Lydia Boyd, Emily Burrill, eds. Legislating Gender and Sexuality in Africa: Human Rights, Society, and the State. Critical Human Rights Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. 216 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-32740-8.
Reviewed by Mary Hames (University of the Western Cape)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Legislating Gender and Sexuality in South Africa, edited by Lydia Boyd and Emily Burrill, introduces the complexity of importing the notion of gender equality and sexual rights to southern African nation-states where patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, and cultural practices that prejudice women’s bodily autonomy remain intact despite the governments’ ratification of various agreements and conventions of the United Nations and the African Union. The approach in the different chapters provides a balance between the viewpoint of the advocates of rights and that of the adversaries. Underpinning the chapters is an analysis of the universality of rights, the importance of understanding of the local lived realities, and the need for a comprehensive education of gender equity and sexual rights. The authors argue that there is a dire need to understand the intersectionality of the different factors and histories so that rights are not superimposed on citizens, thus making their situational knowledge irrelevant.
The book analyzes large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their roles on the different funding modalities of super international government funders, such as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and USAID with their inhibiting clauses. Reference is made to the global gag order that made it difficult to implement comprehensive sexuality education. Grounded in the description of empirical research conducted in the respective countries, there is profound insight in how gender and sexual rights are being understood and how governments and civil society respond to postcolonial democracy. Burrill discusses the struggles to implement the legal age for marriage for girls in Mali to ensure that the rights of women and children are not undermined. Adeline Masquielier’s research in Niger questions the trope of the African woman as hyper fertile, sacrificing virginity and being a passive powerless woman. She notes that global and human rights activism should stop treating culture as something to be fixed. She, like the other authors, argues for a new approach to obtain gender and sexual equity as to avoid the constant conflict and backlash against women.
Boyd and Burrill acknowledge that the patriarchal state felt threatened by the fact that women are afforded rights and that the importance of education for girls is stressed but, as Eunice Musiime and Leah Eryenyu contend, that these universal rights approaches should be vernacularized. The domestication of rights should be seen within a more holistic context. Rachel Silver, for instance, draws attention to paradox in the readmission of girls to schools after giving birth and notes that although this is seemingly a very progressive step in the Malawian context, it holds hidden punitive measures for the girl but not for the young father. The underlying premise is that if education is supposed to be the tool of liberation, local conditions should be understood, otherwise the so-called beneficiary will be doubly victimized. Schooling may open other avenues of abuse to young girls and their developing bodies as the return to school unfairly burdens the young mother. The phrase “feminization of blame” is apt. Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, Ellen E. Foley, and Ndack Diop provide insight to the development of the anti-homosexuality discourse in Senegal. They forward that anti-homosexuality is a colonial import and that sexual and gender fluidity have been part of the Wolof culture for ages. Democracy, with its insistence on the creation of a multiparty state, unleashed religious intolerance even further and allowed the religious right to demonize homosexuality. Where Islam is the dominant religion in Senegal, a similar reaction toward homosexuality is found in Uganda. Charismatic Christianity in Uganda fueled the anti-homosexuality sentiment and Boyd writes about the anti-homosexuality bill. Boyd also problematizes naked protests as a historically collective action, and when it becomes an individualized and personalized action, it opens a different debate.
A particularly important chapter is contributed by Elisabeth Kago Ilboudo Nébié on land management in a time of climate change where she questions the limitations of the gender quota, which international donors favor but which fall short in its implementation because customary practice and religion that are sexist are deeply embedded in local communities. The fact remains that quotas do not necessarily translate into women’s empowerment. In her chapter on family violence, Charlotte Walker-Said deconstructs the nature of domestic violence. It gives insight into the complexities of why some women are trafficked nationally and internationally and how the extended family is complicit in the name of kinship. It also sheds light on the private and the public and women as disposable domestics, cheap labor and the presence of family loyalty, and class hierarchies. It points to the various forms of violence and the reason for the silences.
The strength of the book is eloquently captured in the epilogue by Dorothy L. Hodgson who gives a comprehensive overview of the chapters. This an important book that explains the elusive nature of gender parity and is a refreshing approach to the analysis of universal rights within the different country contexts. The impact could have been much stronger if the conceptual framework provided a deeper insight into the existing decolonial critique of the neo-capitalist state on gender and women’s rights. This is without doubt a must read for feminists and gender advocates.
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Mary Hames. Review of Boyd, Lydia; Burrill, Emily, eds., Legislating Gender and Sexuality in Africa: Human Rights, Society, and the State.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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