Root causes for the slow progress in advancing women’s emancipation and gender equality in Africa can be traced, in part, to contradictions between different layers of existing value systems. On the one hand, universal human rights principles, protected through international treaties and national legal frameworks, emphasise the freedom of the individual and her or his entitlement to choice and participation in all spheres of life. On the other, values and cultural norms enshrined in African traditional concepts of community give precedence to what is defined as “the collective interest” over individual rights. The fact that many African societies are deeply embedded in religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam adds further complexity. These various layers of values and norms do not only regulate social interaction in families, communities and society at large, they also define who people are and how they define themselves. Promoters of universal human rights therefore have to be mindful of the importance of community and cultural identity.
The question of reconciling these diverse value systems is particularly contentious in the context of promoting women’s sexual and reproductive rights, which are often considered a direct threat to the morality and wellbeing of the community. Religious, traditional and community leaders – most of them male – tend to use “culture” and “tradition” to safeguard the status quo and undermine efforts to empower women through policy, legal and socio-cultural interventions.
Yet some practices that are meant to uphold traditional ways of life can directly harm and undermine the bodily integrity and dignity of women. Polygamy, virginity-testing, circumcision and risky traditional medicine practices, for example, have adverse effects on women’s health and increase their susceptibility to diseases. Nonetheless, women’s reproductive and sexual health concerns often remain a taboo topic.
Traditional and religious provisions around marriage and childbearing that are founded on outdated models of family and motherhood promote society’s “ownership” over women’s bodies and their reproductive capabilities. They also perpetuate patriarchy and women’s subordination. Where even state provision of sexual and reproductive healthcare services is premised on such concepts, the systemic disconnection between these services and the reality of people’s sexual and reproductive behaviour is entrenched even further.
With this edition of Perspectives, the Heinrich Böll Foundation seeks to unpack some of these specific tensions and complexities. Cultural and traditional practices in Africa, like everywhere else, are evolving. As they do, and as some of the articles featured here argue, we hope that they will become powerful instruments for the promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.