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When women become acrobats

By Doris Kwesiga
on March 9, 2015

How does an educated and well accomplished woman – say, a female scientist – in a typical African setting avoid stepping on the often overly sensitive toes of her husband or male partner? How can she balance her career, family, and social roles without neglecting one or offending those who are ready to be offended? What about the bride price that was “paid for her” and often hangs over her head with the threat of making her parents refund it? All pertinent questions, even in the year 2015. It’s for a reason that International Women’s Day was “celebrated” world-wide yesterday, on 8 March. African events related to IWD also took place across the continent.

In Uganda, the women’s day national celebrations were held under the theme “Empowerment of women and girls is progress for all…”. They took place in Kabale district in the South-western region of the country. It is mostly rural, but has produced many successful women including doctors, academicians, and business women. As I watched the ceremony, what came to mind was the recurrent debate in Uganda (and probably many other African countries) about the so called “ill effects” of women’s empowerment. Although a lot of progress has been made for women in Uganda, some men (and amazingly also quite a few women) believe that giving females a chance at a good life sets the stage for the rise of monsters that are going to destroy anything male, as in a female version of Jurassic Park with the women in the role of T-Rex. They rant about the benefits women now have at the expense of men. To quote a citizen who was interviewed in a national newspaper, “We are losing our women because of that empowerment. Most working class women do not respect their partners (anymore)… Government should reduce the freedom given to women”.

In Africa, culture plays a big role in our social lives, there is no running away from it. Unfortunately, it advocates for women to be “respectful” (submission in disguise) towards men. This cultural aspect is exploited to ensure that women listen to men (silent doormats). Traditionally, men ruled the roost with an iron hand, and God forbid that their wisdom was ignored by a woman, as occasionally happens (we had a female vice president who courageously announced that she was a victim of domestic violence in 2002 and followed this up with divorcing the husband). Ouch!

Fast forward to 2015. Many women now own property, have degrees and are prosperous. Has culture changed for the better, though? Not really. Do men still expect to get the same treatment as their forefathers? Many do. Are women willing and able to do so? Debatable. I would say yes for some who still believe that a man shows his love by beating you (the more slaps, the stronger the love, so please turn the other cheek, in some sort of a distorted version of Christianity). However, many women are now well aware that they have the right to healthy, happy, and violence free lives. Nevertheless we still have to live within this society, so we end up juggling like bad acrobats. Trying to please men, elders, fellow women, and everybody else who matters. This is a recipe for disaster and nervous breakdowns. Is it fair for me to wake up daily at 4am to make breakfast for my husband before we both go to work for 8 hours, and then run back home to cook dinner?

We must accept that men and women will never see eye to eye, which is ok. What we as women need is to strike a balance and do what we can and delegate wisely what we can’t. However, we should not misuse our “powers” to entrench the same inequities that we are trying to break. Earning more than your spouse does not mean that you have got yourself a mini-slave. Breaking cultural bottlenecks takes generations, but that generation is us right now. It is also our children whom we should detox from childhood on and let them learn that an educated, empowered woman is not going to make men extinct.

Most importantly, we need to continue the battle for women’s rights, especially with the effects of climate change already present and increased violence, of which women are among the worst victims. Although we in the urban settings may have made giant steps, that is not the same in all places. In sub-Saharan Africa today, we still have women with obstetric fistula because they delayed to go to hospital during labour since their husband had not given them permission. We still have girls who drop out of school to get married at 15 years of age. We need to make the change for all women, both the ones at the grassroots and middle and upper class women, who find themselves involved in a perpetual balancing act. Every woman is a bit of an acrobat, that’s one of the many strengths of my gender, but let’s not overdo it, sisters (and brothers)!

“No animals are more equal than others”, as Orwell would have put it, if he were alive today. Tell this to your male partner, if he feels “entitled” to his favorite meal once again. Or let him cook himself, the day after. Let’s find out whether he’s an acrobat in the kitchen.

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