THE CONVERSATION ON GENDER EQUALITY
Tosin is a friend of mine who’s down to earth, hardworking and full of laughter. She also has a keen mind and is well educated. I met her a few years ago while spending Christmas with a mutual friend in Enugu-Ukwu, Anambra State in South-eastern Nigeria. For the week we spent in Enugu-Ukwu,Tosin, myself and our other friends, Ifunanya and Diego would routinely take a stroll around the neighborhood in the morning and on our way back, we would buy Akara (bean cake) and bread or any other food we longed for as breakfast.
We all ended up staying at a small shop one morning and found ourselves In a very spirited discussion about gender equality in our country. Tosin had raised the issue and you could see the frustration in her eyes as we spoke about the lack of effort by some men in Nigeria to see and accept that women are equal to men and the lack of a political will by the government to address same. In our country today, our laws still fail to adequately protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace and to ensure fair hiring practices based purely on an individual’s ability to perform prescribed duties. Women are all too often treated as marital property, without recourse when victimized within the home through sexual assault or domestic violence. Our traditional beliefs and practices fail to protect a wife’s inheritance of common familial property should her husband die, awarding the property instead to the late husband’s family. In Northern Nigeria, girls as young as 12 are frequently married off to men their fathers age and while our laws allow equal educational opportunities for boys and girls, our culture continues to place a higher value on the education of boys.
Perhaps it is not so obvious that things are difficult for women and young girls. How else does one explain to people who hold the unfortunate notion that demanding gender equality is in itself the propagation and demand for new and unnecessary rights? There is no doubt that biologically men are often physically stronger than women and like Tosin had alluded to, women sometimes look up to men for protection. Nonetheless, using that as a justification to marginalize women erases the reality that we all need protection sometimes, regardless of our gender and biological strength.
One thing is clear, our collective idea of gender needs to evolve. We need to start with breaking down the gender binaries and roles that intrinsically leave men and boys with fragile egos and that often limits our ability to see women as equals. We need to challenge the moral responsibility men sometimes take upon themselves in determining how a woman should or should not behave. We especially need to elevate the discussion on gender equality to include the social and sexual rights of women. Why is it that women are not allowed to enter a club or social establishment unless accompanied by a man? Often times when we slut shame women, we automatically take away their social, sexual and reproductive rights; the same rights that men so freely enjoy.
Its easy to face sharp criticism if you refuse to acknowledge all the conversation and efforts to ensure that women in the Nigerian society are treated as equal to men and given the same opportunities but in what could be described as a major setback, the Nigerian government on the 15th of March 2016 rejected a bill that out of many things, sought to ensure the full development of everyone especially women and young girls They refused the 2011 Gender and Equal Opportunities bill from even getting to a second reading. Some of the policy makers had argued that the bill would turn women into prostitutes and that the same bill would contradict the cultural norms of the Nigerian society. They ignored the fact that women who are financially dependent on their husbands easily become victims of domestic violence and are often unable to leave their abusive marriages because of fear and, in many cases, inability to provide for themselves and their children.
The entrenched inequality against women and girls is not surprising to say the least, because there are many women and young girls who constantly feel marginalized and see an urgent need for action but are often let down by their government. When women’s issues are politicized and their marginalization justified with arguments of culture and tradition, we place a veil on the simple reality that neither culture nor tradition are static. Nothing should have stopped the Nigerian senators from taking a bold action in support of women by passing the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, Instead, they encourage Nigerian men to marry “Made in Nigeria” women and while this might be intended as a clever phrasing for nationalism, such objectifying comments reinforce the notion that women out of many things are items to be owned by men.
Simply put, what women and young girls like Tosin are demanding, is for us to destroy the idea that men should respect women solely because they are our daughters, mothers and sisters but we must reinforce the idea that women and young girls deserve respect because they are people too. We need a bold political action and cultural shift to tackle the lingering inequalities that women continue to face and we really should all be feminists because the lives of women and young girls matter too.