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Tony Blair’s Wife tells Schoolchildren in UK: ‘Most African Women’s First Sexual Experience is Rape’

Cherie Blair, the wife of former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, is being accused of reinforcing harmful stereotypes after telling schoolchildren that “most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape”.

The women’s rights campaigner made the remark during a talk about women and leadership to pupils at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London, The Guardian reports.

The ‘leadership lecture’ took place on March 20 and was attended by around 100 pupils and teachers. School authorities said they were delighted about the programme, but an audience member was surprised about Mrs Blair’s comments. She has since accused Cherie Blair of making claims that were unsubstantiated and for “usurping” the voice of African women.

“No one seemed to react and I was shocked because I felt like she was in a position of authority and should take responsibility for saying things like that without any evidence to support it,” the audience member, who gave her name as Caitlin, said.

Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party group for Africa, believes that Mrs Blair should rather pay for the fares and visas for African women to come to the UK and speak for themselves “instead of usurping their voice and their experience.”

“Violence against women is a huge problem in many African countries – as it is here – but to characterise African women’s sexual experience as rooted in rape undermines the hard work of many to tackle this issue whilst playing to and indeed stoking stereotypes of sexually aggressive African men and passive women,” Onwurah was quoted by The Guardian.

Gender-based violence is not a problem unique to Africa, however, statistics show that the problem persists more in Africa than the rest of the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2013, 35% of women worldwide had experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. In contrast, 45.6% of women 15 years and older in Africa have experienced the same.

According to NEPAD, the high rate of gender-based violence can be attributed to “low levels of education, exposure to violence elsewhere, patriarchal systems, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality, and low access to information.”

Meanwhile, Cherie Blair Foundation, a charity that supports women and girls in developing countries build their own businesses, said Mrs Blair’s comment referred “to the women she had met and heard directly from in the initial years of the Foundation’s work rather than a specific research piece”.

“As I’m sure you know, forms of exploitation – including rape – are a huge barrier to gender equality and impact the ability of women to learn skills, grow businesses and can stymie their overall empowerment,” the organization said in an email cited by The Guardian.

Mrs Blair has also defended her remarks.

“My comments were in answer to a question about adolescent African girls – not African women – missing out on their education for a variety of reasons including early pregnancy. In that context, I said that for the vast majority of young girls – who are often 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds – their first experience of sex was rape.

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“There are studies that back this up, including a WHO report in 2002 that concludes: ‘A growing number of studies, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, indicate that the first sexual experience of girls is often unwanted and forced.’ In one case control study of 544 adolescent girls it noted that ‘when asked about the consequences of refusing sex, 77.9% of the study cases and 72.1% of the controls said they feared being beaten if they refused to have sex.’

“It was not my intent to offend or undermine anyone with my comments, and I would welcome more recent stats that showed these findings are outdated,” she said in a statement.

Mrs Blair has, however, been criticized for her comments. Here are some reactions:

 

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