By Kimberly Gregory
There is not inherent truth to what gender is. Gender is a socially constructed identity and its meaning, which is constantly in flux, is determined by the context in which it arises. Gender inequality in Africa was reinforced by colonialism. Marc Epprecht (1998) explains the way in which colonial rule reinforced the customary imperative to reproduce, as it became a necessity for upward social mobility. Having many wives was also helpful for economic gain, as it provided them with access to more fields. Thus, in this historical context, in order to flourish, it was almost necessary to be a heterosexual. Individuals internalized the social expectations of gender norms and they behaved accordingly; the men dominated and married several women for increased capital. This also helps to shed light in one of the reasons why homosexuality was denied in many parts of Africa, it stood outside these gender norms.
Amina Mama, (2001) states that, “gender in all of its diverse manifestations, has long been a central organizing principle of African societies, past and present” (p.69). The colonial era shaped African masculinity, which in turn shaped femininity. The colonizers emasculated African men by undermining their “ability to attain signifiers of social manhood” (Epprecht, 1998, p.641). Grown men were oppressed and treated like children. The objective for most was to become a “real man” by acquiring a submissive and fertile wife, getting land and supporting a growing family (Epprecht, 1998, p.641). Hence, directly shaping desired gender roles in African society. As a result, African men felt the need to overtly assert their masculinity. One way that they did this was by exercising power over women which was reflected in the increased number of rapes (Mismang, 2015).
It is important to note that many countries in Africa have been striving for gender equality since the colonial era. Today, there is an increased role of women in African politics. Ngoni Okonjo-Iweala became the first female finance minister in Nigeria; Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of a handful of elected female heads of state in the world; the former president of Malawi, Joyce Banda was also a female. Pipits Nyong’o’s Oscar win and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s literary successes have brought attentions to the artistic triumphs of a younger generation of women (Mismang, 2015). Thus, when women use their agency they can defy gender norms and stereotypes.
Nonetheless, “the distance between this development and the reality of the overwhelming number of girls and women everywhere is vast and seemingly unbridgeable” (Kaplan, 2008, p.41). Still today, life for many women in African countries is extremely brutal (Kaplan, 2008, p.41). In many places, “women still have no rights at all, they are legally considered to be minors, their lives in the hands of their husbands” (Kaplan, 2008, p.41).
Specifically, I have noticed that gender inequality still prevails in the Kuwumba region of Malawi. For instance, when I went to the Praxis Malawi Community Centre yesterday I ended up reading to a group of young children. When I asked them questions about the stories, the women would always put their heads down and let the men answer for them. Even when I specifically pointed to a young girl, said her name and asked her to answer, she did not (even though I knew that she had the ability to). This was reminiscent of the behavior that I had witnessed with certain adults from the surrounding communities during my last visit here.
During our visit at the Chilanga Elementary School, some of my colleagues witnessed something that confirmed the phenomena that I had observed. The students were asked to work in groups and they naturally divided themselves based on gender. The boys worked with the boys and the girls with the girls. When the professor was asked why they were divided this way, he explained that if they do not divide them this way, the girls will not participate. Systematically separating them in school makes it challenging to strive for equality. Another moment that I noticed that boys and girls were separated based on gender was when the children were playing soccer and the girls did not want to play soccer with the boys because they insisted that it was a “boys sport”. This was also the case when the boys were asked to play netball; they explained that it was a “girls sport”. The children are in the habit of separating themselves based on gender, thus it occurs naturally even outside of the classroom, which once again, makes it challenging to develop equal relationships amongst genders.
One of the local community members that I am working with on this project discussed the issue of gender inequality with me, she explained to me that women in this region tend to hold traditional gender roles; they stay at home, cook, clean, take care of the children, etc. She also explained that women are much more likely to drop out of school early because they must take on these various responsibilities at home. Another reason that they sometimes drop out of school early is because of early marriages. Men and women, young or old seem to take on dichotomized gender roles in the Kuwumba region of Malawi.
The curriculum that my colleagues and I are constructing during our time here is for a charter school, therefore it is my objective to empower women and break the gender norms that prevent them from full participation in society. We started working on the grade 3 curriculum today. In the first unit, we have included many conversations about democracy within the classroom. Specifically, how both boys and girls have an equal right to voice their opinions. Hopefully, the ideologies that children will develop in the classroom concerning this matter will later be transposed onto society as whole.
Mismang (2015). The backlash against African women.
Mama, Amina. Challenging subject: Gender and power in Africa contexts. Africa sociological review, 5. (2) 2001.
Epprecht, Marc. The unsaying of indigenous homosexualities in Zimbabwe: Mapping African masculinity. 1998.
Caplan, Kaplan. (2008). The betrayal of Africa.
About the Blog
Since 2013, students participating in Transformative Praxis: Malawi have been writing blog posts reflecting on their experiences of participating in action research in Malawi. The original blog with the full archive can be found here