Rotimi Sankore talks about the importance of defining an agenda for women's rights in Africa
A key index for measuring the march of civilisation in any society is its comprehensive recognition of, defence and promotion of women's economic, socio-cultural, civil, human and political rights. By this measurement, all human societies so far have failed to achieve full
civilisation. The only difference is that some have failed more spectacularly than others, and some have been more successful at disguising their failure with sophisticated deception.
The above is by no means a harsh judgement. The reality remains that in most societies and across all time women remain the most consistently discriminated against and exploited section of society. Wherever a higher or sharper form of discrimination has existed whether on the basis of race, nationality or religion, women have been doubly exploited both by members of their own race, class or nationality, and by the exploiters of their race, language group or nationality. This must end sooner rather than later if humanity's claim of being civilised is to have any real meaning.
But in order to make progress towards sweeping away the obstacles to the full emancipation of women, we all - men and women - must appreciate the framework that upholds this unjust discrimination, be prepared to take it down, and construct the basis of a new society.
In Africa the underdevelopment of the economy and reign of mostly undemocratic governments - due to internal and external reasons - rests like a heavy burden on the back of rights issues in general. This underlines the fact that women's rights cannot be developed and secured in a sustainable way in isolation from the general development of society and human rights. In other words, the more democratic and economically developed a society, the more the rights of women are likely to be advanced.
But a developed economy and greater rights awareness are only enabling factors, not decisive ones. Two examples will suffice. For instance, since the inception of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, successive American administrations have refused to ratify it since the Carter government signed up in 1980. The current government of Afghanistan on the other hand ratified CEDAW on 3 March 2003. Also, many Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have produced female leaders with ease - unthinkable in the US or some more developed European countries.
These show that while higher levels of economic development and 'democracy' facilitate better educational and job opportunities, higher incomes for individual women and therefore more individual freedom, women collectively will remain discriminated against until the social, economic and political frameworks that sustain such discrimination are dismantled. In this respect, the universal link between the role of conservative political and religious leaders in restricting women's rights is too strong to ignore.
As with most problems, formal and informal education and enlightenment are vital to finding solutions. The strategic goal of such education and enlightenment must be to enable exploited women in particular to see the big picture, to ask the awkward questions and most importantly to provide the answers. Why are women discriminated against and exploited?
Who benefits from this and how can it be ended? What structures and mechanisms sustain this discrimination and how can they be nullified? Fear and ignorance are the biggest obstacles in the way of the exploited. Once they have been removed, previously insurmountable
problems shrink progressively until they no longer exist.
In order to understand the basis of gender inequality it is vital to appreciate unequivocally that the basis of all institutionalised discrimination and inequality is to facilitate the exploitation of
allegedly unequal persons. This is the basis of racism, slavery and all discrimination based on colour, language group, nationality, religion, class - or gender. Just like the myth of racial superiority, the myth of male superiority has been woven to serve one purpose - that of
Exploitation can manifest itself in many forms: economic exploitation for slavery or cheap labour in the home or in factories; political exploitation which denies the exploited their full rights to
political participation; social exploitation which suppresses and
ignores the views, opinions and aspirations of the exploited.
Whether in highly industrialised or less industrialised countries, the average woman in a family or relationship faces the same fate. She is expected to wake up, clean the house, get children ready for the day, do the cooking, the shopping, washing, have little or no opinion on the
big issues, and sacrifice her career and aspirations. Just to remind her
who is the boss she is likely to be subjected to threats, some intimidation and in some cases occasional or regular beating for emphasis.
Although personal aspiration, education, profession, income and social status make a difference to the circumstances of women in relationships, a defining factor is always the level of enlightenment of the male partner or family members. But it is not just individual men that
benefit from this shameful state of affairs. Societal discrimination
against women leaves them open to unequal pay for equal work, low paid jobs or stereotypical jobs and positions such as secretaries, teachers, nurses and shop assistants. These lead to only one conclusion. Not only is there a clear profit motive for denying women equal rights, there is also a clear social motive i.e. the artificial creation of an underclass based on gender and coerced into playing the role of helpers and assistants.
It is therefore vital to see the big picture. Although most men benefit from the status quo, not all men are misogynists and the major battle must be to change society as a whole. Significantly, the suppression of women's rights could not and cannot be sustained without the invention
and implementation of both formal and informal control mechanisms.
The mechanisms for social control and discrimination against women have ranged from the blatant to the subtle. For example, the denial of the rights to vote and to seek political office, denial of property and inheritance rights, imposition of spouse approval for bank loans,
travelling passports and so forth, to outright denial of citizenship rights i.e. denial of the right to transfer citizenship to children as was the case until recently in Botswana, or to transfer citizenship to spouses as is the case in Nigeria. The tacit support of the law and
'culture' for violence against women inside or outside the home,
marital rape, the 'stigmatisation' of rape victims etc are deliberate and
cynical mechanisms for sustaining exploitation of women.
Women are also generally groomed for a life of subservience. They are indoctrinated within most families and communities to defer to men (not on the basis of intellect but gender), to have lower aspirations and expectations, and to acquire certain 'female skills' in preparation for
being 'given away' in marriage. (Male children on the other hand are
groomed for leadership in society.) In some societies, women who do not or are reluctant to adopt the name of the families they marry into are negatively described as 'feminists'. This logic confers 'legitimacy and respect' on married women and subtracts the same from women that are not. But despite these injustices, society has made a little progress
from the era when assertive or 'troublesome' women were simply branded 'witches' and burnt at the stake or stoned.
Nevertheless, not enough progress has been made and humanity will still be considered far from attaining civilisation until the progress is swift and measurable against targets. A simple reason for this is that it is not only women that are negatively affected by discrimination
against them. A UN population report in the year 2000 concluded that every single minute of everyday a woman dies as a result of pregnancy related complications. That is over half a million preventable deaths a year. Aside from the fact that it would be intolerable to a male
dominated society for there to be a preventable cause of death of men
on this scale, the loss to society of potential geniuses and innovators is
astounding, except of course to those that by some twisted logic
genuinely believe that women are inferior beings.
While unchecked commercialisation has tripled or quadrupled prices of rent, transport and other social necessities, liberalisation has tied many economies to 'international' currencies and priced goods way beyond the income of most people - especially women whom in contemporary society the world over earn lower incomes. This has altered power relations in ways that leave women open to social and economic abuse.
For instance, women in relationships in which they are largely dependent on men are in no position to demand that their unenlightened male partners use condoms even when it is clear that they may have been engaging in unsafe sex with multiple partners. For example, the large number of migrant workers in South Africa mirrors this problem.
The obstacles preventing gender equality in Africa are enormous but not
insurmountable. As the most exploited of all continents through over
five hundred years of slavery and colonisation, not to mention decades
of several forms of dictatorships supported by internal and external
forces, Africa needs all its human resources to develop society to the
minimum level necessary for a dignified existence. To achieve this,
general and specific issues need to be addressed and a clear agenda
defined for the institutionalisation of women's rights in Africa.