linking arms trade to gender-based violence in Eastern Africa

Wanjala Wafula
Posted July 12, 2017 from Kenya
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By Wanjala Wafula

The premise of this piece is that war and conflicts are intrinsically a patriarchal activity. That sexual and gender based violence are the most extreme expressions of the patriarchal drive toward masculine domination over women and girls. I have established that it does not matter whether the perpetrators are from national armies, rebel movements, livestock rustlers, dissidents, protectors of community resources and peacekeeping forces that are sent to protect and restore order. The patriarchal creed is enforced by the belligerent nature of the combat itself, which is to vanquish and control another nation or people by inflicting maximum damage hence women and girls.

Our work in Daadab and Kakuma camps with refugees from Uganda, Ethiopia, DRC Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan, Somalia has confirmed that war situations result in the rise in domestic and sexual violence, sex-trafficking, and forced prostitution. Accounts about rape by government forces as well as rebels abound with a consensus observation being that sexual violence is used as torture, punishment, intimidation, coercion, humiliation, and degradation. According to a 25 year old refugee of South Sudanese origin," The local militia invaded our village and rounded everyone up. Then they isolated the women and girls and raped us indiscriminately. They beat us up then forced us to leave the village"

There is a direct link between the socialization processes for both men and women on the African continent and the subsequent horrific levels of gender based violence. The addition of arms (be they legal or illegal) into the matrix exacerbates the entire situation. GBV is ingrained in biased social norms and power disparity in social, economic, and political spheres of life. Men and boys are born and socialized to benefit from assumed power and privilege while girls and women are socialized to accept subservience and depravity.

My work around 70% of the communities in the East Africa region has confirmed a fallacy that men and boys have rights over the bodies and rights of women and girls. Militarization and the arms trade contribute to the legitimization and continuation of gender inequalities, discrimination and violence against women. Among the Samburu people on Northern Kenya, warriors armed with guns and crude weapons are allowed to buy girls they fancy from their clans, basically family members and places beads on their necks. This acts as a sign of ‘engagement’. They are allowed to have sex with them. However, they cannot marry them and they must not have children. When the girls get pregnant, their mothers and fellow clan women conduct crude abortions. The women press the girl’s abdomens with their elbows until the fetuses dies. The young mothers to be almost always die, or they get life threatening complications like excessive bleeding, sepsis, and fistula. Others never conceive again. When they carry the pregnancy to term and give birth, the children is killed using a concoction of tobacco and traditional herbs. The girls are then expelled from the community

Emboldened by weapons, power and status, many State and non-State actors perpetrate gender-based violence with impunity often exacerbating and elongating conflicts as is the case in numerous conflicts in South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and the DRC. During the post election violence that engulfed Kenya in 2007, over 1500 women and girls were sexually abused and 1100 died. Available data confirms that militia groups and the Kenya security forces stand accused of perpetuating the violence

By virtue of being born male, men are granted access to power, position and resources on a preferential basis to women. A sense of privilege emanates merely from having been born male. It's important to note that culturally bound versions of masculinity use gender-based violence and other forms of violence as a means of establishing and maintaining power relationships and structural inequalities. GBV is typically men’s violence towards women and girls, but it can also be violence toward other men and boys (in the form of bullying, baiting, gay bashing, sexual abuse, etc.) All through the history of conflicts in the East African region, rape and sexual assaults have been used as tactics to humiliate, intimidate, displace, and traumatize communities. They have also been used by armed actors as spoils of war hence the abductions, torture and early/forced marriages that continue to be witnessed in many parts of the region.

Arms possession and use is clearly gendered with most of them being owned by men. Men use of violence as a means of problem solving and control is culturally sanctioned with patriarchy, masculinities, social norms and stereotypes being key drivers. At an early age, many boys learn that they must be strong, they must not show their feelings, that conflict is resolved by physical violence and that boys are superior to girls. A Coexist Initiative 2016 survey in nine pastoralist communities in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan unveiled that 87% of women and girls did not bother reporting cases of sexual and gender based violence because they believed it was typical for men to be violent. It also emerged that women and girls encouraged the ownership of arms by the spouses and even bragged about it. It is this socialization that has led boys and men to feel justified in subordinating women and girls.

Uncontrolled arms accelerate structural poverty which has a feminine face given the family chores and responsibilities that women and girls bare. Uncontrolled arms have caused untold atrocities, including deaths, sexual violence, displacement, shattered communities and loss of hope for a decent standard of living. Injuries and fatalities, internally displaced people, refugees and erosion of social cohesion.

The Turkana, Pokot, Samburu and Marakwet tribes of Northern Kenya are classic examples of the linkage between arms proliferation and GBV. The tribal atrocities in the region characterized by pervasive livestock rustling and banditry has led to demise of over 7000 women and girls in the last six years. Thousands of women and girls continue being raped, abducted and killed even after the Kenyan government deployed the army in the region. According to local observers in the region, the Kenyan military is perpetuating more gender and sexual violence compared to all non state actors. “These army men are forces of evil. They have been raping women and girls here and they have killed husbands and fathers that have stood up to defend their children and wives. We would face the militia than the army because the militia are a little considerate", laments Achimoi Kokiru, from the Baringo in Kenya's rift valley that is constantly under military operations.

I encountered very heart shattering experiences while working in six divisions located on both sides of the Kenya Somalia border. The divisions of Hagadera, Ifo, Dagahaley, Fafi, Alinjungur and Saredo are reeling from carnage and utter savagery. The effects of GBV in these areas are abundant and ruthless. Sexually transmitted diseases are a lasting consequence of GBV and are a major health concern for women in those areas. Along with viewing disease as a consequence of GBV, it should be noted that the transmission of disease continues to be used as a deliberately perpetrated form of violence. Men who are aware that they are carriers of disease, especially HIV/AIDS are encouraged and facilitated to rape local women in areas which are suspected to support their opposition in an effort to exterminate the local population.

From the South Sudanese towns of Juba, Bor, Kapoeta, Yiroi, Bentiu, Rumbek to Torit and Kodok as well as from the hilly, dusty Sahel land of Karamonja in Northern Uganda, the cry is the same. That armed men and boys are shattering the lives of women and girls. Women are experiencing reintegration difficulties and social stigma related to their sexual abuse. In these societies it may be difficult for a girl who has been raped to find a partner for marriage and some women are divorced or abandoned by their husbands as a result of the sexual violation.

The easy availability of arms from the war ravaged Somalia has exacerbated the perennial resource based conflicts between Pokomo farmers and Orma herders in the Tana River Delta on the Kenyan Coast. Shockingly, sexual violence is construed largely as a violation of the male’s (husband, father, etc.) property rights, not as a violation of the woman’s human rights hence communities seek repatriations and revenge on behalf of the father and community and not for the justice and human rights of women and girls. The same situation is replicated in many locations across the East Africa region including the Mt Elgon region on the Kenya Uganda boarder.

Comments 7

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jlanghus
Jul 12, 2017
Jul 12, 2017

Hi Wanjala. Thanks for sharing your story. All that I can say is "wow," and where do you start to improve this situation? How can re-education of societal norms be implemented?

Tendai2017
Feb 12
Feb 12

 Hi Wanjala,

this left me in bits, I was just  too emotional like jlanghus said, "where do you start to improve this situation"  it's all I can say too.

Wanjala Wafula
Feb 12
Feb 12

Thanks Tendai2017. The problem here is that programing around GBV is less driven by the urgent need to address the drivers and linkages but rather focused on sensation and too much verbose. I regret

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Mar 07
Mar 07

Dear Wanjala,
This is a brave write up. Thank you for the brilliant link between arms trade to gender based violence. It is such and eye opener . There is need for real action to breach this gap. courage brother...

Wanjala Wafula
Mar 07
Mar 07

I am humbled

Sulaimani Ina Duqow

this is perfect

Wanjala Wafula
Sep 17
Sep 17

Thanks Sulaimani... There is more where that came from