There was the Ugandan minister who defended Molesting girls as “natural”, echoing a similar attitude among Nigerian lawmakers. In Somalia, a court sentenced an alleged molest victim to jail without bringing the accused men to court. This spring, Mozambique could pass a law that would allow rapists to go free if they marry their victims. And women in Egypt have reported a resurgence in notorious “virginity tests” while in police custody.
For those who follow women’s rights across Africa, the past 12 months have often been discouraging. But behind the headlines, momentum is growing – and most citizens believe their governments are making progress, according to an Afrobarometer research survey published on Thursday.
“In 15 countries where Afrobarometer has asked about equal rights since 2002, support for equality has increased, from 68% in 2002 to 73% in 2012,” according to the authors.
In a continent where customs often carry as much weight as constitutional laws, particularly in remote regions, roughly three-quarters of women believe they should have the same rights as men rather than being subject to traditional law.
But the report – entitled African Women Lag Men in Activism, Fear Campaign Violence – said gender discrimination remained widespread in the 34 countries profiled, particularly in north Africa. Overall, four in 10 Africans believed women were treated unfairly by employers and traditional courts, while a third of respondents said the police and courts do not treat women equally.
Egypt and Nigeria, the second and third largest economies respectively among the countries profiled, were among those where a majority of citizens did not believe their governments were doing well in the battle to empower women.
This month, the head of Egypt’s top state university said a student who was sexually harassed – watched by a jeering, filming crowd on campus – had brought the incident on herself by wearing colourful clothes.
Egypt also ranked alongside north African neighbours Morocco, Sudan, Algeria and Tunisia as the region with the lowest support for women’s leadership, and the highest frequency of discrimination. “Wide gaps [exist] between men and women on many issues, including the ability of women to serve as president or prime minister of a Muslim country … and support for equal rights for women in initiating a divorce,” the report noted.
Long known for its relatively progressive stance towards women, Tunisia has recently experienced a surge of MPs calling for repressive laws against women.
“The majority of women strongly believe they should enjoy full political as well as citizenship rights, but Tunisia is still divided into [liberal and conservative] camps,” said Nissaf Slama, a co-founder of Femen in Tunisia.
The group came to global attention when one of its Tunisian members who posed Coverless on her Facebook page was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats.
However, Slama, who regularly attends political protests in the capital, said it was encouraging that the laws were still being debated. “All women’s rights are earned in Tunisia – nothing is handed out for free but nothing can be forced [on us] either. We are setting the bar high.”
While experiences across Africa vary dramatically, the battle for female equality has many common denominators. A number of countries in Africa still retain colonial-era laws that legally define men as head of the household.
“Each country has its own specific solution, but understanding what’s happening regionally helps. You can see if certain countries are lagging behind regionally, and find out why,” said Anyway Chingwete, one of Afrobarometer study’s authors.
The report found women are less likely to vote or engage in other forms of political participation. But some activists said they believe women are more politically active than men at grassroots level, but tend to be limited by isolation.
“Unfortunately there hasn’t been an established culture of collaboration, so resources tend to run out very quickly and we can’t sustain a women’s movement in many African countries,” said Joan Oviawe, who founded the GraceFoundation in Nigeria with her four sisters.
Last year, the organisation campaigned against child marriage in Nigeria, organising a lobby movement against local lawmakers. Oviawe was shocked at the reticence of female legislators – who make up less than 7% of the legislature – in defending girls’ rights. “When more women aren’t outraged at young girls being married, you get discouraged. You just have to tell yourself, OK, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
It is a charge echoed elsewhere. In Ivory Coast last year, thousands of women joined female MPs who protested against the scrapping of a law defining men as household heads.
“I don’t see how this will help women,” said market trader Safiatdou Ouedraogo of plan that would also allow women to set up businesses without approval from their spouses. “We have been raised [to see] men as head of the house – it’s not a bad thing, it means the man has to look after a household. The way I see it, the new law will just make it harder for women by making it harder to get married.”
Affousy Bamba, who chaired the parliamentary group that debated the bill, said she was surprised that some legislators, including women, had voted against the bill. “There has been a lot of misunderstanding. In spirit, Ivorian men remain the head of the household – but it is necessary to modernise, and update the letter of the law.”
There are other signs of modernisation. In Cameroon, a 500-year-old tradition that, at its most extreme, sees widows stripped of their inheritance and trapped in bonded labour, is slowly being reversed after years of campaigning from a Muslim student group, Musab. And in January, Morocco abolished a law that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their underage victims.
“I like to imagine that it’s the efforts of little-known organisations like ours in so many of these countries who are slowly changing mindsets,” said Oviawe of Nigeria’s GraceFoundation.