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Key findings
  • Africans see gender-based violence as the most important women’s-rights-related issue that their government and society need to address, ahead of the scarcity of women in positions of power and inequalities in education and the workplace. o Perceptions of GBV as the top priority vary widely by country, ranging from just 5% in Mauritania to 69% in Cabo Verde.
  • On average across 39 countries, almost four in 10 citizens (38%) say GBV is “somewhat common” or “very common” in their community. o In nine countries, at least half of respondents say violence against women is a common occurrence, led by Angola (62%) and Namibia (57%). Poor citizens are more likely to report that GBV happens frequently.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of Africans say it is “never” justified for a man to use physical force to discipline his wife. o But 31% consider a husband’s use of force “sometimes” or “always” justified, including majorities in eight of the 39 surveyed countries. Poor and uneducated citizens are particularly likely to endorse this form of domestic violence.
  • More than half (52%) of respondents say it is “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that victims of GBV will be criticised, harassed, or shamed by others in the community if they report to the police. o However, most citizens (81%) consider it “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that the police will take cases of GBV seriously.
  • Africans are divided on whether domestic violence should be treated as a criminal matter (50%) or a private matter (48%) to be resolved within the family.
  • About six in 10 Africans (56%) say their government is doing a “fairly” or “very” good job of promoting equal rights and opportunities for women. o Approval reaches 83% in Tanzania, while only 16% of Sudanese consider their government’s efforts adequate.

On her 16th birthday, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai touched the world with a United  Nations speech calling for gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women. The  following year, she made history as the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize (Malala  Fund, 2013, 2014). 

By then she had already suffered – and barely survived – a striking case of gender-based  violence (GBV): At age 15, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman intent on silencing  her advocacy for girls’ right to an education (Britannica, 2023). 

Yousafzai’s case serves as a stark reminder that GBV, in the words of the  United Nations’ (1993) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against  Women, is “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” and “one of the crucial social mechanisms by  which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” 

The United Nations (1993) defines violence against women as “any act … that results in, or is  likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of  such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private  life.” GBV encompasses physical violence such as beatings, but also extends to a variety of  other abuse and mistreatment, including trafficking, forced and child marriage, sexual  harassment, female genital cutting, work- and school-related intimidation, as well as marital  rape and other forms of intimate partner violence.  

GBV is extensive around the world: About one in three women have experienced physical  and/or sexual violence (World Health Organization, 2021). Gruesome cases make headlines  with frightening regularity; many more instances are never reported to anyone, forever  hidden behind a wall of stigma and repressive social norms. Beyond their acute injuries,  many victims suffer chronic pain, gynaecological problems, substance abuse, HIV and other  sexually transmitted diseases, and an increased risk of depression and suicide (World Bank,  2023a; Devries et al., 2011). 

African states have taken important steps to address GBV. Fifty-two have ratified the  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is widely  regarded as a global bill of women’s rights and since 1992 formally acknowledges the  importance of addressing violence against women as part of advancing these rights (United  Nations, 1979). More recently, all United Nations member states are party to the Sustainable  Development Goals (SDGs), whose Goal No. 5 calls for the elimination of violence against  women and girls. Through these, governments commit to identifying and addressing customs and practices that perpetuate violence against women, including through new laws and  training of law enforcement officers.  

African countries have also spearheaded regional efforts. For example, 44 states have  ratified the Maputo Protocol, which commits states to addressing violence against women,  including harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital cutting (African Union, 2003). In 2010, African countries signed on to the Africa UNiTE campaign, part  of then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s global campaign to end violence against  women and girls through joint efforts of all segments of African societies, from the private  sector and schools and universities to civil society and government. At the national and local  levels, countless government and civil society initiatives have targeted violence against  women and girls (World Bank, 2023b; UNFPA & Equality Now, 2021). For example, seven  countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda) have  criminalised female genital cutting and allocated budgets for programmes aimed at ending  the practice, and in 2022 the Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire enacted legislation  protecting women from various forms of domestic violence (Equality Now, 2022; World Bank,  2023b). 

Notwithstanding these efforts, scholars believe that Africa has some of the world’s highest  rates of GBV (Zegeye et al., 2022), though research on the full extent of violence against  women on the continent is relatively scarce. 

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9  (2021/2023) questionnaire to explore Africans’ experiences and perceptions of gender based violence.  

Survey findings show that across Africa, GBV ranks as the most important women’s-rights issue  that citizens want their government and society to address. Almost four in 10 respondents say  GBV is common in their community, though perceptions vary widely by country and  demographic group. Most believe that the police take GBV cases seriously, but more than  half think it’s likely that a woman who reports such a crime will be criticised, harassed, or  shamed by others in the community. 

While most Africans say that men are never justified in using physical force to discipline their  wives, only half think domestic violence should be treated as a criminal matter that requires  the involvement of law enforcement, while the other half consider it a private matter to be  resolved within the family. 

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale is the co-national investigator for Sierra Leone.

Jaynisha Patel

Jaynisha Patel is an analyst of extremism in Africa, at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Nafissatou Ndiaye Diouf

Nafi is a senior communications adviser to Afrobarometer.