Societies and cultures across the globe are highly variable, always dynamic and constantly changing. This evolutionary process is not only limited to the biological makeup of things but also ideas and way of life. One of the most fascinating areas to explore are the two key demographics that have been the basis of civil rights battles—gender and race. Pick and choose any society in the world and there are still questions and attitudes lingering from within whether men and women are equal or whether blacks and whites are equal. The western world has had their share of civil rights movements and the growth of feminism—forces that are also starting to send reverberations across Africa.
It is critical to highlight the distinction between “sex” and “gender”. Whenever we use the term “male” or “female”, we are referring to categories of “sex” —these are biological distinctions similar across societies. As a result of these biological differences between men and women, society has constructed “gender”. When we talk about “masculine” or “feminine” traits, we are floating in the realms of “gender”. Gender is a social construct encompassing social norms, expectations and roles that are associated with men or women. The war on women is therefore often waged on the frontline of “gender”.
Africa has for decades faced the challenge of coming to terms with the double edged sword of assimilation of western ideals on women emancipation or initiate a grass-roots evolution. Opponents have exploited this narrative to staunchly defend elements of culture that have been harmful to women. They have branded such movements as a “revolution” inspired by activists from the west rather than “evolution” of cultural forces within society. They view the waves of change as foreign, requiring our cultures to adopt, replicate, replace and assimilate.
Historically, every society has come a long way in recognizing gender equality. The western world is on a similar path further up the road but still far from the destination with lingering social and economic inequality for women. Women working in the United States still endure a wage gap— earning 77 cents for every dollar men earn for the same work. Though I believe that Africa has made significant progress in forging a more equitable society, we are still far from the halfway mark. The fear to attack and challenge traditional culture has left many frustrated and kept this movement at a snail pace. Africa is a very diverse continent with unique tribes and cultural practices but there is no question that women’s rights have been infringed upon across the board.
It is not unique to Africa that a majority of societies had a patriarchal system in place which meant that challenging the status quo would significantly tilt the power balance. Advocates of women emancipation often faced major push-back and resistance from the leadership hierarchy that always felt threatened by the waves of change. Inevitably the more society changed the less influential the traditional structures have become which has allowed numerous practices that disenfranchised women to extinct. In Africa, women have been able to climb the leadership ladder to the point of assuming the presidency. This is a rather fascinating reversal of fortunes considering women were not allowed to eat chicken and eggs in some of our tribes not so long ago.
While some women have been able to leap the hurdles and hunt from the same bushes as the men, others continue to be drowned by the social norms and expectations supported by cultural dogma. Women who have expanded their roles into bread-winners are still expected “by culture” to return home and head to the kitchen among other domestic chores. In fact in some of the cultures it is frowned upon for a woman to let their man cook a meal. I believe every family has the right to define their roles. However, culture should not be the reason why a woman is restricted to the narrow mindedness of gender roles. Women have the right just as men do to pursue their dreams to the fullest of their potential without the shackles of traditional culture hanging on their ankles.
Women not only struggle with their work in society going un-recognized, they are also often denied property rights through inheritance. This issue has somewhat been minimized by the power of education that has enabled women to earn their own income from which they can purchase and own property. However, when it comes to the traditional norms of inheritance, women usually don’t count. Inheritance in many African cultures is still tied to manhood. In fact most widows find themselves entangled in property and land-fights with in-laws simply because they are female. Many women are evicted and lose their livelihood. The fact that culture has instructed women to be submissive and dependent on men is un-acceptable and has to be reformed.
The struggle for the emancipation of women is beneficial to society as a whole. It is high time we recognized that there is a correlation between gender equality and the level of economic and social development of a nation. When women are educated, empowered and have control over resources, there is less poverty, lower infant mortality rates, decreased early pregnancies, improvement in family health, decreased vulnerability to rape and HIV infection and overall improvement in economic growth. The emancipation of women should not be viewed as an attack on traditional culture. It should be embraced as a path our society needs to take to climb out of poverty and create a more equitable environment. Government has a role to play in enacting policies that protect the rights of women as individuals against abuses. As a society we also have to be vigilant and challenge traditional norms that disenfranchise women.