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Local African Leaders Strategize to Enhance Safety

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Johannesburg last week nearly 300 rights advocates and politicians brainstormed for three days about how to make governments in 10 countries of southern Africa friendlier to women.

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--Bernadette Chipembere singlehandedly uncovered corruption and forced government officials to return land unjustly taken from widows and orphans in the sugar cane growing area of southeastern Zimbabwe, where she serves on the town council.

Last week she won the judges' special commendation at the conclusion of what is hoped to become an annual gathering here of gender justice advocates and government officeholders from throughout southern Africa.

Gender Links, a nongovernmental organization based in Johannesburg, planned the summit with the financial help of donors and partners. The group expected about 120 delegates; 273 showed up.

At the awards ceremony, Gender Links founder Colleen Lowe Morna introduced other Zimbabweans she called her "two mothers." They represent different political parties but work together on women's issues in their village. Neither had been out of the country before, and they secured their first passports to attend.

As other winners' names were called out during the ceremony, participants hugged, chanted, high-fived and clapped. Winners danced up to the stage to receive their honors, some wrapped in their national flags. Morna encouraged everyone to dance after the last award was handed out, declaring, "You're all winners."

The three-day convention drew women and men who presented practical strategies and programs that have improved women's influence, safety, housing and education. Delegates came from 10 southern Africa countries, clad in everything from business suits to red conference T-shirts and jeans to native dress.

The Southern Africa Development Council has set a deadline of 2015 for all its member countries to "enact and enforce legislation prohibiting all forms of gender-based violence" and to provide legal, medical and counseling services to victims.

The matter is urgent. The worries of sex workers flooding South Africa during the World Cup, which starts on June 11, are rampant. Rape is common and many of the assailants are HIV-positive.

Highest Rates of Reported Rape

The Medical Resource Council, based in Pretoria, South Africa, summarized its research findings in a report last June, saying: "South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape reported to the police in the world and the largest number of people living with HIV. The rate of rape perpetration is not known because only a small proportion of rapes are reported to the police."

The 10 countries with representatives at the meeting:

Botswana

Lesotho

Madagascar

Mauritius

Namibia

Seychelles

South Africa

Swaziland

Zambia

Zimbabwe

Fiona Nicholson, director of the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Program, a 24-7 treatment and advocacy center in the northeastern part of South Africa, said while the nation's constitution and policies are wonderful in writing, bureaucratic delays interfere with such crucial matters as promptly getting anti-retroviral medicines to girls and women who have been raped. "It makes no sense," she said.

Dozens of women, including some at the meeting, said it is difficult, but not impossible, to change ingrained assumptions about women's traditional roles within tribes and ethnicities.

Although President Jacob Zuma has appointed competent women to his cabinet, many South Africans find it embarrassing to have a leader with three current wives, a fiancee, one ex-spouse and 20 children, the latest from having unprotected sex with a much-younger woman.

Zuma, whose supporters contend polygamy is integral to Zulu culture, has spoken out against sexual violence. In a speech last December, marking the end of the United Nations-created 16 Days of Activism on No Violence Against Women and Children, he emphasized the country's progressive laws and endorsed the idea of summit participants that the effort should be expanded to 365 days.

Activists at the summit said they are ready to hold policymakers accountable and to systematically examine gaps and deficiencies in national plans to curb sexual violence.

In 2008, the U.N. launched the UNiTE to End Violence campaign, which the African Union endorsed in January of this year.

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