“GBV” is a term thrown about all the time in the NGO community in Sudan. Everywhere I turn, I seem to hear this term. Some of the older girls even came home from school the other day telling me they had been learning about “GBV” at school that day.
I think this post might be a little provocative. Please believe me that I’m not trying to attack the African culture or the African male or males in general! When I’ve said/written things like this in the past, I’ve been accused of being a “femi-nazi.” Attack me personally if you’d like, but I am only advocating what I believe and understand to be the rights of women from a Biblical context. You may think that the Bible advocates the oppression of women, but, if you understand the context in which the Bible was written, you would see that overwhelmingly, where the Bible speaks prescriptively about women (not descriptively), it is very honoring, even proposing radical ideas of equality, love and respect, and mutual submission in a marriage relationship. Anyway… read on and please only berate me in the “kind comments” section if you absolutely must. 🙂
“GBV” stands for “Gender Based Violence.” Rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and the like all fall under Gender Based Violence. Unfortunately, there is good reason for this term’s frequent use in Sudan.
I am blessed to have inherited an understanding of human rights based in the Biblical truth that God created all humanity in His image- both male and female. The United States’ constitution and even the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are based on that principle of equality. However, the world (the western world included!) throughout history has struggled to understand the value of women. I take it back to the fact that we women brought this misunderstanding on ourselves when we tried to do life our own way and gave into sin. Remember the curse that ensued? That men would rule over us? I believe Jesus fully redeems us from the curse! The redeemed relationship between men and women looks like mutual submission in love. But I digress…
In many places in Africa, much of the population still understands women more as property than as human beings of equal importance as men. Many African cultures raise a “girl child” to get a high price for her when she’s old enough to reproduce. The price is called the “dowry” or “bride price,” and it is understood to be a sort of repayment to the woman’s family for the expenses they accrued in raising her.
In a marriage, a woman has generally been seen as the man’s cook, caretaker of his home, and producer of his children. You may note that I said “producer of his children” not “sexual partner.” I differentiate because I’ve been told before that in some tribal cultures, it is frowned upon for a man to find sexual fulfillment with his wife outside of procreation. If he just wants “recreational sex,” the culture would advise him to find a prostitute or concubine. Also, you surely noticed that she is the caretaker of his home and producer of his children. If he dies, traditionally, the woman does not have a right to either the home or the children. The brothers of the late husband will decide what happens to the house and kids… and to her, since she also belongs to him.
If a man grows rich, he is expected to purchase more wives since there is more to be cared for. There is usually a pecking order among the wives. Often the first wife (the “big wife”) or the wife who is preferred by the husband is the most powerful. She is the established leader of the wives, and in many cases, she takes pleasure in tormenting and controlling the other wives, like her servants.
In addition to the traditional understanding of women, Sudan has endured decades of brutal guerrilla warfare. Often, the warring armies used rape as a weapon of war. Studies have been done that reveal that the motivation behind rape as a weapon of war is to make the other side feel powerless. If the enemy was able to come into a man’s home and rape his women, obviously, he was not there to protect the home. He is powerless. He is weak. (Do you notice how the women are again considered just pawns in a man’s game?)
So, having taken just a surface look at some of the issues that face women in Africa (especially in Sudan), is it any wonder that GBV is so prevalent or that so many NGOs are trying to fight it?
I know this post is really long already, but I’d like to post accounts of a few cases of GBV here in Sudan that may provide some insight into the minds of the men behind the violence and the minds of other observers within the culture.
One evening, eight drunk men found a woman near the bar where they had inebriated themselves. They took her into the bush and violently raped her. When they left, she was badly injured. All eight men were arrested. Seven of the men bribed the police and got out of jail. One man stood trial and was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. A few weeks into his term, he was released.
This case shows the danger inherent in simply being female in this culture. The woman was used and thrown aside. The men’s arrest shows that rape is illegal in the books, but the fact that all of the men got off the hook shows that rape is not considered to be a very serious crime.
In another case, a man had taken interest in a woman. He was “courting her” by giving her things and telling her that he loved her and wanted to marry her. She took the gifts and said she loved him, but repeatedly refused his sexual advances. Late one afternoon, as she was returning home from market, he grabbed her and raped her. The man and woman and the woman’s family came together for a mediated discussion of the incident later. Here are a few excerpts from their conversation.
“He says you took a lot of things from him without any positive response of your love which resulted in the rape. Shouldn’t you now compensate him?”
– A question from the mediator to the rape victim
“We raised her in this community thinking someday we might get something for her, but now that she is raped, for sure the other boys in the community will no longer respect her and no one will want to mary her. The rapist should pay 10 cows, although he won’t marry her, in form of a dowry.”
– Parents of the rape victim
“I won’t agree to the 10 cows. What I did, I did from annoyance.”
“Why can’t you pay the cows? You know you’ve done a mistake, but it is also a natural thing.”
“As you know, she is our property. That is why we need him to pay the amount.”
– Parents of the rape victim
The man did pay the dowry in the end.
This case shows how a romantic relationship is viewed in Africa – the man provides the woman with gifts and attention and expects her to reciprocate with sexual favors. The reality of many male expectations in relationships in the west is often the same, although many women are liberated enough to realize that they are not obligated in that way. Most women would even say that a man demanding sex in exchange for candies and flowers is not love anyway, to which I heartily agree. The man’s sense of entitlement and lack of remorse regarding the rape in this story is something I’ve seen in my interactions with sex tourists and pedophiles.
This case also showed how the girl is viewed as property of the family to be sold when she is of marriageable age. It shows how a woman who is abused sexually is considered to be “damaged goods.” African women who have been raped often live out their lives without marrying, which explains why the family is so insistent on being compensated with the dowry.
(Although I didn’t include this in the conversation above, the parents almost agreed to let the rapist marry the woman, even though she was protesting. In the end, the dowry was paid for her, even though the marriage was not agreed to. In such cases, from what I’ve heard, the dowry price may be returned to the man if another man will ever pay to marry the woman. The “rape dowry” (rape price?!) seems to be a form of insurance for the family.)
Anyway, GBV is a huge issue here, but it’s rooted in some misunderstandings of the female identity. Jesus so valued women in his ministry (If you don’t believe me, read Luke). I long for the day when women will walk taller and be honored in this culture. In the mean time, I will do all I can to let the girls I live with know that they are valued and should be honored, respected, and cherished.