The African ‘Women’s Wave’ is powered by pro-choice Christian feminists

As a young girl without much education, Anwuli moved more than 500 km (or 300 miles) to the sprawling megacity of Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, to find work as a maid. She never imagined her employer, or “master” as the term is still used, a family man with two children, would rape her.

When Anwuli’s pregnant belly began showing, the man’s wife threw her out of the house before anyone could find out what her husband had done. Unemployed and living with a girl friend, Anwuli met a woman named Olive Iroegbu, a community health worker for a Christian organization that aims to educate youth about sexual health and help victims of sexual abuse.

Anwuli confided in Iroegbu about her abuse and her pregnancy, asking for help to get an abortion. She was six weeks into term.

“She came to me but the only option I knew then was to tell her to carry the pregnancy to term,” Iroegbu said, her hands tied partially by Nigeria’s strict laws against abortion and Christian beliefs that abortion in all cases is murder, a sin. But there is an intense stigma attached to single motherhood.

Anwuli visited a local pharmacy, where various abortion drugs are readily available but risky. With the pharmacist watching, Anwuli died on the floor. She was 23 years old.

“After that I started looking for better and safer options,” Iroegbu said. She now sees abortion as a civil right and not a sin. “We have lost a lot of young girls, including those in church, to an unsafe abortion. Even God would not want them to die so early.”

Nigerian hospitals commonly see women whose abortion attempts have gone wrong. Traditional healers and medical shop keepers use outdated and dangerous methods, sometimes bicycle spokes for example, to end a pregnancy. An estimated one-third of Nigerian women have had an abortion, according to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, and an estimated 50,000 women die annually from botched abortions, according to the Nigerian Medical Association.  

So while her organization Champions’ Coalition, affiliated with a Pentecostal church, opposes abortion, Iroegbu believes legalizing abortion in Nigeria will reduce the maternal mortality rate and save thousands of lives. And that’s why she’s marching in the Lagos chapter of the Women’s Wave march.

The Women’s Wave Jan. 19-20 is the 2019 edition of the Women’s March on Washington, the DC-based initiative that went viral its first year in 2017 after Trump’s election and spread across every US state and many cities globally. The march’s founding women Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland have been battling several fracture lines. Pro-life women, many Evangelical Christians and Catholics, have felt sidelined after their groups were not recognized as official partners. (Access to safe abortion is a “unity principle” of the march.) This year, allegations of anti-Semitism have dampened the movement.

Women march in Lusaka, Zambia. Submitted photo.

Women march in Lusaka, Zambia. Submitted photo.

The rift started when an early organizer of Jewish heritage, Vanessa Wruble, publicly alleged that Mallory, a black woman, and Carmen Perez, a Latina woman organizer, said Jewish people need to confront their role in racism. Mallory was since criticized for praising Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam sect widely-known for saying Jews became rich off of enslaving black people. A central tenant of the march has been its racial inclusiveness. Three of the five board members are women of color. Wruble believes she was pushed out of leadership for being Jewish.

After Wruble’s remarks, some white and Jewish women began questioning their place in the march and alternatives began popping up. New York, for example, is hosting two different women’s marches. About 200,000 people attended the New York march in 2018, energized by the #MeToo movement.

Despite their racial diversity and one Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American, the march’s board members are all American and lean secular, a fact that African organizers are well aware of.   

Women’s March Global is the official platform for sister city marches outside the US, where women can register a chapter and broadcast social media to connect others to the movement. African women organizers of the Women’s Wave say that Western feminist ideals tend to overlook the issues their women face: cultural and traditional customs that encourage female genital mutilation, child marriage, deadly domestic violence and restrictive access to safe and legal abortions.

And instead of blaming religion, predominately Christianity, for these issues, they seek greater understanding of their faith informing their zeal for gender equality.  

“Feminism is looked at from a very Westernized perception and it doesn’t accommodate all women’s issues, especially in Africa,” Thobeka Gigaba, a 22-year-old activist who organized the Johannesburg chapter, explained. “For example, I don’t see myself as a feminist. I see myself as a black Christian woman from South Africa.” 

Instead of a march, due to safety concerns, Gigaba has created an online campaign for women to submit video messages to the government about the top issues South African women face— namely, safety on the streets and in their homes, where an estimated 800 assaults and more than 100 rapes occur everyday nationally, according to South Africa’s annual crime report. Interpol named South Africa as the rape capital of the world, after estimates in 2012 that 50 percent of children have been sexually abused. One survey found one-quarter of South African men admit to raping someone.

And while the #MeToo movement continues rippling workplaces, South Africa’s number one cause of death for working women is homicide.

“Women are finding themselves being killed by their spouses, sometimes burned to death… it’s a crazy crisis,” she said, in part due to patriarchal norms where both women and men teach that violence is justifiable for men to uphold order at home, and challenges to the status quo can be fatal. “We have to find a way of addressing female rights but making sure everyone is not offended.”

Women’s Wave marchers campaign in Lusaka, Zambia. Submitted photo.

Women’s Wave marchers campaign in Lusaka, Zambia. Submitted photo.

Situmbeko Wambulawae founded the online group Zambian Feminists in Lusaka in response to the #MeToo movement.

“I was the victim of an assault once, and it was very hard to get over my assault because I had nowhere to take it,” she said. Women began writing in anonymously, sharing their stories of rape and abuse so that others could understand the scope of the problem.

Wambulawae believes confronting harmful traditional and cultural customs is the greatest challenge and mission for African women. For example, although Zambia is officially a Christian nation, its 72 tribes each have their own customs to prepare women for marriage. A grandmother may tell her granddaughter she must sleep naked with her new husband every night, in case he wants to have sex. Girls as young as eight are forced to tie weights on their genitals or have them pulled for labia elongation, a form of female genital mutilation, believed to make sex more pleasurable for men.

Respectfully questioning this teaching is a challenge—push too hard and you’re seen as a rebellious, immoral feminist influenced too much by the West, abandoning her culture.  

“Being a Christian doesn’t mean telling the person, ‘Hey what you’re doing is wrong. It’s stepping back and saying, ‘Why is this person doing this in the first place?’”
— Thobeka Gigaba, Women's Activist, South Africa

“We are trying to tell people women should have the right when it comes to their bodies,” Wambulawae said. “Sometimes people think we are not religious… we are being called promoters of the Western culture. They think we’re promiscuous and ungodly. It hurts.”

Wambulawae, a Christian, has to wrestle with church teachings that the role of the woman is to be a helper to her husband, and in practice, making women second-class citizens in their own homes, she said.

And while abortion is legal in Zambia, it is still very difficult to obtain because three doctors must separately sign off and the stigma and Christian opposition is significant. “Even if the doctors agree, the nurse or whoever is very judgmental and so abortions are difficult and women are dying,” she said.

In Sierra Leone, Anita Koroma of the Girl Child Network wants to highlight the rapes of women and children. The march did not receive police permissions for Jan. 19, so the organizers have instead discussed on Twitter what issues to highlight and when.

“The rampantness of rape is getting worse across Africa,” Koroma said. “The momentum is not where it should be. We tell the courts the girls need justice but everything is swept under the carpet. They think it’s okay, it’s a family thing, forgetting about the trauma of it.”

To several of these women activists, access to safe abortion is a critical component of care for rape victims, even though their Christian beliefs can cause pause.

Sybil Nmezi, the organizer of the Lagos Women’s march, a Christian and the founder and Coordinator of Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network (GIWYN) in Lagos, works with many marginalized Christian women to help them understand their options in sexual health. In Western Christian organizations, that would normally mean offering services to women with unplanned pregnancies, helping them feel supported and able to choose to keep their baby rather than feel pressured to have an abortion.

But in Nigeria, Nmezi says, where Boko Haram operates and many Muslim and Christian women become rape victims, the primary issue is access to better healthcare, period. She believes that must include access to safe abortion.

“When we start talking to a group of Christian women, we start from safe pregnancy, preventing pregnancy…” Nmezi said. “From there we do some kind of value identification and then we introduce abortion. When we go through this process step-by-step, the response is normally positive and they have space to learn about abortion and those issues.”

Gigaba, in South Africa, compared her views on abortion to a story in the Bible of Jesus not condemning a woman for her adultery, and instead condemning the men who wanted to stone her to death.

“Being a Christian doesn’t mean telling the person, ‘Hey what you’re doing is wrong,’” Gigaba said. “It’s stepping back and saying, ‘Why is this person doing this in the first place?’ … Sometimes you have to take a step back and even though I may not agree with what the person is doing, at the end of the day, my role is to support the person in whatever they choose to do. I think that’s the whole notion of what Jesus was talking about in the Bible.”

(Anwuli’s name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy.)