By Matthew Ayibakuro
On Tuesday 8th March, the world marked International Women’s Day 2016: Various events were held in New York, Geneva, Ethiopia and elsewhere, numerous speeches made, Facebook posts and tweets put up and somewhere in the National Assembly in Nigeria, a Senator moved a motion asking Nigerian men to marry more wives, claiming that “the first care of a woman is marriage” and that marrying more than one wife is “a sign of respect for women”
Although the motion did not go through, and some might claim that it should be taken in good humour, it is important to note that this was taking place just a few days after another senator had, with benighted pride, referred to the need to marry Nigerian wives as a way of patronizing “made in Nigeria” products. There is absolute nothing funny in either the inapt coincidence of these statements made on the floor of the Senate or indeed in the timing.
What concerns me most however is the fact that other rational senators in the National Assembly did not speak up against these statements on the floor of the Senate, and as usual, most reactions condemning these statements came from women or women groups, with men satisfied to play a neutral role on issues bordering on gender equality once again. As considerable strides are being made all over the continent to secure the rights and protect the interests of women at political and institutional levels, perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is the emergence of male champions for gender equality.
CELEBRATING THE PROGRESS MADE ON GENDER EQUALITY IN AFRICA
In the last couple of decades, considerable progress has been made on gender equality in Africa. Facts show that, as of February 2016, Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the world with women constituting 63.8% of members of its lower house and 10 of the 26 members of the upper house. The top ten countries in this respect also include Senegal (ranked 6th) and South Africa (ranked 8). Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America lie at an abysmal 48 and 95 respectively. Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Burundi are also in the top 20 in the ranking of countries according to the percentage of women in ministerial positions. The use of quota systems in most countries has been instrumental to making these gains.
At an institutional level, the African Union declared the years 2010 – 2020 the African Women’s Decade, with 2016 in particular being the African Year of Human Rights with particular focus on the Rights of Women. In 2015, the African Development Bank Group produced the first African Gender Equality Index offering “a snapshot of the legal, social and economic gaps between men and women” with the major objective of providing the needed findings that will spur leaders, policymakers and civil society to start dismantling the barriers preventing women from contributing fully to the continent’s development.
These institutional efforts have also translated to reasonable success on the ground. Statistics show that between 1990 and 2011, almost 20 African countries have achieved gender parity in primary school enrollment, with others making good progress. There has been a 47 percent reduction in maternal mortality rates with similar progress in other areas like employment and access to healthcare.
However, most studies show that a lot still needs to be done in furtherance of gender equality on the continent. There is a palpable disparity in progress made between different countries in the continent on most of the issues mentioned above. But perhaps more importantly, there is still the prevalence of religion and culture-based prejudices against women in most countries; prejudices that are echoed in the statements of the senators referred to at the start.
GENDER EQUALITY: A MATTER OF NATURAL JUSTICE AS WELL AS DEVELOPMENT
The fact that most men are content playing a passive role on the issue of gender equality is a reflection of a lack of understanding of the foundations and ramifications of gender equality in society. This explains why, even though the right to equality and freedom from discrimination on grounds of sex is guaranteed in most constitutions, most men would show indifference to this right, in comparison to discrimination on grounds of colour, religion or ethnicity for instance. It is hypocritical that men would take a stand on discrimination in society on almost everything else, but not the institutionalized discrimination of women in their homes and offices and places of worship.
Discrimination against women, like any other form of discrimination questions the very conception of justice in society, but it also has ramifications for development in the continent. Women have always been economically active in Africa, albeit often as farmers and petty entrepreneurs, and in these roles they continue to contribute enormously to the welfare and life prospects of their families and children in particular. But this is changing slowly as women are beginning to occupy strategic roles in both the public and private sectors, and as the continent strives to harness its resources for development, bridging the gender gap and unleashing the full potential of women political, socially and economically could yield profound and enduring results for development on the continent.
In the light of this, the conversation on gender equality needs to progress from connotations of social norms, cultural formations and spirituality, traditional or otherwise: It is an issue of justice in society and like most issues of a similar nature in society, indifference on its own perpetrates the injustice. The patriarchal nature of present-day society mean that, without the involvement of men, progress on gender equality will continue to saunter. This is true in Africa, as it is in every other part of the world. The United Nations #HEFORSHE campaign was initiated in recognition of the important role of men in attaining gender equality.
There are fewer ways for us to be champions to our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives and our nieces that to play our role in creating a just society where they can all ‘equally’ realize their full potential and contribute to development in society, than in advocating for gender equality. This is my #PledgeforParity. Over to You…