In early 2018, a video went viral where a young boy in a relay race took over a baton and ran in the opposite direction. He ran so fast even the House Master could not catch up with him. He was determined to win the race, only that he was going the wrong way!
That video captures the feelings expressed by some older gender activists that I have made acquaintances within recent times. A feeling that younger gender activists are running in the wrong direction even though the common goal is gender equality. Indeed, we are in a race. Some started off the race and have been exchanging batons with peers. The baton is about to be passed on to the younger generation. However, there is a gap between the generations of women activists in West Africa. The gap is obvious but can be bridged.
I started work quite early in comparison with my peers because while the average age of breaking into the labour market as at the beginning of the current millennium (2000) was about 25, I had started work at 21. Starting work early has given me some privileges. I collaborated with older activists (48 – 60years old with not less than 20years of experience) quite early and was considered an ally to younger ones (fresh graduates and females within the age range of 25 – 37years old) as they came on board. This gave me the opportunity of listening in during conversations among the different generations of activists and I am summing the gaps I heard during these conversations as knowledge gap, age gap, ideas and ideals gap and gaps in strategies and approaches.
The inter-generational gap
Even though women’s rights have been argued, agreed and professed as human rights the world over, documentation of how these arguments were made is not in abundance and where it exists, most are written in complicated sentences and steeped in technical jargons. So, while older activists with whom I have made acquaintance complain that younger ones have refused to read to gain knowledge about women’s rights and the past efforts, younger ones hold the view that the literature is not necessarily accessible (found majorly in books catalogued in libraries or not written in simple language or written by non-Africans thus considered too foreign). This has created a knowledge gap. The knowledge gap is noticeable also in older activists who could be unaware of strides being made by younger activists within their circle of influence to change negative and pervasive mindsets. On both sides, this gap is exacerbated by reduced feminist scholarships in West Africa and by West Africans.
There is a noticeable difference in ideas, ideals, strategies, and approaches employed by women activists to address gender equality. For instance, while some older activists having gone through years of struggle and compromises have settled for ‘equity’ rather than ‘equality’, some younger ones are insisting it’s ‘either all or nothing’- we either achieve equality or nothing.
To exemplify this gap, the story of the Gender & Equal Opportunities Bill (GEO Bill) in Nigeria comes to mind. In the last 3 years, there has been a renewed move by Nigerian women activists to push for the passage of the Bill. The GEO Bill seeks to domesticate some provisions from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), African Union (AU) Protocol on Women’s Rights and the National Gender Policy. There were several oppositions to the Bill within and outside the legislature and gradually, some sections (reproductive and inheritance rights) had to be re-written or taken out as the process continued. At some point, younger activists shared concerns about the ‘watering down’ of the Bill and considered pulling out of the struggle. However, for older activists, ‘half bread is better than none’ and they pushed on. Even though the younger activists eventually continued in the advocacy, they repeatedly shared concerns about the compromises. I have also noticed how strategies and approaches of younger ones have the potential to ‘rock the boat’ and challenge institutional structures. However, some older activists will prefer critical engagements or discourses that seek to understand the institutional perspective and provide support to remove barriers instead of outrightly challenging those barriers.
Perhaps it is trite to assume that some of these gaps are fueled by age differences and more especially experiences. However, these gaps are worsened by the hierarchy that exists among the women’s movement. Younger activists believe all are comrades and thus equal in the struggle for gender equality but older activists acknowledge seniority within the ranks and files. Seniority is therefore judged by age and experience. Thus, they would defer to senior ones or expect younger ones to defer to them. In another sense, there is a gap in the age of the women activists whereby the system appears to have more activists within the age range of 70-48 and 30-18. I can attempt two reasons for this. The year’s activists between the age range of 31-47 could have been employed (at least in Nigeria) was the period when funding opportunities for non-governmental organisations were quite low and even lower for women-focused or women-led organisations – 2008 – 2016. (2) Conscious efforts were not invested in recruiting young females into the movement and where employed, some moved to work for development partners who within that period moved into Nigeria to establish offices and operations.
No wonder participants at a recently organised dialogue by WACSI in Ghana all agreed that there is no unified women’s movement in any English-speaking West African country. Neither is there any for the entire region.
What way forward?
All is not doom and gloom. We can bridge the gap by consciously and deliberately taking the following actions:
- Advocates and feminists collaborating with donor agencies should advocate for increased funding of feminist scholarships in West Africa and for West Africans. These scholarships should have a strong focus on documenting ‘herstories’ and various struggles.
- Advocates and feminists should also initiate mentoring schemes that are not left to interest but structured for actual knowledge exchange. These mentoring schemes should as much as possible reduce the hierarchical lines within the movement and especially between mentors and mentees.
- Feminists should organise periodic informal discussions on women’s rights and feminism in West African countries. The discussions should be intergenerational in nature where the exchange of ideas is encouraged and understanding is engendered. This will foster understanding so that young people can get the essence of some compromises and see reason in some approaches. We should also agree that while the goal will not change, approaches can be different so long as we have a common goal. Therefore, while some activists can engage in demonstrations and protests, others can hold meetings and discussions to advocate for the desired change.
- Older activists should embrace social media as a tool to reach a wider audience and recruit more activists. They should also share knowledge instead of accusing young people of being lazy and only living on social media.
- Feminists should recruit young people who are not within the civil society sector into the women’s movement. Young artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, media personnel etc. should be targeted.
Right now, the baton needs to change hands to bridge the gap and younger ones if not properly instructed will be considered by older ones as running the wrong way!