After years of listening to the same rhetoric by gender inequality apologists (which include women) claiming that gender is a borrowed word and that gender equality is a Western notion that misguided Africans have imported, copied, and pasted into African settings, where it will not work, I have decided to write back insisting the very opposite: that gender equality has to work, especially in African settings.
Patriarchy has become so deeply entrenched in our norms, values, and customs that trying to separate it from our culture is not only unfathomable for most, but also a deeply unsettling and unwelcome “impossibility.” This is mainly for two reasons:
Firstly, men in most sub-Saharan African cultures are born elevated already in the societal hierarchy. Not only does society value men and boys, society finds ways of blaming the woman if she bears only girls. If a man who previously only fathered girls fathers a child out of wedlock, he will still be cushioned by society with the excuse that he was looking for a male child.
I come from a family of five girls and one boy; the boy was the youngest. When our mother finally achieved this “feat” of bearing a male child, us girls had to hear sentiments like ”Hah, you will all be clapping to your brother and showing him respect soon,” or, “He is now the head of the family, you will all be coming to consult him,” or even, “Sooner or later he will be beating all of you up!” All this is said in the presence of the little boy, whose ultimate importance is hammered into him from a very young age. By the time he is an adult, society will have successfully created another gatekeeper of patriarchy.
Even his behavioral expectations are set for him before he grows new teeth. For example, I remember relatives telling our brother, “Don’t cry like a girl.” Indeed little boys are told regularly, through schools or churches or families or media, to “man up” (whatever this means). Such a set-up commits two serious crimes: it thwarts girls’ dreams and aspirations as they grow up being told that they are lesser than their male counterparts, and it makes young boys grow up with such a burden of expectations that they are supposed to fulfill, amongst them an ill-conceived and misdirected “machoness.”
Secondly, patriarchy has managed to be deeply entrenched by using women as its guardians or gatekeepers. Slavery in the Americas involved slaves whom they elevated above other slaves (like butlers, stewards, and housekeepers) to keep the whole machinery of slavery well-oiled and functional. In this same way, patriarchy has used women (older women mostly) to be its guardians and keep its systems functioning.
As American President Barack Obama said, “The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women.” So, how do we treat our women in sub-Saharan Africa? Are we proud of the fact that we have made them second fiddle and made them accept this position? Are we proud of the fact that women have lower literacy rates than men? Are we proud that in sub-Saharan Africa, poverty and HIV/AIDS both have a female face?
A country’s worth lies in the position and condition of their women, so dear sub-Saharan African countries, ask yourself: what is your worth? When you select a cabinet of ministers with only four female ministers in it, ask yourself, Zimbabwe, what is your worth? When you pass a law that legalizes polygamy in your country, ask yourself, Kenya, what is your worth? When you pass a law that purports to protect women from abuse by telling them what not to wear, and then allowing these same women to be harassed by hooligans on the streets in the name of the same law, ask yourself, Uganda, what is your worth?
Do we not see that the roots of all this are in gender inequality? Can we not see that if half of a people’s population makes all the decisions then we are only using half our potential as a country, tapping only into half our resources?
Governments and religions which do not put in place laws and regulations which improve women’s positions and conditions, consequently resulting in equality, are trampling on women’s human rights. Governments and religions which put in place gender protocols, charters and laws, and do not implement them or do not support those who want to implement them, equally trample on women’s human rights.
We will continue to lag behind unless and until women have equal opportunities,equal access and control of resources, equal ownership and utilization of those same resources, and finally equal rights. Women’s rights are human rights. It is their right for girls and women to be treated the same way men are treated and perceived in society. Rights are inalienable and God-given, meaning it is wrong of a nation to look lowly on women and treat them as second class citizens.