AFRICA: Tradition at the Heart of Violence Against Women and Girls


The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices IAC is an international network NGO and works in 28 African countries through its National Committees (NCs). It has 16 Group Sections in Europe, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and USA.

The Vision of IAC is to see a society in which African women and girls fully enjoy their human rights to live free from harmful traditional practices (HTPs).

The Mission is to contribute to the improvement of the health status, Human Rights and quality of life of the African women and children through elimination of harmful traditional practices and promotion of beneficial ones.

Documented evidences, observations and statements confirm that millions of women and girls world-wide are systematically subjected to violence in the name of tradition and respect for culture and identity.

Even the worst forms of violence continue to be tolerated as inevitable and women bear life-threatening acts with apathy and silence as part of their tradition.

The prevailing patriarchal system built on the ignorance and economic vulnerability of women encourages and preserves practices that are gruesome in order to subjugate women.

The socializing process of boys and girls is constructed to instill a feeling of inferiority and fear in girls and women and this process is fiercely guarded as part of Tradition maintained for social cohesion.

While this reality is a world-wide phenomenon what vary are the degree of gravity and forms of suppression from community to community. If we take the practice of female genital mutilation and the justification advanced, the picture presents itself as follows:

FGM is practiced for reasons such as:

- Preservation of virginity

- Avoid promiscuity

- Ensure fidelity in marriage

- Social integration and to be marriageable.

All these reasons show the constituted norms of social relationship between men and women. As a result of internalized value system, women have, for far too long, accepted FGM.

Female Genital Mutilation and all other harmful traditional practices are addressed in Article 5 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa".



The preference of a male child over a female is violence against girls in Africa within the family. Son preference is favoritism towards male children with concomitant disregard for daughters. This discrimination in many cases occurs before the birth of a girl-child.

For a young couple in some African communities prayers for fecundity would either wish for sons only or for "sons and daughters" with sons taking precedence over daughters. It is always "sons and daughters", never "daughters and sons".

At the first sign of pregnancy, a woman receives unsolicited prayers from her family-in-law for the safe delivery of a baby boy. Many husbands on their part secretly or overtly express to have a male child as the first-born. Inadvertently the expectant woman would also wish for a male child as her first born in response to attitudes and behaviors that reinforce women's subordination.

Scientific data on the prevalence of son preference is difficult to obtain. According to WHO countries in Africa where son preference is most apparent are Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, Liberia, Senegal and Madagascar. Oppressive patriarchy and male dominance in all African societies mean that in all countries, there is some form of son preference and discrimination against girls.

Although cases of female foeticide, infanticide and sex-selective abortion are not common in Africa, couples desiring sons have been known to adopt the billings method to ensure the conception of sons.

The roots causes of son preference among African families include he social roles ascribed to men and to women. Sons are preferred in order to perpetuate the family name while a girl loses her identity with marriage. Even in societies where girls retain their fathers' names in marriage, son preference is still the norm. The responsibility for the care of aging parents often falls to sons who also perform their parents' burial rites. Thus not having a son is a source of vulnerability for parents while having daughters only is a social stigma.

The effects of son preference ripple into other spheres such as nutrition and education. In the traditional African homes sons would be given better food than daughters and are more likely to be enrolled in schools and encouraged to finish. When funds are short, a girl is likely to be withdrawn from schools so as to make allowance for a son to be educated irrespective of whether the girl is naturally intelligent and the son is dull.

A mother who has had four daughters consecutively is likely to keep on bearing more children than initially planned hoping to have a son, with the attendant consequences of high parity on mother and siblings.

Son preference reinforces a girl's low self worth, low self-esteem, depression and eventual low productivity in adulthood.


Girls and women in parts of Ethiopia wear lip plates for protection and marriageability. In some cases, the hole is so big that it can pass through the head of the woman.


Young girls are given to fetish shrines, forced under threat of death to live as domestic and sex slaves. They are girls paying for crimes they did not commit, crimes linked to family members who committed petty offense generations ago before the girls were born. (Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria)


In almost all of African homes, household chores and care-giving fall almost exclusively on the shoulders of daughters and their mothers. Hardly do sons participate equally in domestic work. Girls take on household and care giving tasks in addition to or instead of going to school.

A typical house-help (a girl) would rise very early and retire last and go late to bed. On top of this, the house girl is scolded or beaten fairly regularly for any misdemeanor in addition to receiving very poor or no pay for her services. The poor, harsh treatment and forced labour constitute violence against girls in the family.

Women without house helps take on these duties, giving care at home while working full time in offices outside of the home. Overburdening of women and girls take a toll on their health and social life.


Young girls are fed by force to make them gain weight, and obese to be attractive to husbands who consider this as beauty. The health consequences include hypertension, malformation of the bones and diabetes. (Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Mali. In some communities, relatives, to make women who have newly given birth, gain weight and "be healthy" feed her forcibly.


In order to present a woman as a virgin on her wedding day, she is subjected to pressure and put under control by her family in obedience to the norms of the society. However a man is free and never made to be tested for virginity. A virgin woman on the first night of marriage is respected while the non-virgin is shamed and sometimes returned to her family (Somalia).


At the death of a husband accusing fingers are pointed at the widow suspecting her of being the cause of death directly or indirectly. She is compelled to undergo certain rites some of which could be very harsh and dehumanizing. Besides, at end of the rituals she could be forcefully inherited against her will. Articles 20 and 21 of the Protocol address this harmful tradition.


Child marriage is "any marriage carried out below the age of 18 years before the girl is physically, psychologically and physiologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing" (Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices-IAC).

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights sets 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Article 6 (b)

All child marriages including abduction for purposes of marriage are invariably forced and violate the right of a girl to choose her spouse.

The prevalence of child marriage in all of Africa is difficult to determine. In some selected countries such as Mali, Mozambique, Niger and Chad the prevalence of child marriage is between 70 and 80 percent (DHS 1996 - 2001 cited in child marriage Hotspots).

In some African communities girls are betrothed in infancy and married as early as 7 years. Young adolescents are abducted and forcibly married while others have their marriages arranged by their fathers and given to much older men. In Ethiopia in a study conducted among 227 wives, 60% said they were abducted before 15 and 93% before age 20. (UN OCHA/IRIN Publication 2005 page 64.)

Child marriage is violence against girls. Marriage automatically imposes the status and responsibilities of an adult on a young girl thus denying her the protection of childhood by family members and community.

Poverty and ignorance seem to be the main reasons for child marriage where parents desire material gain in form of bride price. Other motives include controlling a girl's sexuality, curbing promiscuity and out- of -wedlock pregnancy. Child marriage and abduction are forms of gender-based violence with multiple consequences. Some of these are sexual assaults due to the power inequities between older husbands and child brides. These girls also stand the risk of physical violence from their husbands and in-laws.

Pregnancy, childbirth and childcare are risks and burdens for any married under-aged girl. Fistula is closely linked with obstructed labour during child bearing among girls between 10 and 15 years of age. In Ethiopia where child marriage is prevalent, doctors at the Fistula hospital in Addis Ababa operate on approximately 1,200 girls a year (UNICEF report 2001).

Child marriage denies a girl of formal education and self-development with all the benefits accompanying good education. Victims of child married are often invariably trapped in a cycle of poverty and low self-esteem for life.

Unfortunately legislative provisions in some countries such as Algeria, Chad, Libya, allows a rapist to be pardoned if he marries his victim even if victim is a minor. Abduction of minors where men consummate the marriage with rape is permitted in some rural settings in Ethiopia irrespective of the legal provisions outlawing abduction.


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) encompasses "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons." (WHO 1995).

According to UNICEF estimate, about 140 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide, and a further 2 million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure every year.

There is no specific prevalence rate for all of Africa. However the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC) has documented evidence of the prevalence of FGM in 28 African countries. The national prevalence rate in Africa varies from approximately 5 percent in Uganda to over 90 percent in Somalia.

Whatever the type of FGM practiced, the sustaining factor is gender inequality, a desire by society to subjugate women and control their sexuality in the name of desirable tradition. Thus FGM is clearly one of the most obnoxious traditionally condoned violence against girls in the family and society. A female circumciser in Kenya sums up the main reason behind FGM thus: -

"When you cut a girl, you know she will remain pure until she gets married, and that after marriage, she will be faithful.... But when you leave a girl uncut, she sleeps with any man in the community".

All other reasons advanced for FGM including mysticism, spirituality and linking it with Islam are additional reinforcement to sustain the practice and be acceptable to prospective suitors. Thus women for the benefit of men uphold FGM. These are the social factors of acceptability as well as economic factors for the benefit of the circumcisers and the parents whose circumcised girls attract higher bride price.

Perhaps another silently sustaining factor is political. In some communities, the votes of women circumcisers can be a crucial deciding factor in the success of a political candidate. Thus some government hierarchies are unwilling to talk against FGM and instead dine and wine with circumcisers.

The consequences of FGM could be immediate causing bleeding; infection and death while the long-term effect include urinary tract infection, infertility, psychosexual malfunction and likelihood of HIV transmission.

The desires to restrain a girl's sexuality have blinded practitioners to the consequences of FGM. Attempts to ameliorate the health hazard have led to "medicalizatiion" of FGM whereby orthodox health personnel undertake the operation in hygienic environment, using sterilized instruments.

FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls who ought to be protected against any bodily harm by the State as demanded in many relevant international legal instruments including the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa'.


IAC applies different entry points using holistic and integrated approach in its campaign against FGM and other harmful traditional practices. These methods include:

- Training: of trainers, of peer educators, legal bodies, traditional birth attendants, media professionals, curriculum developers

- Information and Sensitization: raising awareness among different target groups

- Advocacy and Lobbying: with policy makers, legislators, religious leaders, community leaders, and traditional rulers.

- Empowerment of women and ex-circumcisers through micro credit and vocational training.

- Service provision for victims and would-be victims of harmful traditional practices (HTPs)

- Research: on different aspects of FGM and HTPs for better program planning


We have recorded measurable impact since IAC'c programs to eliminate FGM and other HTPs began. At national/community Level:

- Youth stand up against FGM

- Excisors lay down their knives to take up alternative means of income generation

- Religious leaders openly condemn FGM

- Women join hands against FGM and make public declarations against the practice

- There is legislation in 16 countries


- Adoption and ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of women in Nov. 2005. (Articles 2, 5, 6, 20 address traditional practices)

- Adoption of the Solemn Declaration by AU Heads of States and Governments in July 2004


- The UN General Assembly Declaration

- Resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights

- Appointment of Special Rapporteurs on (a) Violence Against Women (b) Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs)

- EU expression of concern about FGM and other HTPs


In order to mobilize communities against FGM and other harmful traditional practices, IAC in 2003, organized an international conference on Zero Tolerance to FGM to share experiences, synthesize actions among all key players in the campaign and to devise forward-looking strategies to address the FGM phenomenon and other traditionally condoned violence against girls and women. Going by the Millennium Development Goals, the target date for elimination is 2015.

The International Conference adopted February 6 as the international day on Zero Tolerance to FGM as well as adopted the Common Agenda for Action.


Violence Against Girls constitutes a fundamental violation of the Human Rights of girls as stipulated in several international Human Rights Instruments: -

1. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women "States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination" (Article 4)

2. Convention on the Rights of the Child "undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and to take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children"

3. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Articles 2, 5, 6, 20)

4. Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

5. Provisions by individual countries in Constitutions, legislations, Penal codes among other measures.

6. The UN general Assembly Declarations and resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights

7. Legislations and Penal codes in several countries


Legal provisions have not proved to be sufficient deterrents. Therefore, considerable attention should be given to raising awareness among girls, families, and communities

Governments should take compulsory girl-child education as a priority. This would on the long run alleviate much of the poverty that is at the root cause of most of the gender-based violence suffered by girls. On the whole, men need periodic training and refresher courses on gender and power relations.

"Putting an end to gender-based violence will bring us that much closer to a stage of human social development in which the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not be determined by the fact of being born male or female. The goal is to create a world where all people regardless of gender are free to achieve their full potential" (Broken bodies, broken dreams, UN OCHA/IRIN publication 2005).

*Linda Osarenren is a Senior Program Officer at the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC).

**Please send comments to or comment online at

A Global Mental Health Education Program on The World Federation for Mental Health, 2003

"Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams, Violence against women exposed"

United Nations OCHA/IRIN Publication 2005

Girls Power Initiative Research Report "Trafficking in Girls, The way forward" 2004

Glossary of Violence Against Women prepared by the NGO working Group on VAW, 2007

Save the Children Norway, "For their own good, ending harmful traditional practices in Ethiopia, 2005

UNICEF: Innocenti Digest, 2005



AUTHOR: Linda Osarenren

URL: Click here

DATE: 06/03/2008

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