In light of everything that is going on in the United States having to do with the sudden uproar on coverage of contraceptives and ultrasounds before abortion nonsense, I thought that my first post back should be about women.
In America we live under the fallacy that women are equal. In Africa, it is still blatantly obvious that they are not.
There are many empowerment programs run by different women’s organizations to try and remedy this situation, however, until we start focusing on the protection of women and girls all over the world, nothing will change. Protection is different than empowerment. Empowerment is making people believe that they have power and try to give them the confidence and tools to exercise that power. Protection is making sure that they are getting what they need to live a positive and healthy life – physically, emotionally, medically, financially, opportunity-wise, etc.
The biggest oversight with the women’s empowerment movement is that it alienates the men. These women have been armed with a false sense of power in many of these empowerment programs, which the men in their communities know nothing about and do not understand, and if anything view this as a threat. If you only shift the women’s perspective and not the men’s what you will get is a culture clash, and since ultimately, men still are in control, they will react with hostility to women’s new sense of confidence and just beat the women back down.
Men need to be a part of this process. In a world that is still run by men, bolstering women’s rights is not just about women’s empowerment, it’s also about getting male buy-in and male advocates. In order to truly be effective we need the people in power – men – to subscribe to this pedagogy. This requires changing culture, which, because of academia’s constant stress on “cultural relativism”, a lot of people feel uncomfortable doing. I have seen a lot of people write off the unacceptable inequalities between men and women as just “part of the culture.” But we need to remember what culture is; it is only a manifestation of power dynamics in a community, which is created (both consciously and unconsciously) by the people in power so that they can continue to stay in power. For example, small, covert things like the expectation for women to bow in front of older men in Uganda are subliminal reminders for them that they are inferior, and it is reinforced every time they bow.
Unfortunately, but realistically, protection of women starts with men. It starts with changing men’s perspectives about women and what their value and role is in society in addition to empowering women. This will come in the form of both policy and systemic changes as well as changing integral and deep rooted parts of culture, which take time and are usually uncomfortable and met with hostility. But, it is only when this paradigm shift occurs that women will truly be equal members in society.
Organizations working in women’s empowerment need to be engaging more with men, with religious leaders, with village chiefs and headmen, in order to not only make sure that these ideas are bought into but also to make sure women are not put in danger by a backlash against their new-found empowerment.
With that said, do you really think that these changes can come from an organization doing “behavior change” programs, or is it something that needs to be organic and come from within in the culture itself? And if it is the latter, what can we, on the outside, do?