Structural Violence Kills Women the Most !

Article wirtten by Oxfam in West Africa's gender justice team


It is another 8th of March, a moment to celebrate women’s achievements and a time to raise awareness against structural violence and take action for equality. By structural violence we mean systemic discrimination preventing women from  meeting their basic needs such as: access to health care, adequate education, ownership of property such as land, labour rights and getting decent jobs. In West Africa, too many women are deprived of those rights. Structural violence is a demon against women that is devouring the society. It impacts all aspects of women's lives, their health, economic life, safety, and that of their children and society.


Call me Chukua Hatua Kwa Ajili Yangu ‘Take action for me’. I was born in a small community in West Africa, 37 years ago. My life exemplifies the burden of structural violence against women in West Africa. My parents died when I was just a baby and I was left to be raised by my elder brother aged 24, who being the eldest man of the homestead, was considered the head of the family. I liked school but was often prevented from attending because there was not enough financially to take care of my education and my brother’s education was considered a priority. I was made to fulfill domestic obligations, such as fetching wood or cleaning the house. I lived this way for years until I found a job as a janitor in a community mining company but received a very little salary compared to my male colleagues, and what was left to me after paying my tax was not enough to buy food.

Sometimes later, I fell in love with a young man from the city. However, our lives together soon started to deteriorate when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. I lost my job and had no assets to support my family financially. I experienced extreme poverty. Lockdown worsened my situation as the burden of care work increased. I was pregnant and there was no access to medical care and I eventually gave birth to a stillborn child at 9 months.  Plunged into mourning, I feel sick and pained as cost of living increases and West African governments pursue austerity policies reducing public spending by $26.8bn from 2022-26. I am not able pay for good health care services, own land, have decent employment and equal pay.  

My experiences illustrate the intimate links between historical context and everyday experience, in the phenomenon of structural violence against West African women, which is repeated from one generation to the next.  We should envision the state of women and girls in the region by March 2026. Will the West African woman be able to pay for good health care services, access quality education, own land, have decent employment and equal pay?

Through numerous programmes and activities on inequalities in the region as well as Oxfam’s commitment to reducing inequality index (CRII), which analyses and ranks 158 countries on their commitment to reducing inequality both on paper and in practice, Oxfam exposes the ills of structural violence and its impact on the lives of women and girls in West Africa.  According to the CRII report of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic  exacerbates inequalities suffered by women and girls in West Africa, it has pushed millions of women into poverty due to lower levels of education and fewer assets; women are in vulnerable employment, informal or low-skilled jobs. About 7 million full time jobs where lossed due to COVID-19 pandemic and women dominated this number. Women espercially female-headed households will represent a large proportion of the newly poor. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes structural inequalities that penalize women in every sphere, such as health, the economy, security, and social protection. Lockdowns worsened gender inequality as the burden of care on women increased.

When it comes to labour, only one country in ECOWAS, Cabo Verde, ranks well within Africa and the world. This is especially true for women, who require some specific protections to enhance their labour market participation and wage levels (i.e. on equal pay, non-discrimination, protection against rape and sexual harassment, as well as length and levels of parental pay and fair minimum wages). According to Oxfam’s CRII, Guinea-Bissau does not have an equal pay law, Mali and Mauritania do not have sexual harassment laws, Sierra Leone is one of only 10 countries globally with no equal pay or nondiscrimination laws. Nigeria is missing three of the laws and does not include marital rape in its rape law.


West Africa, our region, is at crossroad: while the pandemic continues to have a devasting socio-economic impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, will our government learn from it and build recovery plans that work for everyone or are we going to continue in a system that works for the richest and most powerful but not for the majority? Inequality is not inevitable. It is a consequence of public policy. We can and must do things differently. The pandemic must serve as a wakeup call to national, regional, and global leaders for an inclusive recovery that tackles inequality aggressively. Governments must legislate and enforce equal pay for equal work for men and women; non-discrimination in the workplace; and comprehensive anti-rape and sexual harassment laws.

Countries cannot reach their full potential until and unless women reach their potential. Women will not be free from violence until there is equality, and equality cannot be achieved until the violence and threat of violence are eliminated from women's lives. Collectively we can…#BreakStructuralViolence.