By: Vibha Pinglé

2016-09-16 07:58:17

The Case for Gender Justice Across Africa

Scaling Up Women’s Empowerment

Our efforts with Ubuntu at Work has demonstrated that when women living in poverty gain new skills, increase their income, they are able to not just able to transform their lives, and that of their families, but they are able to transform their local patriarchal cultures. Their daughters and sons grow up knowing that women cannot just be equal participants in society, but that their interests, their concerns, and their goals are valuable and not harmful to society.

However, these possibilities are rendered unsustainable by global economic/corporate institutions. For their economic and social empowerment the women must plug into global supply/production chains in a fair and just manner. Unfortunately, these institutions make no room for these women and, in effect, dismiss their economic aspirations. These institutions, in effect, act as gatekeepers to women’s empowerment.

To fight poverty and create sustainable institutions we must alter the mindset and the operating processes of these economic institutions. But these economic/corporate institutions don’t exist in isolation. Their mindset and operating processes are part and parcel of the global political/economic/ideological edifice that envelops us all. An edifice that ties together state institutions, educational institutions, corporations, and international organizations. An edifice that was constructed over centuries by ideas and institutional practices driven by local elites and global state and non-state players.

Nonprofits concerned with supporting women have for some time focused on gender equality using it as a tool to encourage sustainable communities. Gender equality is largely concerned with ensuring that all people are treated equally and have the same rights irrespective of their gender. The focus has done little to engage with, let alone counter the systemic misogyny that pervades global economic institutions. When nonprofits and activists have engaged with these institutions, they have unfortunately only chipped away at the margins of these global institutions. They have left the systemic misogyny intact. And this must change if we are to have a truly just society where people are given the same opportunities, irrespective of their gender.

Negotiating with Patriarchy

Denis Kandiyoti has argued that women negotiate and bargain within a set of specific restrictions that are imposed on them in any society. And these patriarchal bargains change over time as access to resources change or institutional restrictions are imposed or eliminated. Through history, communities where women had control over assets offered women greater capacity to negotiate with patriarchy.

While the extent to which women were able to negotiate with patriarchy varied, there is enough evidence to suggest that women were not systematically sidelined in Ancient or Medieval or pre-colonial times. They could not be. Their contributions to their society’s sustainability were important and their interests were at least not uniformly viewed as less valuable than men’s interests.

For millennia, from Ancient through the Medieval ages, women and their work was the foundation of society. And this offered women the resources necessary to negotiate with any patriarchal constraints imposed on them. These patriarchal bargains were critical in creating spaces for autonomy and empowerment for women. They allowed women to negotiate ways of combining childrearing and work in ways that might be meaningful to them. The absence of centralized authorities, or at least authorities that had any effective ability to impose their will, meant that women were offered possibilities for gender justice.

As Elizabeth Wayland Barber argues in her powerful book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, women in Ancient times, wove cloth as they raised children. The cloth woven was essential for families, communities and societies to survive and thrive. They used it for garments, to indicate their social status, they traded the cloth for other essentials, and through this they bonded and networked and defined their communities and culture.

Weaving arguably gave women a skill, a capability, an asset they could use to increase their autonomy within their family and community. The women controlled the weaving and they were the primary care takers of young children. This meant that they and their production strategy and choices were a critical driver of society’s goals. Of course the men’s hunting and farming activities also drove society’s goals, but this did not diminish or undermine the women’s autonomy. And the women were arguably capable of negotiating with whatever patriarchal impulses might challenge their autonomy.

This pattern continued through Medieval times. Institutionalized religion (whether the Catholic Church or Islam) did attempt to restrict and undermine women’s autonomy. However, religious institutions were not effectively centralized in pre-modern times. The Catholic Church, in what is now Italy, for instance, was constantly challenged by local elites and power-brokers. And in this mix, women, with their skills and capabilities, negotiated with the Church’s patriarchal dictates as well. And the same is true for Islam as well.

As the 14th century Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s novels suggest, women of his time were empowered enough to negotiate with their partners, their families, and communities to ensure their self-expression. Boccaccio’s The Decameron is the first literary work in Western literature which speaks for women, and Boccaccio is arguably the first male writer serving as a spokesman for women, defending women for having the rights to enjoy sexual pleasure, asking for the equal rights shared by men and women both at home and in society.

This was true across much of Medieval Africa as well. Ibn Battuta a Muslim explorer, documented the liberty that African women enjoyed. In what is present day Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and amongst the Berber, and Sudan, for example, women were known to have led armies, reigned and in many instances fought against European invasions. The Kingdom of Dahomey in modern day Benin, had a standing army of female warriors, whose fighting skill and fearlessness was believed to be legendary.

Like women in Europe during Ancient and Medieval times, women across much of Africa were actively engaged in farming and food production. (This continues through to today. 80% of the agricultural production across Africa today comes from small farmers, most of whom are women.) And through history African women have also been very skillful and significant traders. African women have tended to not be involved in weaving as European women were in Ancient and Medieval ages. Instead African women, across much of the continent, were responsible for spinning the thread and dying the yarn, while the men did the actual weaving.

These skills and capabilities gave African women negotiating power - power to bargain with local patriarchal constraints and demands. And the women used their power to create fairer and more accommodating communities for themselves. And historical evidence suggests that this was true across religious and cultural communities across Africa.

Colonialism changed much of this. It eroded the material basis for women's relative autonomy (such as usufructuary access to communal land or traditional craft production) without offering attenuating modifications in either marketplace or marital options. The political-economic power of colonialism was of course built on a foundation of Victorian social views, especially views about women’s roles, all of which only led to the reversal of women’s relatively advanced status in pre-colonial African societies.

Systematic Misogyny

For at least a few centuries, starting with the ‘European Enlightenment,’ institutions and ideas emerging in Europe, and spreading across the rest of the world through colonialism, subtly and overtly presented women’s concerns as less valuable or significant for society’s sustainability. The entire effort seems to have been to ‘control man’s greed, ambition and lust’ as the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico so succinctly argued in the 17th century.

The ideas of the ‘Enlightenment,’ along with the constraints and incentives of industrialization and colonialism, codified and formalized misogyny. The powerful ideas and arguments about individual freedom, such as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took root even as they were deeply wrapped in misogyny. Protecting man’s individual liberties seemingly meant channeling his ‘greed, ambition, and lust’ while curtailing the rights of women. Industrialization and economic institutions supporting these contradictory ideas of individual rights and misogyny spread across Europe and beyond.

Where women had participated equally in food and material production in homesteads before industrialization, their activities were now increasingly restricted by mechanization and industrialization. And as ideas and practices about women’s activities and ideas under industrialization spread, they were codified and systematized. Spreading around the world, these ideas and practices deepened any misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes already existing outside Europe, while at the same time spreading the European misogynistic ideas and patterns of behavior and institutionalizing them all. This systematic misogyny only grew stronger and became more entrenched in the 20th century with the rise of global corporate entities.

This has had the following implications:

1. Women are primarily regarded as care-givers.
2. Caregiving is viewed as virtuous for not being monetizable.
3. Ironically, work that is not monetizable is also not viewed as important and therefore as not a driver of society’s goals.
4. But because women nurtured and raised the next generation of soldiers, merchants, and politicians, their actions, choices, and opinions are controlled and regulated by the state, culture and religion; regulated so that the social goals might continue unfettered.
5. Periodic movements for gender equality have addressed inequalities caused by this injustice, rather than eliminating the injustice altogether.

The Need for Gender Justice

Africans Rising Conference, 23rd-24th August 2016

Our ‘modern’ institutions have brought women longer lives, healthier lives, but they have also fostered ideas of women being not just second class citizens but that women’s ideas and interests are not valuable or are harmful to society. Hyper masculinity has been cultivated first by colonialism, religious institutions and leaders, and more recently by our state institutions and global corporations.

Women can succeed, popular ideas suggest by learning ways of professional behavior from men and not challenging the basic goals of social development. Civil society organizations, non-profits, international organizations, and even so-called ‘progressive’ state policies have often accepted these global ideas. Consider just three examples:

• Agriculture policy inevitably uses male farmers as its ‘benchmark’ and disregards the needs and interests of women farmers even though the population of women farmers is greater than the population of male farmers.

• The World Bank’s 2012 Development Report, in a misguided attempt at focusing on gender justice, placed households—not women—at the center of the development process. How can gender justice be achieved when women themselves are not the primary agents of the development process?

• The World Bank’s 2013 ‘Women Entrepreneurship Development Program’ in Ethiopia sought to promote women’s entrepreneurship while leaving other social institutions intact. But the program can only achieve its goals if the program had encouraged new family structures to develop; structures that would allow the elimination or at least the reduction of social norms that have historically limited the capabilities of women and allow women entrepreneurs to succeed.


As many Ubuntu women members have observed, they are not driven by greed, ambition, and lust. They’re driven by a passion to nurture their children, to raise them to be responsible, and to create communities of support. Our focus must be to create and sustain societies driven by these goals rather than the goals which have led to us to an unsustainable social, political, and environmental place.

It is time for civil society organizations concerned with furthering human rights to focus on gender justice rather than gender equality. Gender justice is concerned with ensuring not just that all people are treated equally and have the same rights irrespective of gender, but that the ‘rules of the society’ are just for all people irrespective of their gender. Our work suggests that gender justice is only likely to be sustainable when we work to inform and transform institutions - social, political and economic. A focus on gender equality keeps profoundly unfair institutions and the ideas undergirding them largely intact. We need to work toward a new model altogether. And we can begin by increasing awareness about Gender Justice and making Gender Justice (rather than gender equality) the cornerstone of anti-poverty, and social and economic programs and policies.

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