to view women as equals and as people who add much-needed value to a man’s life. My father always treated the female members of my family with the utmost care and respect, and seeing this regularly made me regard it as normal.

Whenever I heard murmurs of women in nearby communities or even those in my extended family being exposed to violence and abuse, I struggled to believe this was even possible, due to my upbringing. Seeing male peers treating women as objects designed for their pleasure made me angry and I wondered how it could ever be passed off as acceptable.

Being an African male, most of the ill-treatment of women I witnessed or heard about occurred among fellow Africans. Although non-African people and other cultures are not exempt from these issues, I am of the strong opinion that the treatment of women in African families is a key part of understanding and mitigating SA’s troubles with gender-based violence. I believe that how women are treated in African cultures is deeply flawed.

The groom’s family often asks for their bride price to be paid back and the reluctance or inability to repay traps the woman in an abusive marriage.

Historically, African girls were raised to eventually become responsible for raising children and taking care of the house once they were married. When an African male found a woman he wanted to marry, discussions with the families were held, “lobola” in the form of cash and cattle was paid for the bride and a traditional wedding commenced. Although these traditional practices aren’t necessarily negative in themselves, the results can be quite oppressive towards women.

How do African women fight for equality and challenge abuse when they have been effectively sold off to their husbands?

This age-old practice of paying a bride price is often viewed as a form of appreciation towards wives and their families, but it puts women in a tough position since it practically takes away the power to advocate for their fair treatment. Even in cases where an African woman wants to leave an abusive marriage, the groom’s family often asks for their bride price to be paid back, and the reluctance or inability to repay traps the woman in an abusive marriage. This unbalanced marriage structure is exacerbated by the belief that African women should not be employed or should not spend too much time working for the family.

The financial dependence of wives on their husbands further strengthens the patriarchy and keeps power out of women’s hands.

Resistance to the change of these structures has resulted in the rampant ill-treatment of women in African communities. Fast forward to 2020 and this oppression still exists.

In many (if not most) African cultures, children discussing certain topics with their parents is unacceptable. In these cultures it is taboo to converse about things like sex and non-marital relationships with parents or elders. Traditionally, most of the significant conversations in this regard were held when a son had found a woman he wanted to marry and initiated talks with her family.

The lack of crucial discussions resulted in entire generations of young African men without the knowledge of how to respect their wives. If the abuse and ill-treatment of female family members had occurred in their households growing up, they often absorbed these behaviours and acted similarly when leading their own families. In their minds they were simply doing what was normal.

The absence of important discussions about relationships with their children means that African parents risk the danger of their sons forming detrimental views about women due to a lack of education. Girls will suffer a similar fate and grow up to believe that abuse is normal. This cycle continues and before you know it you have many generations of African men who believe they can treat women in any way that they see fit.

Sadly, the abuse of women in African communities has become so ubiquitous that it has been established as common practice.

We have allowed this to continue for far too long.

Culture is our heritage as African men and women. Keeping this in mind, we need to realise that culture doesn’t have to be set in stone. Yes, it is important to honour the traditions our forefathers lived by, but we have to remember that humans are not perfect. Many of the cultural norms and practices that are present today were set in different times when women were harshly oppressed and did not participate in important decisions. If we are to progress as a species while retaining our African identity we need to make tough decisions and face uncomfortable topics.

African parents need to start having conversations about sex, marriage and relationships when children are young and impressionable. If present and future generations of African men are taught to respect and honour women, and African women are in turn taught that abuse is unacceptable, we will have a more educated society where gender-based violence is established as intolerable. There also needs to be more accountability in our homes and communities – abuse must be confronted and not swept under the carpet.

The lack of urgency and willingness to rebuke offenders sends the message that perpetrators can get away with abuse. Greatly increasing accountability, starting in our own families, will help to ensure the safety of women.

Great change is needed in SA, and it all begins in our own homes.