Confronting Gender Stereotypes in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa
Sometime in 2015, while completing a post graduate programme at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, I witnessed a heated exchange between a young man and a lady in the Faculty over an issue to do with a student body election process. The loud argument was about to turn fierce as the young man began to threaten to beat the lady. The lady in turn, furious, dared him to go ahead whilst reeling other insults. As the quarrel raged, a few passersby attempted to mediate and what followed did not surprise me. One young lady, in attempting to calm the angry young man said “na woman now, u know say woman get mouth, you no suppose dey follow woman argue” (translated: women are loud mouthed, you as a man should know better than to engage in arguing with a woman). Quickly some others began to chorus “yes now, na woman, leave am, no vex, na woman” (Translated: Yes don’t be angry, leave her, she is simply being a woman). This is typical in Nigerian society, the reason for the argument, who held blame and deserved correction, these were not as important as the preconceived ideas about men and women. The fact that the young man, in the course of the argument, had threatened to assault a female student, a clear violation of university regulations, was not addressed by any of his sympathisers. Rather the officious bystanders simply pointed out, without any fairness or justice to the actual situation, that women usually talk too much, talk offensively, talk loudly, talk unendingly etc, but he as a man, is more logical and so he could rise above the young lady’s provocation. This was not my first encounter with gender stereotypes; I grew up surrounded by them even before I knew what they were called.
Last week on March 8, 2017, the world witnessed the celebration of the International women’s day and the social media, television and radio air waves were agog with activities to mark the importance of this day. A host of activities and programs took place, marking the importance of woman around the world, ranging from advocacy for improved women’s rights and access to education, workshops for women in politics, to conferences addressing the needs of women in business. On social media there was an outpouring of tributaries from all corners and trenches of the world directed at wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and even girl friends by sundry males and females too, leaving one wondering how come, going by the quantum of appreciation for the importance of women, the world and Nigeria specifically, witnesses such high incidence of gender discrimination, abuse, inequality and gaps? For instance, of the 10.5 million children who are currently out of school in Nigeria at least 6.3 million are girls. In addition 43% of girls in Nigeria are married off before their 18th birthday in contrast to boys who are more likely to proceed to higher or tertiary education. A publication by the CBN governor in 2012 reported that women are significantly under-represented in secure wage employment, both in the public and private sectors of Nigeria and that only about 1% of women in Nigeria obtain capital from the formal financial sector. Also the representation of women in politics and governance in the Country remains very low across the different arms and tiers of government. Few women are appointed as ministers and there are only 21 women out of 469 federal lawmakers (both senators and representatives) in Nigeria. It is hard to reconcile the loud salutation of women and girls, which is now a tradition on the 8th of March each year, with the gaping inequalities cited above.
After much introspection I concluded that that many of the prevailing incidents of gender discrimination and unfair treatment in the society are sometimes carried out unconsciously by individuals (both male and female) who have been socialised into these traits leading them to create unjust realities for girls and women in contrast to boys and men. This is sad.
Simply put, Gender stereotypes are sweeping statements or generalizations about the characteristics of men and women. In other words they are general statements, perceptions or even preconceptions about the attributes or qualities of men and women, holding them as true without being proven. Typically stereotypes work hand in hand with society’s appropriation of gender roles. The thing about stereotypes is that some encounters may witness them to be true but this is not so in all cases and yet they are believed to be true in all instances, becoming universal truths in its owner’s mind. For instance popular gender stereotypes such as “women are emotional”, or “women make poor bosses” have become part of influencing factors behind societal patterns which see women denied appointments or promotions to key leadership or managerial positions by those in whom such trust is reposed. Common gender stereotypes such as “women are not good with numbers and calculations” have resulted in setting the bar lower for girls and women in numerical based subjects over time thus resulting in a reeling gap between men and women in certain occupational areas like core finance, investment, aviation or space technology, in Africa. A friend of mine shared her recent experience during a group discussion. Her young niece just gained admission into the University and over a phone call conversation to congratulate her, she asked what specific course her niece would be studying. When her niece proudly announced the course, her reaction was surprising. She screamed “wetin you dey do for man course?” (Translated: what are you doing studying a man’s course?). It was later she realised that she too held so many gender stereotypes and had unconsciously accepted the strictures they placed on women and girls, thereby unfairly discriminating against herself and every other young woman who fell within her sphere of influence.
The thing about gender stereotypes is that they create justification for gender discrimination in the owner’s mind, taking root so firmly as to make him/her unlikely to perceive the discrimination in the context. Fill the mind of a man or a woman with gender stereotypes long enough (from the early days of childhood) and you will gradually witness a system driven on autopilot that denies girls and women the same kind of treatment and access to the same opportunities or chances that boys and men are given. When stereotypes become deeply woven in a society, the members accord them the status of a universal truth and it governs the instincts and behaviours of members of that society creating far reaching realities for a potentially vast number of people. This is why we must identify gender stereotypes, in their various forms and interrogate them all over again. Whether in a conversation with family and friends, at formal discussions in work place, community or political settings, in classrooms or even in sermons from religious pulpits, we must be sensitive and train ourselves to recognise gender stereotypes. There are many examples of gender stereotypes which focus on women such as “women love to gossip”, “women cannot keep secrets”, “women are loud and noisy”, “women can’t read maps or navigate well”, “women have poor sense of judgement”, “girls are bad at sports”, “opinionated girls will not find men to marry them”, “women are bad drivers” etc . These stereotypes lead those who accept and believe them to deny girls access to certain opportunities like sports, science lessons, or even education in general. It also leads to actions that deny women their well earned right to hold certain leadership positions, take part in serious decision making processes or even own property. Like I pointed out earlier, the tricky thing about a stereotype is that the statements may hold true during some encounters, which is what causes a tendency for a person to conclude that it is so all of the time. This is not true. They are unfair preconceptions which constitute unjust barriers for girls and women. Such is the nature of stereotypes.
In 2015 when I witnessed that heated exchange and the ensuing gender stereotypes, I kept my thoughts to myself and did not speak up when rather I should have confronted the stereotypes and those promoting them. Now however, in 2017 I have grown bold for change. Not only do I train professionals in gender related concepts but I boldly speak up against negative gender norms in the society and point out gender stereotypes whenever I encounter them. Though there are risks, the bigger risk is to accept a world with gender inequality. This is my personal gender policy. I would like to therefore issue a call to everyone reading this piece that, after we identify the many different gender stereotypes operating in our society, let us question them and let us also critically assess our role in promoting them to those whose thoughts we have the power to shape or influence one way or the other. This will ensure that the chain of transfer of gender stereotypes which influence discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards girls and women in the society will be broken through us. This is not a task for women only as people are often tempted to think when they hear the term “gender” but it is a duty for every individual (male and female alike) who lives by the principles of fairness, equality and justice.
 Reeves, Hazel and Sally Baden, (2000) Gender and Development: Concepts and Definitions, by Bridge for DFID, Report No 55.