Sharp arguments to parry brutal cuts

Women, Law and Human Rights
February 10, 2006

The field of international law and human rights has, perhaps more than any other formal legal discipline, been home to scholarly works that aim to examine the law from feminist, critical race and postcolonial perspectives. Fareda Banda's Women, Law and Human Rights: An African Perspective follows in this welcome tradition. Aimed at the legal academy, policymakers and activists working in the fields of human rights, family law, criminal justice and constitutional law, the book is an important repository of case law, international and regional instruments, and domestic constitutional provisions. All of these govern the framework and application of principles designed to combat gender violence and discrimination in a region that stands as a constant reminder to the international community that its norms and practices must be reappraised if a truly universal system of human rights is ever to exist.

Those readers who might somewhat naively anticipate the book leading them into a parallel universe where largely unrecognisable assaults on the dignity and physical integrity of women occur, and where "exotic" legal solutions are deployed in women's emancipation, will quickly realise their error.

Banda's exploration of the violence - physical, psychic-emotional and economic -that women experience in states as culturally diverse as Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa offers instead a frequently harrowing narrative, which ultimately reveals that the difference in the human rights abuses suffered by women in the South, as compared with the North, are largely differences of degree and not of kind.

True, some of the case studies and histories would confound even the most seasoned human rights campaigner or researcher. For example, I did not know until I read this book that "amongst the Shona of Zimbabwe" it is a practice (now outlawed under the country's criminal law) for the family of a perpetrator of the crime of murder to offer a "young girl" to the family of a murder victim as compensation, showing that there really are no limits to the ways in which women can be maltreated.

Further, we are told of the case of a school in Kenya in which 19 girls died after boys at the school "went on a rampage and raped 71 girls". The headmaster's declaration in his report that "the boys had not meant to 'cause any harm', 'only' to rape", brings home to the reader the normalisation of sexual violence against women.

For the most part, I think the reader will find such narratives sufficient to support one of the core arguments of the work, which is that discriminatory and abusive practices directed at women in Africa cannot be simply attributed to African particularity or traditional cultural practices.

Despite the book's preface and conclusion, both of which adopt a narrative form that is strongly reminiscent of Patricia Williams's Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor , and the occasional literary references, this is a largely doctrinal investigation of the framework of laws in Africa, and of varied key sites in which women experience the more acute forms of violence, oppression and discrimination - from laws governing marriage and the distribution of family wealth, through to sexual violence and reproductive injustice, and the effects of oppressive cultural mores.

In view of the work's potential impact, it is regrettable that its rather dense analysis of international instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) and the more specific African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981), renders it unlikely to be read by those outside the legal profession.

The interest for critical legal scholars will be mainly confined to the author's engagement with feminist legal theory in the opening few pages of most of the chapters. Although a little too synoptic for my tastes, this discussion will draw readers' attention to the fact that a study of the African context will not only allow the seeds of an "African feminism" to flourish, but also help to identify the locus of some of the main tenets of "Western feminism", such as the importance of "group identity" over "personal autonomy".

In chapter seven, an overview of the debate among legal scholars on the thorny question of which trumps the other in cases of conflict - "culture" or "human rights" - will also excite some interest. The author visits this question in the preceding chapter, when tackling the complex and sensitive issues relating to the practice of female genital cutting.

Surprisingly, given the author's acknowledgement at several points in the book that "women cannot access the national legal systems", the book is disappointingly vague about the mechanisms that need to be put in place to facilitate the effective implementation of rights.

Moreover, I was continually frustrated by Banda's seeming reluctance to commit her personal views to paper. While in the context of the debate on culture versus rights it was useful to learn that Chaloka Beyani, lecturer in law at the London School of Economics, has urged that "cultural norms be put through the filter of human rights", the author's extraordinary reticence over this and other equally important and controversial issues ultimately blunts the critical possibilities of the book.

These reservations aside, Banda is to be congratulated for this meticulously researched, and very timely, comparative analysis of human rights law and practice in Africa.

Patricia Tuitt is reader in law, Birkbeck, University of London.

Women, Law and Human Rights: An African Perspective

Author - Fareda Banda
Publisher - Hart
Pages - 407
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 84113 128 8

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