The following picture is familiar to many people, who have ever been to Africa: African man is walking on the side of the road, and then his wife walks by carrying a heavy baggage on her head. Some Europeans, once there is a righteous indignation, would be surprised, how the man could not be ashamed. He has to help her beloved. Gender inequality is one of the major problems of Africa.
However, to make the conclusion mentioned above means to show a complete ignorance of Africa, where the woman is proud of her physical strength, and it is an insulting attempt to apprehend a man to help her. Wrong are those, who can say that African women are humiliated, and are being used in the traditional society. On the contrary, the social role of a woman has always been significant: she exercised her power at home and outside of it. Only, perhaps, in politics, women were inferior to their husbands. Moreover, in some places, they have actively intervened in this area, when they saw that men were making too many mistakes. External symbols of power belong to men, and genuine control is concentrated in the hands of the fairer sex in many African nations.
Each member of the traditional family, based on gender and age, served a clear role in the economy. On the way this role is performed, the well-being depended; not only of the family, but also of the entire community.
The rights and obligations of each gender, the division of labor between men and women is a strict tradition. And even today, when so many things have changed and continue to change in Africa, the overall distribution is still in power.
In some parts of West Africa, for example, a woman is forbidden to climb the palm tree for coconuts, not only because it is an insult to the manhood, but also, because it can bring punishment to the whole family by the supernatural forces. In pastoralist East Africa, there is a whole range of rules set for women starting from the care of the cattle, until a complete ban on the emergence of women in a shelter for the cattle, and to the mandatory use of her as a milkmaid.
In the old days African men considered that their main occupations were making clothes from bast, blacksmithing, pottery, making any wooden crafts, fishing, building houses, managing the affairs of the tribe, and, of course, wars. Later on, farming was added to these responsibilities.
The main duty of a woman was the reproduction of the generation, which means giving birth to the children. The woman had to take care of all the domestic duties as well. She had to work in the field, to fetch water, to collect firewood, to cook, to weave baskets, to mow the grass, and, in addition to these, to raise children. But this does not mean that women should play a secondary role in the family. It is not only the man, who defended his home with a gun in his hands, but also the woman was dependent on the family’s welfare. However, there were the moments, when she was taking the leading role.
In the societies that allow polygamy, each wife has a farm, and the husband, in most of the cases, is just a guest in the house of his wife. The main influence of women is the fact that they have children, and many people of African nation, recognizing the importance of the role of women, establish the inheritance through the mother; thus, the female line becomes dominating over the male’s one.
The recognition of the leading role of women in the family on the society is reflected in the purchasing process, which not only ensures good behavior of the husband (otherwise, the wife can leave him, and he would lose a ransom), but also puts him in a subordinate position; the redemption does not give him the absolute rights over the woman, but, instead, it imposes a great responsibility on him.
Above all, the redemption is a symbol of the exchange that took place between the two groups; it is not the payment for a woman, but the exchange of the mutual obligations. Typically, the society establishes the rules that are preferable to marriage; even though the individual is free to choose a partner, this freedom is somewhat limited.
Such a system helps to keep marriage, as well as previously established relationships between the groups, and usually it responds to certain political and economic requirements. If the society requires or prefers a particular marriage, it means that it assigns a special role of the establishment of the social ties between these groups.
The ban on incest and exogamy rules led to the exchange of women through marriage between various groups and created the innumerable ties of kinship that facilitate economic and other cooperation, so it is necessary in the world full of dangers.
In a conversation the African woman would modestly downcast her eyes, and meet the quiet. In addition, she is hard-working; she can be found everywhere: on the dusty roadside with a bundle of sticks or a calabash of water on her head, in the field with a hoe, in the house, where she crushes meal or prepares a traditional dish of bananas and cassava. Her greatest assets are her children; almost every African family has not less than five. In Africa they say: "Not having money is a trouble. But not having children makes you double poor".
The slow, gentle movements are highlighting the beauty and inherent dignity of women. As her friends in other countries, she loves to dress in a nice way and have fun with her friends. And how she dances! It seems that she is not moving with the beat of the music, but the music is playing along with the movements of her body.
A well-mannered woman would never admit to her husband that something is hard for her. She has to endure. Pride nurtured since early childhood has always helped to carry adversity with a smile, which falls to her a lot more than even marriage. Not surprisingly, in the traditions of many African peoples, women happened to be on the top of the situation at the time of natural disasters, when restraint, calm, and confidence were needed. Moreover, women are more likely to survive in the times of drought and famine than men thanks to this resistance.
A mother is highly respected in Africa; sometimes her husband may even take up some of her traditional activities. The East African men, for example, always take care of the cattle (it is the traditional responsibility and privilege of men); however, sometimes a woman may take it right herself.
In the agricultural tribes the impact of the women is higher, because the cultivation of food crops is in their hands. The strength of fertility, encased in a woman, according to the Africans, is transferred on the land; therefore, women are made responsible for the harvest and the welfare of other people.
The role of women in the traditional society is enormous: she not only takes care of her family and a house, but her responsibilities include also the preparation of beer and feast on all the ritual ceremonies and celebrations. In many areas, only women make “pow-wow”, the ritual of fertility and rainmaking. However, the public role of women sometimes bears enormous sizes for men. The famous explorer of Africa British scientist Colin Tornbull, in the book The Man in Africa, wrote that the African women often unite in order to limit the male power and to subdue them.
However, despite the severity of the external relations, the African woman uses more freedom and has as much, if not more, rights, than her friends from other nations. First of all, she possesses the same right as men, the one to divorce her husband in case of sterility, adultery, or cruelty on his part. The wife could leave the husband, if he turned out to be a thief or a dishonest person.
Secondly, while women do not participate in the village councils, they still have their own meetings, where men were not allowed. Their influence was so strong in some places that no major decision was taken without the consent of women. Here and there men willingly listen to the opinions of the wives, because they believe that women are naturally more objective.
Women control almost all local trade. Market is the real center of this rural society, which is under the complete authority of the female tribe. The opinion of the market often determines the course of the events in the village, and none of the existing unions and associations can resist her authority. Today, the influence of women, controlling trade, sometimes is so strong that in some cases it is the market, with "Women’s revolt", which is starting coups.
With rare exceptions, the African societies were described from the male point of view. In spite of this, the look at the role of women in the traditional religion from the point of view of a woman can be a bright revelation. Hence, such work is focused on the possibility of a female deity in the traditional African religions, as well as on the functions of women in a men’s world fundamentally.
Robin Horton proves that the differentiation of religious beings and their cults is associated with the differentiation in the level of explanation in the African systems of thought. This may also apply to other world religions. In the Eastern world, for instance, it is observed that women had closed the veil. And, for example, Jewish thought does not view a woman as a necessity, but as a helper to a man. Jews follow a rigid conception of God, who was “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, but not the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. For St. Paul, speaking in the church, a woman is a taboo. If a woman wanted to learn something, she had to ask her husband at home. In Islam, women are able to lead the prayer for the congregation of other women. In the mosque women cannot stand on a par with men, they have separate rows behind the men. In Africa, however, the situation is not like this.
Despite all the freedoms that women possess, they still haven’t got the role in the political life of the traditional society. Only men are able to control all areas of the society, and to have the absolute property rights. The influence of women and their place in the society in the different parts of Africa has been patchy and depended on many factors.
Most African countries reaching independence rejected the constitutional discrimination against women. However, even though equal rights are guaranteed by the law, in fact, African women still have fewer rights, and it is very difficult for them to get into the political, economic, and social spheres of life.
Take, for example, education. The illiteracy among women in Africa has always been almost complete. Only nowadays they have got an opportunity to attend schools and universities. This fact is overcoming the traditional resistance of the male population. Excommunication women from education occurred at the dawn of colonialism. Girls were not accepted into the school of Christian missions, because the administration needed the competent officials. Later the ban was formally lifted, but almost up to the independence, a girl in school was quite a rare issue in Africa.
The facts that women bear most of the responsibility in the African society and that their rights are limited cause even more discontent among the members of the African society in our time.
The movement for women’s rights in Africa is a relatively young establishment, which was born after Africa had got independence; however, every year it is gaining momentum. In 1984, the Kenyan women at the conference adopted a resolution, which asserted that the Kenyan people experience discrimination. Among the many examples that were given throughout the country known, there was a widely-known case, where the husband of Pia Ndoki had knocked both of her eyes for the fact that she gave birth to his fifth daughter, while he wanted a son. The court found him guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the case of Pia Ndoki literally shook the whole Kenya. The advocate for the rights of women movement claimed that men continue to enjoy all the benefits, while their wives bear almost slavish existence. Another fact, which supports the above mentioned claim, is that in Kenya and other African countries polygamy still continues to exist.
Despite the stereotypes about the downtrodden and disenfranchised African women, those, who belong to the middle class, have a lot more opportunities for career and self-development than those, of other social levels. In Rwanda and Uganda much attention is paid to the gender balance. The adoption of the laws for the gender balance in Africa is absolutely necessary; but it would cause the wave of negative comments from the male part of the population. The women should stay at home and look after the family; this is their main job. Also, there is a certain percentage of women sitting at home, which will excitedly reject such model of a family.
The most famous Ugandan feminist mother, Mirian Matemve, is quite comical character (indeed, many African politicians consciously choose comic image). She has really done and does much in order to improve the situation of women and girls; in particular, their right to education. The media loves her for the colorful appearance, unusual speech, and non-standard actions. Feminist protests in Uganda vary massively; however, mostly simple women participate in them and such issues and always covered by the press and TV.
African women leaders from the national ministries, parliaments, business communities, networks of women living with HIV, civil society organizations working in the field of development, arrived in the capital of Zimbabwe to attend the organizational meeting of the Network of African Women, Global POWER Women Network Africa. This initiative, organized and implemented by women, provides the strategic policy platform to accelerate the implementation of measures for the prevention of HIV, sexual and reproductive health, and human rights of women and girls in various parts of Africa south of the Sahara desert.
Throughout Africa, women and girls are affected the most by the HIV epidemic; they make up 59% of the total number of people living with HIV. In some countries, the number of HIV-positive young women of 15-24 years old is to eight times higher than that of the young men. Pervasive gender inequalities, including gender-based violence and inequality in the social and economic aspects of the disqualification by the imperfect laws and policies, increase the risk of HIV infection in women and girls.
The meeting, in collaboration with the African Union and UNAIDS, was officially opened by President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. "One of the goals of this conference is to urge governments and partners to mobilize the national leadership at a high level, and to ensure the effective and responsible participation of countries in order to minimize the impact of HIV infection, as well as sexual and reproductive health" - said President Mugabe. In his speech, he emphasized the role of women in ensuring women’s full support in seeking health care and help in order to change the situation, where women and girls face inequality.
In his speech, the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, called for achieving gender equality in a large scale. "Fifty-nine percent of people living with HIV in Africa are women. We have to pay attention to the problem and to fix this shocking situation. In Zimbabwe, the main reason for this is gender inequality” - said Prime Minister Tsvangirai. “Zimbabwe and Africa, as a whole, would benefit immensely from addressing gender inequality, which, along with the lack of rights and opportunities in the educational and economic spheres, hinders the participation of women in addressing the pressing development challenges". Addressing the participants, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, emphasized the importance of the network of women’s organizations in accelerating the AIDS response. “This meeting on women’s network, Global POWER Women Network Africa, is at the critical moment” - said Michel Sidibe. “It has all the capabilities to become a strategic policy platform for the dissemination of the innovative approaches that will have a positive impact on the lives of women and girls in Africa, not only for those, with the HIV infection, but also for others, protecting their sexual health, reproductive ability, and the human rights. They will also ensure zero-tolerance towards violence based on gender".
Over the next two days, more than 300 people took part in a series of the plenary discussions and expert meetings on the key issues that affected the lives of women and girls across the continent. These issues include HIV infection, maternal and child health, gender-based violence, gender equality, responsibility and accountability for the management, as well as national ownership of the developed UNAIDS’ program “Program of Action to address the problems of women and girls”. Also, the examples of successful solutions will be viewed, which will provide a more extensive use of the innovative approaches to the service delivery.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stressed the intrinsic relationship between maternal and child health and human rights. "When women’s rights are violated, it does not allow them to live a healthy and successful life; it deprives them of their freedom of choice in the planning or starting a family," - she said. Pillay also stressed that gender-based violence, stigma, and discrimination impede women’s access to services in the field of maternal health.
Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Tokozani Coupe, as Acting President of the network Global POWER Women Network Africa, drew the attention of the public to the central role of women and girls in response to AIDS in the continent. “In order to achieve the strategic goal, zero new HIV infections, zero-discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths, there should be the crucial recognition of women and girls as the key actors in the process of implementation of this strategic vision into reality. Society needs to invest into the health of women and children”, - said Tokozani Coupe. Speaking at the meeting as a representative of the African Union Commission, the Deputy Chairman, Erastus Mvencha, said: “We cannot successfully address the problem of reducing the prevalence of HIV infection, with scant regard to reproductive health and rights. Individuals, families, and communities should have a voice in the implementation of programs”.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's Minister of Finance, was the guest of honor at the opening ceremony, and delivered a number of keynote speakers. In her speech, she reminded participants that the progress of a country is linked to the health of its female population.
“A country, which forgets the need to invest in women and girls, cannot count on the real growth. Investment into education, health, and social well-being of girls is the principles of the sound economics, because no woman should die of (AIDS) and delivery”, - she said. - “We can make a difference in Africa, and the changes are already taking place, but women have to push harder in order to achieve a significant change, because no one will do it for us. That is why Global POWER Africa is so important. We want our women leaders to act, called for investment in women and girls, and to keep track of the ways money is spent”.
The result of the meeting will be an appeal to the Harare Call for Action (“Harare Call to Action”), an integrated management plan for the protection of women’s health, focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of HIV. “Call to Action” will serve as an important policy and advocacy tool, which provides powerful support for women. It will demand the effective and responsible participation in the region and shared responsibility for achieving results in AIDS and in addressing broader issues of gender inequality.
The idea of a women’s network for the African region, such as Global POWER Women Network Africa, emerged from the meeting held in Washington (DC, USA) in September 2010. At the meeting, prominent African female politicians gathered together with their American counterparts in order to discuss the ways for the further implementation of the plan developed by UNAIDS: “Program of Action to Address the Concerns of Women and Girls”. Initiative Global POWER (“Global Power”) was established in 2006, by the American Women’s Organization “Center for Research on Women Policy” (Center for Women Policy Studies).
At the event, on top of the women’s network there were several other dignitaries, including U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles A. Ray, Vice-President of Zimbabwe, Joyce Mujuru, and Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Professor Arthur Mutambaru. Michelle Bachelet expressed her support in a written statement towards the Executive Director of the Committee on Women.
The history of women fighting for their rights leads to the 50s. Already at that time, the world was aware of the names of the brave patriots of the African people. These are those brave women: Nzanga Rita, Lillian Ngoyi, Tsitnii Lechaba, Dorothy Nembe, and Mary Moodle. Today it is the resistant and courageous Winnie Mandela, the wife of the leader of the liberation struggle of the patriots of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who is serving a life sentence. Many women know the horrors of the Nazi torture chambers of South Africa, where they were locked up for years by the South African authorities. Dorothy Nembe was held in prison at hard labor for a total of about 20 years, but did not stop after the liberation struggle. Inspired by her example, Soweto schoolgirls, spoke against the racist oppression.
“Black women are confident of victory”, - said a certain social and political activist, Miriam Makeba. – “They draw their strength in the campaign of solidarity with their cause, which is spreading throughout the world today”.