So it looks like the African Union has declared 2015 as the year of women’s empowerment for, as we celebrate the Beijing Platform’s 20 year anniversary as well. Overall, I assume that we will be expected to assess progress, and chart a vision towards achieving gender equality in employment, access to resources, education and all those other nice things that we think about when we think development. Let’s take this down to the micro-level for a second, for the ordinary woman* – what does empowerment really mean? And is this empowerment associated to gender equality or to making the target “numbers”?
I’ve written before about unpacking gender equality and what it means concretely in terms of one’s role as a woman in the society and the access to opportunities one may have, or not depending on a myriad of factors. As stated in that article, I’m sure while many might attest; most women have to work doubly hard to prove themselves. There is always pressure to succeed not only within the sphere of one’s immediate career but also at home, as a parent and/or wife. Professional women find themselves between a rock and a hard place in having to constantly justify choices, weigh options, and attempt to find balance in a manner that does not hamper their professional or personal lives. Often that means making choices to sacrifice elements of one over the other.
I have been avidly watching the new series Madam Secretary, an American TV Series about a female Secretary of State. Granted this is fictional, but it can definitely happen with all the progress we’ve made in gender equality. Interestingly, in the series, the heroine’s life is expressed as a dichotomy: a strong presence in her role as secretary of state, which comes at the sacrifice of her traditional family role which is taken over by her husband. This says a lot about gender stereotypes and the extent to which male figures can indeed step in to the family sphere when needed. It got me wondering about traditional gender roles in Africa, and how these fit into our vision for women’s empowerment.
I feel that in Africa, gender stereotypes provide an extra layer of challenge to all the women fighting these work vs. family vs. me battles daily. We are all conscious of this; we all see our mothers, aunties, sisters and friends engaged in this way. As much as we may shy away from this and like to pretend that we live in evolved societies where women can go where they want and do as they please, we must force ourselves to accept that this is not generally the case. It may be so in theory, or in our thought processes, but everyone has come across those situations which are an eternal balancing of time and priorities that cut across work, studying further, family and so on. Some take the challenge head on, while others simply choose to sacrifice some elements over others.
As a woman, are you too lazy when you can’t juggle all? Some do it so well. Or do you not have the opportunities to be able to juggle all because you’re constantly expected to fit into this role of “the power female”? What then would empowerment mean in this instance? In Africa in particular, will it be enough to make the numbers in education, in employment, in access to finances and so on? It is all well and good to be able to go to school, have a career, and a family, but when having to juggle all these facets of life will the stereotypes vanish in the name of women’s empowerment and gender equality? I am not so sure
For this decreed year of women’s empowerment, the numbers are good yes, but we should also be targeting the deeper cultural constraints that engrain gender stereotypes. Numbers mean nothing without freedom to act after all.
*No condescension implied in the use of the word ordinary