Men have managed to impose that dominance as a norm, naturally – God endowed privilege, not to be questioned by women. They anchored their dominance by infecting history, divinity and culture, which would shape posterity. They erected gatekeepers to ensure that their dominance is not challenged and taken down overtime by women and progressive men.
Today as pioneer women accede to positions of power, some of them, informed by unpleasant oppressive experiences of the past, have either conformed or misunderstood their roles and now want to be men, regreatably. But who can blame them? The society that we inherit today is a consequence of a heavily protected and seasoned injustice, that was staged a long time ago, and that is comfortably established today. But change is coming and it cannot be stopped.
In this post I will show how arguments of inferiority of women over men rely on misrepresented facts, perpetuated by the exclusion of women in positions of power; causing on its path, some type of Stockholm syndrome to some of the elite women; sadly.
- Prejudices and Obstacles;
Discussing the Rwandan culture, I tackle stereotypes, such as; women are inferior to men; the man should be the head of the household/family; women cannot lead; women should stay home and take care of children while men go to work; there are jobs for women and jobs for men, etc.
While analyzing the tremendous progress made in shifting the paradigm towards rehabilitating women in their rightful position as equals to men in modern-day Rwanda and globally, the post points out to some of the persisting factors that, while interacting with the culture, continue to serve as impediments to that paradigm shift, including:
– androcentric legal discourse;
– gender asymmetric power dynamics – disfavoring women;
– misrepresentation of religious scriptures;
– Misrepresentation of history.
- Background: the Rwandan experience
In the aftermath of the genocide against Tutsi, Rwandan women took a centre role in rebuilding the country, especially in officiating in the Gacaca traditional justice mechanisms; as Judges and trauma counselors.
This emancipation of women was due to three things; on the one hand, women had been part of the early pioneers of the struggle that stopped the genocide and liberated the country. On the other, women had played a much limited role in the killings in comparison to their men counterparts. And finally, having gone through a horrific time, Rwandans were in need of solace, which only women could provide.
However, while gender equality was swiftly achieved in the form of ensuring civil and political rights for women, there remain strong impediments to the realization of their social, economic and cultural rights, from a viewpoint of both International and Rwandan law and societal discourse.
- Barriers to the economic, social and cultural emancipation of women
According to Ngaire (1990), the ‘ideal type’ of a legal person possesses at least three essential qualities, which match those of the socially powerful. One pertains to sex, a second to class and a third to gender. The legal model of the person is a man – not a woman; a middle class – not a working class; who demonstrates a form of masculinity [– not unorthodox or deviant gender identity].’
It is clear that the state has taken a positive stance in promoting gender equality, to its credit. However, while formal gender equality can be achieved by a stroke of pen on paper and subsequent appointment of a number of women in political positions, substantive equality requires the mitigation of several barriers, historically erected by men. As strategically put by Khameri-Mbote: ‘the realization of gender equality calls for the dismantling of structural barriers to women’s enjoyment of their rights’. The following section will discuss some of the persisting barriers to the realization of social economic and cultural equality of women and men.
- Androcentric legal discourse:
‘In most cases, there seems to be a conspiracy to deny women full enjoyment of their rights even when these are guaranteed in law’. Indeed the text in which most of the international law is written uses masculine language. Save for the CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol; the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, ACHPR, etc., use the language of ‘he’ or ‘his’ or ‘every man’.
There is also the problem of access to justice. The prevailing unequal power dynamics within the society thwarts women’s access to available avenues, to resist violations and discrimination. Most women, who succumb to violation, do it precisely due to their incapacity to utilise these avenues to shield themselves from violations, or realise their rights.
As a result, within the Rwandan context of prevailing poverty, especially in rural areas, the realisation of women’s rights through courts of law remains both insufficient and elitist.
- Gender asymmetric power dynamics, disfavoring women:
From the onset, family settings remain gender biased. Education prepares children differently from a very tender age. Boys are prepared lead while girls are prepared to serve. In other cases, boys are preferred to further education as girls are trained to go to the field.
While the introduction of compulsory, free and universal education has put a dent in this picture, other factors come into play; Juvenile pregnancies, domestic violence against women and young girls attachments to family, especially in child-headed households, remain significant challenges.
Once married, Rwandan women face numerous problems: Many in rural areas live in informal unions, with no legal protection. While they contribute significantly to the financial growth of the household’s estate, by working in the farm, running the family business, etc., their contribution is not legally protected. In the frequent event that their husband marry another women, formally this time, all the labor of the initial wife are taken up by the new and formal wife.
Women in urban areas face challenges of another kind: Those among them who can afford to hire helpers or pay ‘Early Childhood Development Centres’ do go to work. At workplace however, the manner in which employment space has been designed does not take in account the specific needs of women through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and early care. This has the effect of hindering their excellence, carrier growth and ultimately income. Furthermore the suggested labor norms, threaten to take away that magic of women; that which puts them naturally on top of men, the one that makes us all tick, even the most misogynist of us; the gift of life…
Women who depend on their husbands for their subsistence and that of their offspring, are unable to report experienced domestic violence, due to the fear of loosing their financial support should their husbands be detained. While this is a problem shared by battered housewives across Africa, and probably around the world, the South African Court may have found the solution to it. In Visser v The State; In a bid to preserve the financial stability of the battered wife, the judge handed to a domestic violence convict, a sentence of 1440 hours (around 3 years) of periodical imprisonment, and another 1160 hours suspended for 5 years on the condition that the appellant not be convicted of failure to comply with any maintenance order against him during the period of suspension. This would enable him to work during the week and earn money to maintain his household and spend the week-end in detention; bruilliant!
- Misrepresentation of Rwandan history in disfavor of women.
In the Rwandan history the few powerful women mentioned, are portrayed in a bad light. For instance: While within the Rwandan kingdom the power was held by the queen mothers until the heir to the throne came of age, following which they would reign together, the queen mother is portrayed as manipulator, whose ill-willed influence was something that the new king would fight against throughout his reign. The most known queen Nyiramibambwe IV Kanjogera, the mother of King Rwabugiri, is said to have been a conniving queen who caused the bigest war in Rwanda’s pre-colonial history; the war of ‘Rucunchu’, in opposition to the accession to the throne of King Mibambwe Rutarindwa whose mother was not of her clan; The ‘bega’ clan – from which the queen was traditionally chosen by the ‘nyiginya’ clan of the King, a union which would subsequently produce to next king. Of course, a closer look at the ‘Rucunchu’ war reveal a limited role from her, but historians have explained it thus, to undermine the leadership skills of women.
The second woman hero in the Rwandan history, is portrayed as a victim. It is told that ‘Umukobwa ndabaga’, a brave girl who disguised herself into a male, so she could redeem her father as servant in the house of the feudal lord. While her action was heroic, the saying created after her bravery was intentionally twisted to bring out the victim side; Acting like Ndabaga is when you have no other option: ‘ibintu bigeze iwa ndabaga’: my predicament is just like Ndabaga’s.
- misrepresentation of religious scriptures;
Apart from culture, the only manual detained by the rural African society and used to understand life realities is religion, or at least the piecemeal interpretation of it, by male spiritual leaders (Priests, Sheikhs, etc.).
However, as far as Christianity is concerned, the emergence of the new, more liberal evangelical churches, such as the ‘born again’ Christians, unprecedentedly allowed women to preach, baptize, celebrate marriages and conduct other duties that were not only traditionally reserved for men, but whose practice by women are still regarded in other religions as profoundly immoral. Unfortunately the penetration of such ‘modern religions’ into the rural areas remains limited, while the Catholic Church – more conservative – remains much more decentralized.
Conclusions and recommendations
MDGs in general and MDG-3 in particular, which calls for promoting gender equality and empowerment of women, have tremendously advanced the rights of women by committing states to be sensitive to gender disaggregated indicators in measuring performances in other MDGs, and in their overall action.
Every intervention from government and civil society needs to be assessed through gender lenses; In my previous employment for Oxfam International, a humanitarian NGO, while providing water and sanitation services in a refugee camp, I was in charge of budgeting for a the relief package to be distributed to women. It had not occurred to me to budget for sanitary pads until the budget was approved at regional level – by another man – and money transferred. It was only during the purchase of the kits, that a female colleague casually remarked the absence of the pads that I realized that I had made a massive mistake. I realized at that moment, that the crash course I received within the one week following the disaster had not covered issues that are key to specific needs of women, or maybe that I was not qualified for the job.
The pads were eventually purchased to the satisfaction of the female refugees…
*The Head of the National Service of the Gacaca Jurisdictions was a woman: Mrs. Mukantaganzwa Esperence.