Gender equality starts in the home

2013-08-19 00:00

WHAT if the human body was created in such a way that our sex could be modified periodically at a certain age?

For centuries, people have believed that the way people think and behave is influenced by their sex. If humans were created like that, would there then be gender equality?

Everyone would have at least one opportunity to live as the opposite sex. I think this is enough to get us debating issues beyond policies that promote gender equality.

The battle for gender equality is built largely on the assumption that behaviour can change. But first, we have to understand where gender in­equality occurs. Gender inequality resides and breeds within our households. What happens within the household is replicated in broader society. Gender inequalities can be found in our neighbourhoods, at school, at work, at sporting events and in church. These inequalities transform into beliefs that become part of the complex socialisation of boys and girls, and men and women. It is a reproduction of pre-existing social norms and social perceptions that men and women hold about each other. The result is a hierarchy of status and roles, and for centuries, women have been treated as subordinates. What complicates efforts to promote gender equality is that some women present attitudes and behaviours that reinforce a sense of inequality between men and women.

For instance, boys are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and leaders. Girls are encouraged to be home bound and compliant. Many mothers behave in a manner that confirms that fathers are the decision-makers. Women who challenge these dominant practices are often drowned out by grand narratives about tradition, culture and religion, which remind them of their subordinate roles.

The battle between these stereotypes and feminist views, and the growing phenomenon of homosexuality, have one thing in common. These are battles between women and men for domination over economic endowments and social liberties.

What is the outcome of gender inequality?

It has an adverse impact on development goals and it is responsible for frustrating economic growth. Stories of gross discrimination are common in society. Financial exclusion is the main feature. Some societies refuse to give economic and political authority to women. At an individual level, practices that promote gender inequality are responsible for sustaining levels of apathy in many women. It denies spaces and platforms that allow the emotional intelligence of women to drive development innovation. The irony is that development is dependent on assertiveness and innovation. History shows that women have had to contend with limited access to wealth-creating opportunities. For instance, many women are trapped in subsistence agriculture. They are reduced to being housewives, or worse, viewed as a child-bearing species. The goal is to change the pre-existing social roles that are incompatible with the wealth-creating endeavours of women. Further, gender inequality encourages dependence. Dependence has its roots in the household. Many religions and cultures place men as head of the family. This makes women passive recipients of authority, money and everything that supports the family. Little girls grow up expecting their future partners to provide.

How do we expect communities to move away from dependence mode?

In most African populations across the world, males are fed first and better, compared with women and children. This can result in nutritional deprivation for women and children. Combined with never-ending household tasks, there is a risk that women never reach their full potential and are susceptible to the many health problems associated with malnourishment. This is not rocket science. Malnourished women give birth to malnourished children. This not only perpetuates the cycle of suffering and discrimination, it also reproduces and increases poverty. It frustrates efforts aimed at increasing economic growth and social stability. Men are not spared from this.

If the human body was created in such a way that sex could be modified periodically at a certain age, the dominant group would behave differently. Gender equality would not be a policy matter that is shot down by its principals. Gender equality would be a lifestyle. Coexistence would be the only pillar to shape and strengthen synergies between lifestyle, culture and religion. Traditions and cultural practices would be flexible and accommodate lifestyles that have no gender inequality.

The point is that gender inequality is not supposed to exist. It is an internal contradiction of men. Men are the product of women, and remain at the mercy of women.

But there are some cues for change. The meaning of reality for grown-up family men normally changes. Nowadays, daughters are close to their fathers, who would not tolerate their little angels being abused. Associated with this are improved relations between race groups. This provides spaces in which to appreciate and replicate good behaviour. Change of behaviour at a household level is a precondition for gender equality. No policy, retribution or force will achieve gender equality, but we can at a household level.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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