“You’re joking, aren’t you, Tawakalit? I mean, why not contest for the position of Vice President, it’s better suited for a female.”
I was standing to be elected the 28th President of a student body at my University, and this statement is one I heard many times, from different people, using different words. While the tone and phrasing may have differed, the sentiment was the same: ‘a woman should know her place’, and that place was certainly not being the second female president of an organisation that had been in existence for nearly three decades.
It was not surprising. It still isn’t. Unfortunately, this pervasive thinking that being female is somehow synonymous with being less – less capable of critical thought, action, and leadership, is still a reality today. This thinking feeds into a narrative that showcases women as people to be managed and handled, to be ‘disciplined’ in the case of a misstep, and to have decisions taken about their lives while disregarding input about their lived experiences. And it is not just some harmless tradition passed on from one generation to another; it indeed has far-reaching effects on women’s sexual, economic, physical and psychological health.
It is true there are circumstances uniquely positioned to offer women ‘privileges’ as a result of their gender. For example, the woman who hits a man at the bus-stop knowing she will get away with this terrible act, especially with public sentiment that portrays her as an emotional entity. This is a reflection of society’s expectation and the categorisation of women.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 23 million girls and women were married off as children in Nigeria, effectively making the country one with the largest number of child brides in Africa. At such a young age, these girls are more at risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), especially Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from their husbands, who are often more experienced and have had multiple sexual partners.
It is not unusual to know of families whose daughters are effectively used as a poverty alleviation program, married off to the highest bidders before they even come into the fullness of their being. These girl children, now home builders, are deprived of an education and grow to be disadvantaged economically.
Reports by the Food and Agriculture Organisation show that only an average of 15% of women in sub-Sahara Africa are agricultural landholders, even though women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, and agriculture remains a viable sector for women in those countries. Around the world, 1.8 billion people lack access to clean water. Women and girls are often responsible for multiple trips to fetch water from sources located far away from their homes. This takes away ample time and focuses on activities like schooling, consequently increasing the already existent economic inequality.
Some realities of girls and women
I lived and worked in Kano, a state in Northwest Nigeria from April 2016 to April 2017. I was a Chemistry teacher in a secondary school, and that experience made me cognisant of a few things.
Society’s defined limits for women and girls: One, a lot of the girls were unaware of what it meant to have personal dreams. They stayed quiet during academic discussions and allowed the boys to take the lead because that was their normal. It was known that many of them would not proceed to the university after their secondary school education, not for a lack of interest, but because they had reached the ceiling constructed by their families and needed to get married. So, what was the point of trying when the end was already certain?
Domestic and sexual violence: In September 2018, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team in Lagos state, Nigeria, reported that over 3,000 cases of domestic and sexual violence were reported in Lagos between January and August. I cringe when I think about the number of women who did not report because they have been consistently told that marriage is the sum-total of all they should aspire towards, and so speaking of injustice in it somehow diminishes them as persons.
The ideal wife syndrome: Covertly and overtly, the society tells women to stay in marriages that no longer serve them while normalising the abuse and risk of life they constantly face. How many women have died in unions they should have fled from because it was the “good woman” thing to do? These are the same women who keep quiet when their daughters, sisters, and maids get raped; labelling the crime as a family matter and helping a culprit evade the law.
It all seems like gloom and doom; what CAN we do? What can YOU do?
1. Be an active ally
Start in your homes, when a family meeting is called, and the woman is there to listen to reasons she should remain with an abusive husband and continue praying for him. Educate your family members on why, as a matter of fact, she must not stay with an abusive partner, thereby endangering her life and even that of any children they may have.
Start in your schools, where there is a natural expectation that men should lead and women should be followers; during elections – where passionate women are reduced to non-existent episodes of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and midlife crisis. You can do this by actively campaigning for women who are qualified and champion their cause to be judged on the basis of their capabilities, and not their gender.
It is not enough to say that you don’t believe women should be subjugated, while still being a silent part of that subjugation thriving. Speak up. Join their cause. Educate the people around you. Be an active part of making the solutions our reality and not just opinions that you agree with.
It is not okay that a random guy at the bus-stop sexualises the lady who walks past. It is not normal that your guys have inside (and outside) conversations where they talk about all women executives sleeping their way to the top. These beliefs, these outlooks, impact on the perception of women and their works in very real ways. Let the random guy at the bus-stop know that the lady’s body is not his to talk about. Learn about the journey of women executives – Google is a free tool.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute report 2015, the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could be increased by as much as $12 trillion by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. You can be a part of making that a reality by being an active ally in some (or all) of the ways highlighted above.
2. Develop interest in proposed bills and government
Probably because of the constant disappointment in each crop of leaders we elect, a lot of young people in Africa simply go with the flow of whatever government is in power and whatever policies they push forward. As long as it doesn’t affect us too much, we adjust to the situation. I am guilty of sustaining this status quo, and so, I am committed to being an actor in changing this narrative.
In 2016, the Nigerian Senate rejected the bill on gender equality in marriage. This bill was ‘A Bill seeking Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence against Women’. It was presented by Abiodun Olujimi, the deputy minority whip, and it sought equal rights for women in marriage, job, and education. For example, this bill would have ensured that a widow would automatically become the guardian of her children if her husband dies and also inherit his property, which is not the case in some parts of Nigeria today.
Only 25% of ministerial level positions in Ghana are occupied by women.
Drawing on data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, African countries like Rwanda, Namibia, and South Africa are proof that the continent can get it right. Women can function in ministerial positions other than being in charge of women and family affairs. We must completely dismantle the box that we have placed them in overtime.
Women-focused platforms like that of Diary of a Naija Girl on Instagram have been instrumental in helping women carve a different meaning of what it means to be woman and African. Ashake Foundation in Nigeria does important work providing entrepreneurship training for widows so they have the right skills to empower themselves. But there is still work to be done.
Let our actions speak louder than our words
Next time your girl child tells you she is contesting for the post of the class captain, don’t tell her it’s a position meant only for boys and colour her perception of the things she can aspire to.
Next time your wife gets a promotion at work, discuss how her dreams can exist alongside her roles as mother and wife instead of automatically assuming that her dreams have to take the back seat.
Next time the conversation about rape comes up, condemn the act in the strongest terms and do not take the side of the rapist.
In societies where women are constantly given the impression that their humanity is not as valid by virtue of their gender, it is important that we amplify our voices and re-engineer the conversations women are having with self and in their interaction with the society.
NOTE: Opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the West Africa Civil Society