As far as we Africans are concerned, there’s no reason why a man who has had a wife and children would ever want to be a woman. Such thoughts would only exist in the fertile imaginations of an African madman. As Africans, we would likely give such thoughts fleeting consideration, perhaps because we have lived our lives to the tether as men who have had wives and children or as women who have had husbands and borne children to them. Before any African man or woman would likely want to look back on their lives and wonder at what it would be like to be a woman or a man, the life they live now would been at its end. Most African men would not imagine that they would come back to life as women, to play the second fiddle to a man especially when our understanding of what gender is, is said to be skewed in favour of the masculine gender. In Africa, and in several parts of the Asia, women can be shut up literally, as part of respect for a culture or a traditional practice but not the men.
But that’s not the archetype in much more civilized countries like the United States and Britain. In those places, it is perfectly normal for men to want to be women and women men if they want to. They call it transgender and those already fed up with being the bossy beings or effeminate as women can adjust their gender with the help of plastic surgery. The supreme example of this kind of thinking can easily be traced to one former man known as Bruce Jenner. After more than thirty years of marriage and having produced grown up children, he suddenly woke up one morning that he no longer wanted to be a man. He has thrown away his trousers and boxers and now wears brassieres, G-strings and long hair. And you know what? His society accepts him or her the way he or she wants to be now known. In those civilized societies as well, there are rumours that equilibrium exists in the work place between men and women – the disparities in pay, hours of work and holidays are very few and if they are there, they are very marginal and unnoticeable. One area where the disparities in gender have been collapsed in favour of neutrality in gender responsibilities is the area of paternity and maternity leave. After the arrival of a baby, one of the parents takes some time off to take care of the baby. In some cases, and depending on the kind of job that the woman has, a man takes a leave and stays at home for as long as three months while the woman regularly goes to work.
In most African countries, this would be an expression of a subcultural trait, a taboo. Even in some matrilineal societies like Ghana where the child is said to ‘belong’ to the wife, a man would rather choose to leave his wife at home to suckle their child than remain at home to participate fully in the rearing process. Right here in Nigeria, some private companies would not employ any woman and no matter their level of efficiency. ‘Oh, you know, as soon as she’s pregnant, you’ll have to consider her health more than you do her performance on the job. As a matter of fact, after she puts to bed, she’ll proceed on maternity leave for at least 4months for which I would continue to pay her a salary for work not done. That’s not all. At critical points where her services would be needed, you wouldn’t get her full attention – it’s either she’s picking up her child from the crèche and needing to feed it, or that she wants to rush home after work to prepare food for the family’, an employer once told me.
For those who may be reading this and thinking that this is not fair, I cannot but agree with you. This is not fair! Why should it be the women who should always be the ones running away from work to take care of the family? Why should we always be thinking about women and their ‘empowerment’ whenever issues of gender equality come to the table? When do we draw the line between female empowerment and gender empowerment? When do we draw the line between gender activism and women liberation and feminism? Why do we hear about the one and stop assuming that it’s the other?
According to the Charter of the United Nations, gender empowerment operates on a principle of empowerment for both man and woman to reach their full potentials. It has nothing to do with an empowering of the female sex simply because of the assumption that the female sex holds the short end of the stick in African societies. If that Charter were to be all about an empowerment of the female sex, then it would have been more of a sexist charter than a gender charter. While our hearts go out to the teenage girls in the North who are simply shut up at home and prepared to be married off to a rich Alhaji, consideration also must be given to the boy-child in the Eastern Nigeria. The ratio of children in Eastern Nigeria who are in school is in favour of the girl child 10 to 1. This is because more boys are constantly pressured to leave school to go into the family business than girls.
I have read an article titled ‘Bringing more women into the global Economy’, by Gülden Türktan. Türktan is Chair of the W20 Turkey and a member of the Presidential Council of KAGIDER, a Women’s Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey. One of the recommendations that she has made to reduce the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25% by 2025”, as stated in the Brisbane Leaders’ Communiqué is that workplace discrimination should be eliminated by making opportunities in recruitment, training and promotions equal between the genders. I agree but there are issues with that recommendation.
Right here in Nigeria such a platform exists. It is in a reality programme called the Gulder Ultimate Search. The programme began in 2004, with young men and women of the same age range on a quest in the wild. The 10-30 contestants are given the same mental, psychological and physical tasks. The producers establish a situation of conflict where the contestants struggle against one another, against the elements and against their personal convictions. Depending on the year, a winner takes home at least N5million and an SUV. The sad thing about a programme like this which promotes the ideas enunciated above by Türktan is that from 2004 till date, no woman has ever won the Gulder Ultimate Prize.
Gender empowerment should not be too much about women empowerment. It should be about gender mainstreaming, recognizing that men and women are equal and deserve to be treated with respect and given equal opportunities. In the case of the Gulder Ultimate Search, we would recommend that we should promote the rights of female contestants if the physical tasks that put the male a notch ahead are devalued. If the physical tasks are reduced to the barest, you and I would find that even physically challenged persons would excel.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku writes from ANEEJ, Benin City.