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Opinions of Wednesday, 20 February 2002

Columnist: Amos-Abanyie, Emmanuel

Reclaiming the Dignity of the African Woman

Over the past few years, women groups and women activists have protested against the marginalization of women in Africa by their male counterparts. In their attempt to gain equality with men, women have taken it upon themselves to address the issues that are stumbling blocks to their empowerment and are working hard to achieve this goal. Women play a vital role in the development of a nation and therefore need to be empowered to enable them to exhibit their multifarious talents to the benefit of all. It is therefore not surprising to see African first ladies attend summits and conferences all in an attempt to find lasting solutions to the problems facing women in their respective countries. The issues of outmoded cultural practices and beliefs, and high illiteracy rates are deterrents to the empowerment of the African woman and therefore need to be addressed.

First of all, most of the cultural practices and traditional beliefs of some ethnic groups in Africa do not promote the empowerment of women but rather tend to cripple their talents. The belief in male dominance and female subordination is one of the cultural practices that must be abolished. Africa is a deeply patriarchal society with men dominating in the socio-economic and political machinery and organizations. Even though there are women who hold great power, control great wealth and are held in high esteem, matriarchy does not exist. However, men are regarded as natural leaders, who are superior and born to rule women. Male elders of the lineage or clan decide how the groups land and other resources are used and allocated, and how the group’s wealth is disposed off without the woman playing any role.

Even in making decisions that directly affect the woman, she is sometimes not consulted but only informed about the decision taken. She has no right to oppose whether she disagrees with the decision or not. In some communities, the consent of girls is not sought before their fathers give them in marriage to a man. Girls as young as seven are given out to men old enough to be their fathers and in some cases grandfathers. Moreover, with the payment of the dowry, the girl is bought and automatically becomes the property of the man, who uses, mistreats, and “dumps” her when he deems fit. How can girls who find themselves in such a situation be empowered? What is perhaps most striking and surprising is the fact that male, as opposed to female, activities are always recognized as predominantly important, and cultural systems give authority and value to the roles and activities of men. Patriarchy does not allow women to take up roles, which are considered as a reserve of men.

Another problem facing those who seek to empower women is that, some women tend to discourage others from trying to reach equality with their male counterparts. This erroneous ideology is very difficult to diffuse from the minds of these rural women since they have been engulfed by superstitious beliefs. In their attempt to maintain tradition, they pass on these beliefs from one generation to another. More so, most of the rural women are of the view that their primary responsibility is to bear children and maintain the home. They therefore engage in home management activities. One main problem facing women activists in Africa is the difficulty in changing the mind set of these rural women about their unequal relationship with men. In areas where strong superstitious beliefs exist, the women are not prepared to change their way of living and thinking. It is believed that the gods of the land abhor change and any attempt made to change existing practices will mean infuriating the gods to unleash untold hardships on them.The use of Juju, charms and amulets to destroy enemies, scare evil and misfortune, is prevalent on the African continent. Most African women therefore fear that they may be destroyed if they attempt to fight for equality, as their male counterparts will consider them as enemies. Thus, posing as one of the greatest obstacles to the efforts to emancipate the minds of the rural women from mental slavery.

Furthermore, the high illiteracy rate amongst these rural dwellers does not provide the necessary atmosphere for empowerment. Families see the education of the girl child as a waste of money and a luxury. This is a reflection of the conventional wisdom on appropriate roles for women as well as a response to the mainly agricultural societies where feminine skills and labor are not dependent on literacy. Access to education by itself is not enough to eliminate the values held by society, for such values are transmitted through educational curricula and textbooks. Education does, however, offer the female child an improved opportunity as it serves as an eye opener. The education of women is the first step to their empowerment as it is the area where women have come closest to equality with men. No one will disagree that education is a powerful influence on the lives of individuals and has an almost mythical hold on our imaginations. As more and more African women become vocal about their social, economic, personal and political challenges, many first ladies are also trying to champion the cause of women in government.

In addition to this, the total empowerment of African women is not the duty of African first ladies and elite women alone. African governments should adopt woman friendly policies that will help make them reach the desired equality with men. Considering the vital role of women in development, African governments should formulate laws that will prevent women from being marginalized. An educational policy, which makes education for girls mandatory, should be passed. Laws, which also forbid through legal sanctions, the withdrawal of girls from school for early marriages should also be passed. Furthermore, more women must be encouraged to take up positions in the political scene and also given the opportunity to take decisions on things that directly affect their lives.

Finally in their struggle to empower themselves, African women would want to see new gender-positive public policies that encourage women to play a role in social, political, and economic life. Today, the momentum is building and Africa is witnessing an enormous and appreciable change in the status of women, as many women have been consistent and courageous in their demand for justice and equality with men. The time to empower African women is now and all Africans should strive in making this dream a reality to enable women to contribute their quota to nation building. The notion that the office of the woman is the kitchen is outdated and erroneous. As one Ghanaian politician, Dr. Kwegir Aggrey said, “if you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”.


Emmanuel Paa Kwesi Enyim Amos-Abanyie Jnr
Davidson College '04
Tel: 704-894-6505
Post Office Box 5480
Davidson, NC 28035-5480