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The interplay between gender and culture

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Violence against women is still prevalent in many African countries. They continue to be discriminated, marginalized and subjected to harmful traditional practices which are embedded in the social structure since time immemorial. Most of the time an attempt to prosecute perpetrators of these practices would fail mainly because they are considered as the conservator of cultural values and traditions of the community. An effort of outlawing such discriminatory and harmful practices has also been equated with submission to neocolonial attitude or failure to consider cultural sensitivities of the African society.  In its extreme form, such line of debate is often based on the premise that culture and tradition should be posited at the crux given that they are the sole source of validity for any global moral order with respect to human rights. Proponents of universalism, on the other hand, argue that “the contents of human rights are universal and apply to every person irrespective of culture.”In this blog post, I will explore and analyze how and to what extent the African human right system attempts to accommodate both the doctrine of universality and cultural relativity in the context of African women’s rights.

The Cultural Relativism/ Universalism Dichotomy

It is not rare to hear from some African scholar that the notion of human right is a purely Western construct which does not consider African communitarian disposition. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), which has attained the status of Customary international law, was never been backlash-free precisely because of the very limited participation of African countries in the drafting and deliberation process. As a matter fact, these adverse reactions cannot be lightly dismissed since African values are poorly represented in the declaration and most, if not all, African countries were under Western colonial power during the formation of UDHR. However, this could not be the ground to question the validity and significance of human right standards, neither can this be the reason to detract their universal enforceability. For Howard and Donnelly, however, ‘a particular type of liberal society’ is sinequa non for effective implementation of ‘modern’ human rights. Communitarian societies, they argued, are antithetical to the implementation and maintenance of human rights, because such social arrangement denies, among others, the autonomy of an individual and the irreducible moral equality of all persons. Matua, on the other hand, contends that such an attempt to create“hierarchy of cultures” does not adhere to human right doctrine of equality, diversity and difference.

For strong Universalists such as Howard-Hassmann, human rights should be the only standards by which we can weigh the validity of certain cultural norms. It follows that any culture which is not compatible with human rights standards ought to be cast aside. Less radical universalist like Stewart endorsed an evolutionary approach that allows cultures to evolve and change with time. On the opposite side of the spectrum, strong cultural relativist claims that “all culture and value systems are equally valid. Consequently, the moral codes of each society ought to be principal source of validity for universal human rights. In the same vein, relativist alleged that culture should take precedence over any other collective international moral judgments.

From the critical point of view, while universalism is perceived by some scholars as a manifestation of western imperialism, an attempt of homogenization and oblivious to genuine cultural nuances, there is also a concern that the arguments of cultural relativism are open to abuse by fundamentalists, economic and political elites (who are already in the position of privilege)and authoritarian governments. Because culture can be misconstrued as a justification to avoid renegotiation of well-established patriarchal social structure and can be brought to bear as a tactic to sustain the existing power relation. Despite these debates, it is self-evident that failure to consider different cultural circumstances in the promotion and protection of international human rights would result in a lack of legitimacy and acceptability. Notwithstanding, as Faulk rightly pointed out, hesitation to look different cultural norms through the lance of international human right standards would also result in “a regressive disposition towards the retention of cruel, brutal, and exploitative aspects of religious and cultural tradition”

Women’s Rights and recognition of culture and tradition in the ACHPR

African women have broken through multiple layers of alienation and repressions. The pervasiveness of discriminatory traditions and harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation, polygamy, honor killing, marital rape and such like exposed millions of African women to grave human right violations and put them in disadvantaged positions for centuries. Cognizant of this fact, Article 2 the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right (ACHPR) proclaimed that the enjoyment of rights provided in the charter shall not be discriminatory based on, inter alia sex. In the same token, Article 18(3) of the Charter impose an obligation on signatory states to “ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.” However, by virtue of Art. 17 of the same Charter member state are also duty bound to “protect and promote cultural and traditional values recognized by the community” In addition, Article 29 (7) the African Charter imposes an obligation on every individual to “preserve and strengthen positive cultural values of Africa.”   Even though, the reference which has been made to international instruments in Article 18 appears to be laudable, it can also be argued that equal recognition of cultural and traditional value is capable of legitimizing harmful and discriminatory practices that would be an impediment to the full enjoyment of women’s rights. It is also worth to mention that the word positive in Article 29 demonstrates that the recognition and promotion of African cultural values are warranted so long as these deeds are not antagonistic to the rights of women. Yet again, while the Charter is clear and straightforward with regard to protection and promotion of cultural rights, the issue of Gender equality is not explicitly addressed. Indeed, the main criticism regarding the interplay between culture and women’s human right in the framework of ACHPR is the latter’s failure to safeguard women’s right independently rather than conflating within the context of family. The fact that their right is situated in an article which deals with the rights of the child, the aged and disabled reaffirm the long-held traditional perception of women’s subordination.  Understandably, such criticism of the Charter for its failure to emancipating women from the context of family stems from the concern that the structure of traditional family in Africa depicts women as inferior. 

Turning back to the central query of this blog post, despite its recognition of nondiscrimination, in a nutshell, I believe that the Charter overtly inclined to the promotion and protection of culture and traditions than the issue of gender justice and substantive equality of women. In that respect, the Charter has failed to reconcile universally recognized human rights of women and cultural rights of the community as its commitment to gender equality is much less than the emphasis that it gives to culture.  Nevertheless, as it will be discussed in the next section, it would be a mistake to assume that culture and women’s human right are always mutually exclusive or inevitably at odds.    

Culture and The Maputo Protocol

Despite its considerable contribution in setting global standards of women’s right, the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (‘CEDAW’)  has certain inadequacies, especially for African women. One of the limitations of the Convention is its cultural insensitiveness precisely because of the commonly held understanding that culture and women’s human right are always uncompromisable as the former is viewed as a barrier to realization and full enjoyment of the latter. The underlying purpose of Maputo Protocol is to rebut such perception by contextualizing the global standards to African local reality through internal dialogue and reform. The protocol, which is ratified by many African countries, is pioneering and transformative in many aspects. Apart from its comprehensive approach, the protocol is also known to be distinct in affording women’s right to peace, inheritance and abortion. Its comprehensiveness goes beyond the ACHPR and CEDAW in addressing the issue of women with HIV/AIDS, women in armed conflicts, elderly women and widows’ rights. Unlike CEDAW, the protocol does not face any difficulty in terms of legitimacy and creditability as it was initiated and drafted by African women themselves. It should, however, be noted that the Protocol  does not escape from criticism for its “lack of consistency in the language and uncertainty in its application” Its failure to represent the interest of rural African women is also raised as a shortcoming.

 I believe that the Protocol has remedied weaknesses of both the CEDAW and the African Charter in terms of accommodating universal rights of African women with cultural sensitivities of their community. On one hand, the protocol draws inspiration from global human right norms through ‘cut and mix’ approach, on the other hand, it has contextualized these norms to African reality. In that sense, it overcomes universalism/relativism dichotomy in the women’s right discourse. Most importantly, Article 17 of the protocol provides that “Women shall have the right to live in a positive cultural context and to participate at all levels in the determination of cultural policies.” Rather than being a mere subject of the discourse, this provision paves the way for African women to bea part of internal dialogue active participant in reforming discriminatory traditions and harmful cultural practices which are entrenched in the social structure. From this, it can be inferred that the Maputo Protocol reconciled the doctrine of universalism and cultural relativism in an appreciable extent.

Conclusion

The complex relationship between culture and women’s right should not be framed in “either-or” fashion. Because such formulation considers universalism and relativism as inherently conflicting parallel axioms which may not be compromised within women’s human right paradigm.  However, in an exceptionally heterogeneous continent like Africa, underestimating the role of culture in the development of modern human rights standards could be counterproductive as the former provides credibility and legitimacy to the latter. On the converse side, the transformative effect of global human right standards over oppressive and exploitive culture and traditions should not also be overlooked. From this standpoint, the attempt of African Charter to reconcile universally recognized rights of women with local cultural traditions appears to be unsuccessful as the commitment to gender equality is much less than the emphasis given to traditional values. It has also been noted that because of its western orientation CEDAW failed to appreciate cultural diversity and forget many African women who consider their communal identity to be a significant factor in their everyday experiences. The Maputo Protocol, on the other hand, exemplifies how, in the face of profound diversity, the bottom-up approaches anchored in local cultures can be productive in enhancing and reinforce women’s right.

Africa

Critical Views On Russia’s Policy Towards Africa Within Context Of New World Order

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In September WhatsApp conversation with Matthew Ehret, a Senior Fellow and International Relations Expert at the American University in Moscow, he offers an insight into some aspects of Russia-African relations within the context of the emerging new global order. 

In particular, Matthew gives in-depth views on Russia’s valuable contribution in a number of economic sectors including infrastructure development during the past few years in Africa, some suggestions for African leaders and further on the possible implications of Russia-China collaboration with Africa. Here are important excerpts of the wide-ranging interview:

What are the implications here and from historical perspectives that Russia is looking for its allies from Soviet-era in Africa…and “non-Western friends” for creating the new world order?

Russia is certainly working very hard to consolidate its alliances with many nations of the global south and former non-aligned network. This process is hinged on the Russia-China alliance best exemplified by the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union with the Belt and Road Initiative and the spirit of cooperation outlined in the the Feb. 4 Joint Statement for a New Era of Cooperation.

Of course this is more than simply gaining spheres of influence as many analysts try to interpret the process now underway, but has much more to do with a common vision for instituting a new system of cooperation, creative growth and long term thinking uniting diverse cultural and religious groups of the globe around a common destiny which is a completely different type of paradigm than the unipolar ideology of closed-system thinking dominant among the technocrats trying to manage the rules based international order.

Soviet Union, of course, enormously supported Africa’s liberation struggle and resultantly attained political independence in the 60s. What could be the best practical way for Russia to fight what it now referred to as “neocolonialism” in Africa?

Simply operating on a foundation of honest business is an obvious but important thing to do. The African people have known mostly abuse and dishonest neo-colonial policies under the helm of the World Bank and IMF since WW2, and so having Russia continue to provide investment and business deals tied to the construction of special economic zones that drive industrial growth, infrastructure and especially modern electricity access which Africa desperately needs are key in this process.

African countries currently need to transform the untapped resources, build basic infrastructure and get industrialized -these are necessary to become somehow economic independent. How do you evaluate Russia’s role in these economic areas, at least, during the past decade in Africa?

It has been improving steadily. Of course, Russia does not have the same level of national controls over their banking system as we see enjoyed by China whose trade with Africa has attained $200 billion in recent years while Russia’s trade with Africa is about $20 billion. But despite that, Russia has done well to not only provide trains in Egypt, and has made the emphasis on core hard infrastructure, energy, water systems, and interconnectivity a high priority in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and the upcoming 2023 Summit.

Generally, how can we interpret African elite’s sentiments about Russia’s return to Africa? Do you think Russia is most often critical about United States and European Union’s hegemony in Africa?

I think the over arching feeling is one of trust and relief that Russia has returned with a spirit of cooperation. According to all the messaging from Lavrov who recently completed an important Africa tour late July, I can say that Russia is very critical of the USA and EU approach to hegemony in Africa. As Museveni and the South Africa Foreign Minister have recently emphasized, they are sick of being talked down to and threatened by western patronizing technocrats, whereas we see a sense of mutual respect among the discourse of Russian and Chinese players which is seen as a breath of fresh air. 

While the west is obsessed with “appropriate green technologies” for Africa while chastizing the continent for its corruption problems (which is fairly hypocritical when one looks at the scope of corruption within the Wall Street- City of London domain), Russia supports all forms of energy development from coal, oil, natural gas and even nuclear which Africa so desperately needs to leapfrog into the 21st century.

Understandably, Russia’s policy has to stimulate or boost Africa’s economic aspirations especially among the youth and the middle class. What are views about this? And your objective evaluation of Russia’s public outreach diplomacy with Africa?

So far Russia has done well in stimulating their youth policy with expanded scholarships to African youth touching on agricultural science, engineering, medicine, IT, and other advanced sectors. Additionally the Special Economic Zones built up by Russia in Mozambique, Egypt have established opportunities for manufacturing and other technical training that has largely been prevented from growing under the IMF-World Bank model of conditionality laced loans driven primarily by the sole aim of resource extraction for western markets and overall control by a western elite. Russia has tended to follow China’s lead (and her own historic traditions of aiding African nations in their development aspirations) without pushing the sorts of regime change operations or debt slavery schemes which have been common practice by the west for too long.

Sochi summit has already provided the key to the questions you have, so far, discussed above. Can these, if strategically and consistently addressed, mark a definitive start of a new dawn in the Russia-African relations?

Most certainly.

Geopolitical confrontation, rivalry and competition in Africa. Do you think there is an emerging geopolitical rivalry, and confrontation against the United States and Europe (especially France) in Africa? What if, in an alliance, China and Russia team up together?

China and Russia have already teamed up together on nearly every aspect of geopolitical, scientific, cultural and geo-economic interest imaginable which has created a robust basis for the continued successful growth of the multipolar alliance centered as it is upon such organizations as the BRICS+, SCO, ASEAN and BRI/Polar Silk Road orientation. This is clear across Africa as well and to the degree that this alliance continues to stand strong, which I see no reason why it would not for the foreseeable future, then an important stabilizing force can not only empower African nations to resist the threats, intimidation and destabilizing influences of western unipolarists. 

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Sahel security crisis ‘poses a global threat’

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Refugee women prepare food in a displacement site in Ouallam, in the Tillaberi region of Niger. © UNOCHA/Michele Cattani

Rising insecurity, including the proliferation of terrorist and other non-State armed groups, coupled with political instability, is creating a crisis in the Sahel that poses a “global threat”, the UN chief warned Thursday’s high level meeting on the vast African region, which took place behind closed doors at UN Headquarters in New York.

“If nothing is done, the effects of terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime will be felt far beyond the region and the African continent”, said Secretary-General António Guterres, in his remarks issued by his Spokesperson’s Office.

“A coordinated international breakthrough is urgently needed. We must rethink our collective approach and show creativity, going beyond existing efforts.”

The insecurity is making a “catastrophic humanitarian situation even worse”, he said, leaving some beleaguered national governments, without any access to their own citizens.

‘Deadly grip’ tightening

Meanwhile, “non-State armed groups are tightening their deadly grip over the region and are even seeking to extend their presence into the countries of the Gulf of Guinea.”

The indiscriminate use of violence by terrorist and other groups means that thousands of innocent civilians are left to suffer, while millions of others are forced from their homes, Mr. Guterres told the meeting of national leaders, during the High Level Week summit.

Women and children in particular are bearing the brunt of insecurity, violence and growing inequality”, he said, with human rights violations, sometimes committed by security forces mandated to protect civilians, “of great concern”.

Climate factor

And the crises are being compounded by climate change, said the UN chief, with soil erosion and the drying-up of water sources, “thereby contributing to acute food insecurity and exacerbating tensions between farmers and herders.”

“Against a global backdrop of turmoil on energy, food and financial markets, the region is threatened by a systemic debt crisis that is likely to have repercussions throughout the continent.”

The conventional international finance remedies are not helping, the UN chief said bluntly, with more and more countries forced to channel precious reserves into servicing debt payments, leaving them unable to pursue an inclusive recovery, or boost resilience.

“It is absolutely necessary to change the rules of the game of the financial reports of the world. These rules of the game are today completely against the interests of developing countries, and in particular the interests of African countries”, said Mr. Guterres, “with debt problems, with liquidity problems, with inflation problems, with instability, necessarily posed by this profound injustice in international financial and economic relations.”

Democracy, constitutional order

The UN chief called for a “renewal of our collective efforts to promote democratic governance and restore constitutional order” across the whole Sahel, which stretches from Senegal in the west to northern Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east, a belt beneath the Sahara of up to 1,000 kilometres.

The rule of law and full respect for human rights are indispensable for ensuring security and sustainable development, Mr. Guterres said.

Addressing national leaders and senior politicians from the region, he said the UN “stands ready to work alongside you, with urgency and solidarity, for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Sahel.”

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South Sudan: Extended roadmap for lasting peace deal, a ‘way point, not an end point’

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Since 2018, the Revitalized Agreement between the key players in South Sudan’s long-running civil war has provided a framework for peace, the Head of the UN mission there, UNMISS, told the Security Council on Friday – “despite continued outbreaks of intercommunal violence”. 

UN Special Representative Nicholas Haysom said that although key provisions of the Agreement are set to end by February, the parties agreed in August on a Roadmap that extends the current transitional period by 24 months. 

While a welcome development, he reminded that “there is no alternative to the implementation of the peace agreement”. 

“Let me underscore that the roadmap is a way point, not an end point”, he said. 

Inclusive political process 

The UNMISS chief flagged the importance of an inclusive political process and the opening of civic spaces as “essential conditions” for a robust and competitive electoral process. 

He then outlined some steps underway – from President Salva Kiir and first Vice-President Riek Machar’s agreement to resolve the parliamentary impasse, to the graduation of the first class of joint armed forces recruits – for which budgetary resources, integration and deployment, are vital to allow a broader security sector transformation. 

“Failure to address these critical issues…have the potential to reverse the gains made,” Mr. Haysom warned. 

Violence continues 

He went on to describe violence on the regional level, marked by cycles of cattle raiding, abduction, and revenge killings along with fighting in Upper Nile state that has displaced thousands of people. 

The Special Representative reported that while conflict-related violence is also increasing, UNMISS continues to support prevention through policy frameworks and other areas. 

“The Mission is strengthening its support to the justice chain in each state…to address crimes that risk destabilizing the peace, including those involving gender-based violence,” he told the ambassadors. 

‘Double pivot’ 

Mr. Haysom said that UNMISS has managed to accomplish a “double pivot” in its focus and operations, by channeling resources towards the political process; proactive deployment to violent hotspots; and expanding its protection presence for civilians. 

He assured that South Sudan’s natural resources have “tremendous potential” for either conflict, or cooperation.  

“It is always political that can make the difference”. 

Turning to the humanitarian situation, he acknowledged that food security continues to deteriorate, leaving some 8.3 million people in need and outstripping available funding. 

Noting that the Humanitarian Response Plan is only 44.6 per cent funded, he urged donors to fulfil their pledges. 

‘Litmus test’ 

He asserted that the next few months would be “a litmus test” for the parties to demonstrate their commitment to the Roadmap, warning against “delays and setbacks”. 

In closing, the Special Representative reaffirmed the importance of the international community’s support. 

“Our collective task now is to support the parties in fulfilling their obligations to the people of South Sudan as per the timing of the Roadmap,” he concluded. 

Indispensable timelines 

Meanwhile, Lilian Riziq, President, South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network discussed a broad-based and inclusive process for all key participants, underscoring the need for a new transitional governance process.  

She underscored that election timelines are indispensable, noting that four years on, levels of revitalized agreement implementation have not brought security or ended humanitarian misery. 

She also highlighted ways that precious oil revenues in South Sudan, have been heavily misused. 

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