The “condition” of women and girl children remains repulsive. This is an indictment to humanity as a whole, given that the overall human condition itself is precarious. In her incomparable novel, Changes, Ama Ata Aidoo brilliantly captures the critical challenges confronting females in particular — the conversations of the two main characters, Esi and Opokuya, neatly present the fundamental challenge. I reproduce one of the instructive conversations below:
- “How? How could I have done more than I did as a wife and a mother, and still be able to compete on an equal basis with my male colleagues in terms of my output? How can I do more than I’m already doing and compete effectively for promotion, travel opportunities and other side-benefits of the job?” (Esi pondered)
“Esi, Esi, Esi! … What kind of talk is this? Ah. So you gave extra time to your conferences. You competed effectively and got promoted. Now look at what has happened at your marriage. Where does that leave you?” (Responded Opokuya)
“Opokuya, I don’t think I’m beginning to regret anything. But in fact, considering how much I put in my job … sometimes I even take home data to analyse! I never get that much from it, not half as much as those men … and even with the promotion, they passed me over a couple of times … Why is life so hard on the professional African woman?” (Esi)
“Why is life so hard on the non-professional African woman? Eh? Esi, isn’t life even harder for the poor rural and urban African women? Remember it is always harder for some other women somewhere else” (Opokuya)
Indeed, it is “always harder for some other women somewhere else” and even worse for some girl children somewhere else. Some glaring, and disconcerting, facts stand to substantiate Opokuya. For instance, the 2009 Millennium Development Goals Report of the United Nations demonstrates that the ongoing global economic recession is “holding back progress towards gender equality by creating new hurdles to women’s employment”. In this context, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that “global unemployment in 2009 could reach 6.1% to 7% for men and 6.5% to 7.4% for women, many of whom remain trapped in insecure — often unpaid — jobs”. When it comes to the girl children, the report concludes that, in the developing world in particular, 95 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys. This is disheartening as we know that the target of eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 was missed. The report also shows that “girls born into impoverished households or living in rural communities are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of education … gender disparities associated with poverty and rural residency are even more pronounced at the level of secondary education”. Lastly, the report found, unsurprisingly, that young adolescents are more likely to die or experience complications in pregnancy and childbirth than adult women. Moreover, the children of these young mothers have a higher risk of morbidity and mortality. It states that “girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. Pregnancy early in life contributes to the estimated 70 000 maternal deaths among girls aged 15 to 19 every year”.
Futhi Ntshingila, in her powerful novel Shameless stunningly captures the reality of many “younger” women. Her protagonist, the amazing Thandiwe, narrates the extraordinary challenges of (black) women. She, addressing her counterparts, through the determined Kwena, argues that “some of you would know what I am talking about. You are whores like me; the difference is that in your world you call yourself a junior from a disadvantaged background, a perpetual protégée — always with a highly patronising mentor, most often a man. You have thought about it, squeezing your mentor until he pops for not acknowledging you. He can’t help but resent you. The guilt makes him meaner than he intends to be. So, like a hungry flea, he digs deeper into your skin, sucking your soul. You stay, you have to, otherwise you will lose your illusion of an unreachable dream … ”. We also get informed of how she escaped the potentially devastating injustice that many women go through. Her foster mother, Aunty Muthoni, begs her to escape — Thandiwe became an orphan at an early age. In the middle of the night, at her foster home, Aunty Muthoni says “you have to run Thandi. I will not live with myself if I don’t protect you. I am also going home to Nairobi. I have decided. What happened to me should not happen to any other woman. I am going home to save many, many other women who are killed while they are alive … ”.
The world recently honoured the International Day of No Violence Against Women. In December 10, we will celebrate another International Human Rights Day. It is hard, if not impossible, not to reflect on the condition of women and girl children — the term “human condition” is deployed here along the lines that Hannah Arendt and Amartya Sen have conceptualised it. Clearly, as the data speaks for itself, we — as a people, globally — have a long way to go. The stories of Kwena, Aunty Muthoni, Thandiwe, Opokuya and Esi — or the fifteen-year-old Kambili in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus or Elizabeth in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power — are just a glimpse to what women and girl children endure daily. The numbers from the UN and ILO are just a glance of what women and girl children face. Women and girl children bear worse forms of hardships even in the hands of so-called loved-ones. Women, especially those in professional employment, perform many other responsibilities that are often underappreciated. The systems and institutions that have to champion the cause of the rights of women and girl children are often found wanting. For instance, in the world where rape is rampant it is incomprehensible, sad actually, that there are hardly facilities for rape counselling. As we approach December 10 again, we — as a global community — have to renew our efforts for recognising the violation of human rights and intensify the interventions to correct such violations or at least sufficiently punish them.
At an individual level, we — especially we men — should start by recognising the injustices we commit, wittingly or unwittingly, to girl children and women broadly. We live in a world that is not fairly structured, a world in which males have significant power. Because of this unfair advantage, we do things that Thandiwe talks about — females are our lifetime protégées and we resent them. This is not to say that all males are bad all the time. The point is that we need to try to reflect more on our actions, words, behaviours and even thoughts. Of course, it is easy to say this — the doing is often a tall order, especially as our terrible deeds normally go unpunished. Women too have some responsibility, at an individual level or collectively. In particular, women need to ensure that the girl child is taken good care of. With the fathers, mothers need to induct the girl children thoroughly and with honesty to this unfair world we inhabit. Girl children have to know the nature of this world, and have the means to navigate the complexities of being a female (and sometimes more challenging for the girl child who is also classified as black). I am not implying that women are not doing these important things, including standing up for themselves and their own and not dragging each other down. I am, however, of the inclination that the world might be a better place if women took charge in a rigorous manner. I imagine a better world, with women in political leadership and shaping efforts for improving the human condition. It seems men have not done well.
One of the promising women I met through my blog, Sarah Henkeman, (how I wish I could meet her in person) once placed the most powerful comment ever made in my blog. She argued that “it’s far better to work for the common good than to use one identity out of the many we possess, to ‘other’ and demonise fellow human beings. Let’s rise. Let’s transcend the boundaries of our minds”. In my life — professional and otherwise — I have met some of the extraordinary women that give me hope for a better world. Some of these extraordinary women have shaped me in unquantifiable ways. Today, I could write/talk the way I am talking/writing. They continue to significantly shape what I do and how I do. For that, I will forever be grateful to them. For the possible injustices I may have visited on any woman or girl child, I am deeply sorry. Life is a journey; self-awareness and self-correction is an important part of the journey. Let us transcend the boundaries of our minds: let us ignite the girl child and honour the woman. We must join Aunty Muthoni to “save many other women who are killed while they are alive”, lest we forfeit in our own peril the unparalleled humanity and the resilient compassion of our mothers, sisters, daughters, grannies, wives, girlfriends and female colleagues.
Let me conclude with an extract from one of timeless poems, by one of the most daring women, Maya Angelou, challenging the world and declaring never to budge:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise …