The Nobel Peace Prize was announced this month and African women leaders were once again the recipients.
I came to admire the first African woman leader to win the coveted award, Wangari Maathai, after reading her book "Unbowed: A Memoir." My son recommended it to me after serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras.
Maathai wrote "Unbowed" two years after receiving the prize and recounts how she organized the Green Belt Movement of women who planted a green belt of trees around Kenya to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. Throughout her life, Maathai was “a great advocate for sustainability, equity, justice,” and women’s rights.
Unfortunately, she did not live to see two other African women awarded the Peace Prize. She died at 71, barely two weeks before two women from Liberia—the country’s president and economist Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and peace activist Leymah Gbowee—were honored.
Sirleaf and Gbowee were cited for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” (They shared the prize with Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, who was seen as the “standard-bearer for the Arab Spring and the role of women in the Middle East.”) Again, the Nobel committee mentioned the African women’s work in extending women’s rights as worthy of admiration.
To have three women on one continent win Nobel Peace Prizes in less than a decade speaks volumes to me about African women leaders’ sense of purpose and resolve. They deserve our admiration—and the problems besetting ordinary African women deserve our attention and action. In fact, when it comes to their sexual well-being, African women face terrible, devastating odds.
Kristof—who wears his heart on his sleeve when reporting on sexual atrocities affecting women and girls worldwide—says that the epidemic often occurs in countries that have endured civil war: “The pattern is that after peace arrives, men stop shooting each other but continue to rape women and girls at staggering rates—and often at staggeringly young ages.”
He highlights the horrific consequences of rape on African women and girls. In one column, he reports on the rape of a tiny baby, two-and-a-half months old, in Sierra Leone. The baby died of internal injuries.
According to Kristof, the International Rescue Committee, which runs the rape center in Freetown, the capital, estimates that “26 percent of the rape victims it treats are 11 years old or younger.”
Among the horrific consequences of rape that many females suffer are fistulas, “an abnormal connection between an organ, vessel, or intestine and another structure,” which can cause permanent incontinence and other bodily side-effects, if not properly and promptly treated by surgery."
The Fistula Foundation, which Kristof has praised for its good work funding hospitals that specialize in fistula repairs in 14 African countries, reports that the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo is “the country’s leading treatment center of victims of sexual violence and of fistulas.”
The Foundation’s annual report singles out Panzi’s founder, African gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege, for his courage and strength in “helping many women who suffer from fistula receive the care they need and deserve.” Dr. Mukwege wears a badge on his white coat, given to him by a Jewish organization, that is inscribed, “Don’t stand idly by.”
Neither should we who care about African women’s and girls’ lives.
There are steps we can take to help end this epidemic of sexual violence. Kristof recommends that we immediately lobby our Congressional representatives to reintroduce and pass the “International Violence against Women Act of 2010 (H.R. 4592).” He says that even if this legislation becomes law, “it would take modest steps to raise the profile of such violence.” He believes that some action is better than no action and seems willing to settle for incremental progress for rape survivors.
Modest steps? How many more babies and little children will be raped if we promote only small advances to raise the level of awareness and allow this horrific violence to continue unabated in many African countries?
I will call my senators and congressman and lobby for passage of the International Violence against Women Act and ask them to strengthen some of the provisions in the bill so the effects will be more than modest.
Perhaps you will, too.
I will send a contribution to the Panzi Hospital to help support the work of Dr. Mukwege.
Perhaps you will, too.