This week, I want to talk about a group of women I admire greatly. I hesitate to use the term "group," because the women I am writing about today are not a homogenous group, but have rich and varied backgrounds and experiences. The women I am writing about today are the women of Africa.
Africa is often called "the dark continent", in part because of the skin colour of its inhabitants, and in part because there is a mystery about Africa, something intangible but mystical. Like no other place, people who visit Africa say that the continent gets into their blood, and they fall in love with its spirit, its beauty, and its people. Despite this, Africa is still the pooreset of the poor. Frought with war and governmental corruption, African countries are for the most part poverty-ridden. People starve every day – as the infamous "Make Poverty History" campaign made clear to us through all those TV ads which must have cost a fortune and could have fed several African villages for a year, every three seconds a child dies in Africa due to extreme poverty. Poverty means illness and disease, because medical care is so expensive. Poverty means poor education, because malnourishment leads to poor concentration. Poverty means low economic productivity, because people who are starving and sick have little energy. Poverty means war, because people become so unhappy to see their loved ones sick and starving, and take action to revolt against corrupt governments. All of this perpetuates the cycle – poverty breeds poverty.HIV is a huge problem in Africa. The UNAIDS website states: "Sub-Saharan Africa has just over 10% of the world’s population, but is home to more than 60% of all people living with HIV—25.8 million. In 2005, an estimated 3.2 million people in the region became newly infected, while 2.4 million adults and children died of AIDS." The SWAA (Society for Women and AIDS in Africa) website says that 58% of those infected with HIV in Africa are women. One of the greatest health problems of our time is a pandemic in Africa, and the best efforts to prevent the spread of HIV lies with women – educating women, especially sex trade workers, about condom use is the single most important step in preventing HIV from spreading even further. (By the way, Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which committed 15 billion dollars to help relieve HIV in the developing world, focusses on abstinence and refuses to work with sex trade workers, and plays a big part in supporting the pharmaceutical industry in the US by insisting on brand name prescription drugs for HIV treatment.)
The Western world has looked with horror on a rite of passage many girls undergo in Africa (and other parts of the world, although this is often overlooked). This ritual involves cutting the girls' genitals, usually the clitoris to varying extents, and sometimes sewing up the girls' vaginas, leaving only a small cavity for urinating and menstruating. This ritual is often called Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutliation, but there has been a movement to calling it Female Gential Cutting instead, which I think is warranted, since sometimes the ritual is not as extensive as a full clitoridectomy and is more like a symbolic nicking of the clitoris. In any case, this ritual has raised the hackles of most feminists and other westerners for decades. The purpose of this ritual, from a western standpoint, is to create a situation in which women do not enjoy sex, so that their husbands can expect wives to remain faithful (since penile penetration is so painful), and so that sex is mainly used to procreate, although that is entirely up to the discretion of the husband (many African husbands use prostitutes for sexual enjoyment, and wives for providing children). Usually, women are sewn up again after giving birth. It is nothing short of a heinous act of sexual abuse in order to dominate and subvert women. The ritual is almost exclusively performed by an elder woman in the community in African countries, and not always in a sterile way, so risk of infection is high. In fact, some women who have been sewn too tightly experience sepsis and become toxic and die because their openings are too small to allow mentrual blood to pass through. It is a ritual that holds great meaning for women; FGC is seen as a passage into womanhood and a bonding experience with other girls the same age who become best friends and allies for the rest of their lives. FGC is a dreadfully oppressive practice, and it is no surprise that it has been conflated with feminine standards and ideals for African women, as well as conflated with friendship and a sense of community.
African women, despite these two major obstacles, are finding ways to fight back – by becoming enterpreneurs, by becoming activists, by becoming mothers, by becoming educated, by becoming community leaders, by becoming presidents. African women have been sold, brutalized, raped, abused, victims of genocide, murdered. But African women are indomitable. For example, African women are finding ways to overcome FGC, by refusing to subject their daughters to the practice – sometimes by seeking refugee status in the west to save their daughters from undergoing the ritual. In Kenya, women have found ways to retain the rite of passage without the physical ritual, and they perform ceremonies instead to represent the ritual called circumcision through words. The movement is growing, and more and more women are becoming educated about the health risks involved with the practice and refusing to subject their daughters to FGC.
African women are irrepressible. The spirit of the women of Africa is one of the most moving things I can think of. Whenever I see these women, on TV or documentaries, I am astonished at their stories of brutality, but I am more astonished by the joy that radiates through them, the sheer gratitude at still being here. I find great strength from these stories. If these women can find joy in situations that are so difficult, surely I can get over whatever minor obstacle I am experiencing on any given day. Women of Africa, I salute you!
Image #1: "Carnival Beads"; Image #2: "Samburu in Beaded Earrings", both by Augusta Asberry.