Africa’s toxic traditions

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Cape Town- 180801 Total shutdown march against woman abuse gender voilance Total Shutdown Campaign says South African women have very little to celebrate Women and gender non-conforming people marched countrywide against gender-based violence Picture:Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

Harmful African cultural, traditional and customs across the continent undermines individual human rights, dignity and freedom. But it also stunts the overall development of African countries.

Patriarchy is one of the harmful African traditions as it excludes women and the young from participation, ideas and leadership in family, economy and political life. Patriarchy is the belief that men should hold all power in relationships; with the hierarchy of power is based on male seniority.

Given the fact that one of the biggest constraints to African development is lack of innovative ideas, knowledge and human capital, in politics, economics and society, the exclusion of women and the youth because of the system of patriarchy deprives African countries of ideas, knowledge and leadership of women and the young.

In many African countries, such as Nigeria, Liberia and Sudan, child marriage is a common cultural practice, forcing young girls into marriage, often with much older men. In Ethiopia, according to research by the Organisation for Economic

Coordination and Development (OECD), 73% of women aged between 45 and 49 were married before they were turned 18. In some regions, boys are favoured above girls. African countries where this practice is still the norm includes Madagascar, Senegal and Cameroon. This means that girls are deprived of education, opportunities and the freedom to choose their partners.

Many African countries have a “dowry price” for women entering marriage. The “price” is a value in cash, employment or in kind, calculated by the family of the to-be-married woman and that of the future in-laws. In South Africa, a similar phenomenon is that of “lobola”. The practices of “dowry price” and lobola for entering marriage is harmful, undermine individual human rights and perpetuate the inequality in the status of women.

In countries such as Zimbabwe, women in rural areas cannot inherit the land if their husbands die. In eSwatini (formerly referred to as Swaziland), married women have the status of “legal minors”, subject to “marital power” of their husbands and cannot in their own right enter into legal contracts. Forced marriage in that country is normal, marital rape is legal and there no laws to make domestic violence a crime. The eSwatini parliament only has 6% women representation.

More than 26 countries in Africa practice female genital mutilation (FGM), which is seen as a rite of passage ceremony marking a girl reaching adulthood. It is believed that by mutilating a women’s female genital organise, it will ensure virginity before the marriage. FGM violates human rights laws, the right to health and cause terrifying harm. In countries such as Guinea and Somalia, more than 90% of women are affected by this harmful practice.

In some African countries, such as Niger and Mauritania, slavery is still being practised, although the practice is ostensibly unlawful. In both countries the practice is illegal, however, there is large social, cultural and traditional acceptance among the elites practising it, meaning the political will is lacking to prosecute those practising it.

Many African countries have introduced laws to make harmful traditions illegal. However, in some African countries, traditional practices governing gender relations, marriage and property ownership are exempted from non-discrimination clauses in constitutions and formal laws.

Harmful African tradition, cultures and customs persist because there is widespread social acceptance of such traditions. The challenge is that in most African societies, talking about these harmful traditions is taboo. Some wrongly argue that getting rid of these harmful traditions will somehow promote Westernization, colonialism or whiteness.

Such taboos mean that African culture, traditions and customs are often used by political, traditional and community leaders to commit crimes, corruptly enrich themselves and loot public resources. The taboos about speaking about these harmful African traditions, cultures and customs need to be broken.

Many African political, cultural and traditional leaders, “have a vested interest” in promoting continuing harmful traditions, cultures and beliefs because it entrenches their power, camouflaged their corruption and mismanagement of public resources.

African societies need a mass mindset change which rejects harmful traditional practices. There has to be mass education in schools, communities, religious and cultural institutions to raise awareness about the dangers of harmful traditions. There has to governmental, civil society and grassroots campaigns against harmful traditional practices, to make these harmful traditions socially, cultural and legally unacceptable. Sanctions against the implementation of harmful traditions must take place at legal and social and traditional levels.

Where laws make harmful traditions illegal, there needs to be the political will to implement them. Harmful African traditions, cultures and customs contribute significantly to mass poverty, underdevelopment and inequality. Unless these practices are abolished legally and socially, Africans will remain impoverished, underdeveloped and broken as societies for generations.


William Gumede is the Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation.