Gender Inequality in Africa

By Bwakali, David John | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Gender Inequality in Africa

Bwakali, David John, Contemporary Review

WHAT does the division between the sexes mean to people in different places and times? Different places and times! This phrase holds the key to gender equality in the world today. Another equally important anthropological question is: how are biological distinctions made symbolically and socially meaningful? One book, African Perspectives on Development, edited by Ulf Himmelstrand, notes that people tend to naturalize differences between men and women, but that the form that naturalization takes is culturally viable. It is thus evident that the context of gender equality is almost as important as the content of gender equality itself. An imbalance between these two often causes the quest for gender equality to be shrouded in confusion.

When asked what gender equality meant to her, Elizabeth Andahwa, a twenty year old college student in Kenya, said, 'being able to do the same things that men do'. Charity Chirchir, a middle aged peasant woman from the Great Rift Valley, responded to the same question differently, 'to me, gender equality is defeating men at everything'. These answers aptly portray the gender equality scenario in many African countries.

Traditional African culture had clearly stipulated the different roles of men and women in the society. Boys and girls grew up knowing what society required of them. As boys herded their livestock, girls would fetch firewood and water. As the boys hunted, older girls would perfect their cooking prowess. Then marriage would come along and young men would grow into husbands that fit the society's description of a husband. The same applied to young women. Thus would their lives be lived; in this age-old pattern more according to the norms of the society and less according to individual aspirations.

By today's standards, traditional African culture was not fair to women. It dictated that a woman's place was in the kitchen. But it also dictated that a man's place was in the hunting and fighting fields. Both sexes were playing their different roles towards successful homes and societies. True -- their roles were different. False -- some roles were inferior to others. Even the all-important job of rearing children was not left to mothers or fathers alone. In the African traditional context, children belonged to the whole society. Elder age groups were expected to admonish their younger counterparts. All adults had a right and mandate to discipline all children. The burden of taking care of children was on the shoulders of the society and not a given gender. Responsibilities were equitably distributed in African traditional societies notes Job Omini, a Kenyan historian.

Women were victims of injustice in traditional African culture not because of what the society did to them but because of what the society did not do to them. Boys grew up knowing that they had to be strong, hardworking and wise so that they could take good care of their wives, children and society. Girls grew up knowing that they had to be hardworking and submissive so that they could find good husbands who would take good care of them. In other words, it wasn't up to them to make their lives successful. It was up to their future husbands. This notion robbed them of the initiative and creativity to make a choice which would make a difference.

Gender inequality was not rampant in the African traditional society. It was, in fact, less than today asserts Travor Waddimba, a Ugandan octogenarian. Currently, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world, gender inequality seems to be blossoming. Injustices against women seem to be on the increase. In South Africa, rape occurs every thirty-six seconds. In the United States, a woman is physically abused every nine seconds. In India, five thousand women are murdered annually through dowry murder rituals. Sadly, these tragic events are but the tip of the iceberg. Destructive customs like female genital mutilation continue to be practised by many communities, and a few weeks ago British medical authorities warned doctors to be on the watch for it among recent immigrants. …

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