Literary clarion call against femicide epidemic

Writers have been dissecting and condemning the systemic violence against women

In Summary

•This famous novel associated with magical realism serves as a profound exploration of power dynamics, gender relations and violence.

•Clara, the ethereal and clairvoyant wife of Esteban, becomes a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity. 

Starlet Wahu and Rita Waeni are among victims of a recent spate of femicides
Starlet Wahu and Rita Waeni are among victims of a recent spate of femicides

Femicide, the intentional killing of women based on their gender, continues to cast a shadow across societies worldwide.

As this grim reality haunts Kenya today, we need to turn to literature to see how writers have been dissecting and condemning the systemic violence against women.

They have offered us with artistic lens through which to comprehend the intricate interplay of power, gender and brutality at the pith of this vice.

Some of the topics I teach in my Latin American literature postgraduate seminars bear books that address femicide, a scourge that has dominated our headlines this year. I am thinking about books such as Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

This famous novel associated with magical realism serves as a profound exploration of power dynamics, gender relations and violence.

Unfolding against the backdrop of an unnamed Latin American country, the magnetic book spans generations of the Trueba family.

Within this patriarchal society, Esteban Trueba, the male protagonist, wields power and inflicts violence, setting the stage for the oppression, abuse and tragic murders endured by the women in his life.

Clara, the ethereal and clairvoyant wife of Esteban, becomes a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity. However, even her mystical abilities cannot shield her from the brutalities that unfold.

Legendary Allende skillfully weaves a narrative that exposes the cyclical nature of violence, tracing its roots through generations. Through characters like Clara, Blanca and Alba, the novel becomes a powerful commentary on the pervasive nature of femicide.

It emphasises the critical need to challenge societal norms and break the cycle of violence against women. Allende’s use of magical realism adds an additional layer to the narrative, transforming it from a tale of individual lives into a collective reflection on the harsh realities faced by women in a society where power imbalances perpetuate gender-based violence.

Similarly, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 takes a piercing look at the unsolved murders of women in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, inspired by the real-life femicides in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The novel’s sprawling epic weaves together multiple narratives and perspectives, each contributing to the larger tapestry of femicide. The very title, a numeric representation of a year, becomes a haunting symbol of the ongoing violence against women.

Venturing beyond Latin America, Patricia Melo’s new novel, The Simple Art of Killing a Woman, transports readers to Brazil, vividly depicting the epidemic of femicide in that country. Melo, a prominent voice in contemporary Brazilian literature, explores the power dynamics between genders, economic challenges faced by vulnerable populations and the deep-seated roots of femicide. This experimental novel, translated into English by Sophia Lewis, stands as a rewarding exploration of the harsh realities faced by women, urging society towards urgent introspection.

Returning to our context, where femicide takes on its own complex dimensions, recent incidents in Kenya underscore the urgency of these literary explorations. Each woman brutally murdered represents not merely an individual tragedy but also the potential matriarch of a lineage.

In December, a thought-provoking anthology, The Unspoken Crime Scenes, was released in Kampala by Ugandan Poets Against Sexual Harassment, Assault and Rape (Upashasar). Edited by Harlord Ankwasa, the collection delves into the nexus between sex, gender and crime, with many pieces focusing on the specter of femicide. The anthology provides a platform for artists to express their anguish and frustration at the prevailing gender-based violence.

As femicide cases surge in our country, urgent and multifaceted responses are imperative. Legal reforms and enforcement form crucial components in addressing gender-based violence, ensuring effective prosecution of perpetrators for justice to prevail. Educational programmes play a pivotal role in challenging harmful cultural norms and promoting gender equality. Literature, with its capacity to provoke thought and inspire change, becomes a powerful tool in this educational arsenal against femicide.

In our societies today, gender-based violence and cultural norms perpetuating gender inequality emerge as significant factors contributing to femicide. The World Health Organisation’s reports highlighting the prevalence of intimate partner violence underscore the urgent need for comprehensive strategies.

Cultural norms perpetuating gender inequality play a critical role in fostering environments where femicide is tolerated or overlooked. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 recognises the imperative of addressing such cultural practices undermining the rights of women and girls. Solutions demand a holistic approach involving legal reforms, educational initiatives and community engagement.

Strengthening legal frameworks, enforcing existing laws and closing legislative gaps are essential steps in combating gender-based violence. Integrating educational programmes challenging harmful cultural norms and promoting gender equality into school curricula and community outreach efforts is imperative.

Community engagement is crucial in changing societal attitudes towards gender-based violence. Open dialogues challenging stereotypes and promoting respect for women are essential components of this strategy. Organisations like Upashasar, creating spaces for artistic expressions confronting gender-based violence, merit acknowledgment and amplification.

The economic challenges faced by young female victims, especially in urban areas, demand targeted interventions. Self-sponsored female students, vulnerable to exploitation, highlight the need for economic empowerment programmes uplifting vulnerable populations and providing alternatives to those at risk.

Male chauvinism and misogyny rooted in patriarchal ideologies represent another critical challenge. Cultural and conservative views on the perceived valuelessness of female lives in some homesteads need to be challenged. Instilling in male children the principles of respect and equality, emphasising the value and protection of female lives, becomes imperative.

Let us not remain silent about what lawyer and human rights activist Wangui Gitahi now calls “the silent epidemic of violence against women”. Murderous male rage is a worrying symptom of a deeply ailing society.

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