Tag Archives: gender

Reports | National Reports | Africa | Nigeria | Human Development Reports (HDR) | United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Reports | National Reports | Africa | Nigeria | Human Development Reports (HDR) | United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Uganda’s Christmas Present.

Uganda’s Christmas Present..

Video

Gay rights in Uganda

Fortunately, the issue of gay rights in Africa, in Uganda specifically, seems to be cropping up more frequently. Uganda has a reputation (with Nigeria following close behind) for being one of the most oppressive and dangerous countries for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Africans. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that proposed death for H.I.V.-positive gay men and prison for anyone who didn’t report a known homosexual was aside for now, but politicians are currently drafting a new version. An impetus behind their decision to table it was the brutal murder of famed LGBT rights activist, David Kato, who was bludgeoned after a local tabloid calling for the murder of gays published his name, photo and address. He was head of SMUG, or Sexual Minorities Uganda.

David-Kato-Uganda

His story was covered fairly well in the Ugandan and domestic media, with The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Economist highlighting the crime. There was such much attention that two Americans debuted a documentary about Kato and the Ugandan LGBT, or “kuchu,” struggle called “Call me Kuchu.”

 

Most prominent international non-profits, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam publicly decried his murder and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as one would expect. Surprisingly though, while doing research on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on African Affairs, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that helping improve LGBT rights in Uganda is on the agenda for the U.S. Congress in the upcoming year.  Hillary Clinton has made public statements voicing support for improved protections for the LGBT community in Uganda, a pleasant compliment to Obama’s watershed reference to gay rights in his recent Inaugural address. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has immense sway in coloring some aspects of public policy in sub-Sahara, and hopefully their focus on this issue will be an example of positive influence.

Despite such an effort at improving human rights in Uganda, an immense challenge comes from staunch conservatives in the U.S., specifically Evangelical Christians. According to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and Ugandan religious leaders who support human rights, fundamentalist Christian churches are investing huge sums of money into backing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, supporting pastors who preach anti-gay sermons, and financing revivals and classes with heteronormative messages.

 

 

In researching human rights in Uganda, I couldn’t help comparing the situation to observations I made in Nigeria about anti-homosexuality legislation (and fundamentalist Christianity imported from the U.S.). The Nigerian Anti-Gay Bill that passed in the fall of 2011 prescribes 14 years imprisonment for convicted homosexuals.  I was less surprised by the legislation than by the widespread support it seemed to enjoy among my neighbors and friends. Truly, I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t seem to advocate it, usually based on totally erroneous ideas about what same-sex relationships are all about.  When I would bring up sex-related rights issues that seemed pressing for me, such as rape and child prostitution, the Nigerians I spoke with felt that homosexuality was far more alarming.  I couldn’t imagine how a consensual relationship between two adults could be troubling, let alone more troubling than child sex trafficking, but for many I spoke with it was.

Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”

I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.

Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.

It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”

The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.

The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.

No weddings for Siras…

Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.

Nigerian women and conceptions of beauty

There is a trend among Nigerian women that I have lamented in passing in but never spent much time thinking about—skin bleaching. Teenage boys hawk skin lightening creams to passing cars on the freeways, and such creams are available in every beauty salon or beauty supply store I have entered. I had always thought of such beauty practices as being most common in India, however the World Health Organized (WHO) published that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo, and 27% in Senegal. Last week, The Economist ran this fascinating story:

“Skin-lightening products are so popular in Nigeria they have given rise to their own terminology in Pidgin English. “Some people have a Fanta face from using bleaching products,” explains Esther, a shop attendant showing Baobab around the skin-lightening products that take up two aisles of the small cosmetic section in a minimarket in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. ‘Fanta face, coca cola legs’ she explains, describes the mottled complexion of someone who uses skin-lightening products on their face but not their body, which maintains its darker shade.

‘I don’t use them, I prefer to be chocolate,’ says Esther, ‘but some people use them so other people don’t think they work outside all day.’ Fairer skin is equated with wealth and working in plush air-conditioned offices, not toiling in fields and open-air markets under the blazing hot sun.

Nothing new there—Queen Elizabeth I of England famously used lead as a skin whitener. It became an increasingly popular practice among African women in the late 1950s. And it is a lucrative business. The industry is set to be worth $10bn globally by 2015, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts. In Nigeria, skin lightening can cost anything from a few dollars for a cream or soap to hundreds of dollars for a treatment in a beauty parlour, and the increasing westernisation of young Nigerian women has bolstered the demand for more expensive products.

But the trend comes with hazardous health consequences. Many products contain mercury and hydroquinone, which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discolouration and scarring. Excessive use may even cause psychological problems, according to the WHO report. Worryingly, some women in Nigeria actively seek out products that contain these harmful ingredients, as they are perceived to be more effective. But often those that do contain harmful substances, do not list them as ingredients.

In India, where nearly two-thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin-lightening products, a whitening wash for intimate female areas was launched this year. It provoked international outrage when a television advert implied that women who used it would be more attractive to men. When Baobab asked some Nigerian women whether they would try such a product, they replied with raucous laughter.

For some, the teasing these products can induce just is not worth it. “When people have this patchy face we call them bingo face,” explains Julie Ogidi, a cook, ‘Bingo—like the dog.'”

 

All-natural beauties.

 

Guinness Commercial Represents Modern Nigeria

Watching cable in Port Harcourt, I used to see this commercial often, and it still fascinates me. There are many scenes familiar to Nigerians—congested go-slows (traffic jams), the broken down bus, and the city-dwelling relative coming home to his rural family bearing gifts. The two most salient themes for me are those of urbanization and masculinity. The male breadwinner of the family moves into the city to try to make his fortune, earning the respect of his family, thus urbanization creates not only potential financial capital but social capital as well. Femi buys his younger brother a bus ticket when he sees him as “man enough” to make it in the city. The men are constructing their masculinity by through earning money. I heard that Guinness made this commercial in the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo languages as well, possibly changing the man’s name from Femi (a Yoruba name) to a Hausa or Igbo name for the ad to have more resonance among respective ethnic groups. I think Guinness really did its marketing research with this one:

Dispatches from Women’s Rights Events in Nigeria

March 8th was International Women’s Day and I attended several women’s events across Rivers State throughout the month.  There was the women’s march of the Roman Catholic Church in Ogoniland, the worker rights training for the women members of PENGASSAN (the national labor union for oil workers), an awards dinner for a gender-focused Nigerian NGO, and the NLC Women’s Committee International Women’s Day Celebration.  The first event represents rural mobilization, the second workplace, the third non-profit, and the last state-sponsored, since the NLC has close ties with the government and there were many state representatives there. All in all, I was able to make observations about the public rhetoric surrounding women’s rights in quite varied environments.

I had intended to compare and contrast my observations to see how they differed, but instead I couldn’t help identifying commonalities among all the events. Like all meetings in southern Nigeria, they were opened with an enthusiastic prayer asking Jesus to bless the day, which was led by a male speaker who reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher.  Nigerians are avid church attendees and everyone identifies with a denomination, so the opening prayers seemed second-nature to most of those present.  I don’t know if there were Muslims or other non-Christians there.

I have some mixed opinions on invoking Christianity at secular women’s rights events.  There is of course the concern how this affects the non-Christian attendees, perhaps marginalizing them from the discussions. Additionally, believers in gender equality have a right to mobilize at such events outside of religious parameters, and when nearly every speaker references God then one’s religion becomes the gateway through which one must mobilize.  This makes one’s belief in a certain type of Christianity a sort of precondition for her involvement in the gender movement.

Conversely however, church services are a familiar platform for most Nigerians, and presenting the day events as such has immense power to communicate a message to attendees. Nigerians embrace the singing and dancing of lively church services here, as they did at the women’s events too. Framing the improvement of women’s status in religious terms may also make mobilization acceptable for women who would otherwise see it as “looking for trouble,” as my interviewees call it.

Along with Uganda, Nigeria is arguably one of the most overtly anti-gay countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with parliament passing a very strict bill last fall that allows for ten year in prison for anyone who even aids same-sex unions. There is a common belief that homosexuality is a Western import, with Europeans and Americans “spreading it” to Nigeria. My observations last month made me wonder if the LGBT cause wouldn’t be strengthened if some of its messages were presented in a way more compatible with the strong religious sentiment in the country, since respect for the LGBT community and religion need not be totally incompatible (as they are here). The nascent Nigerian LGBT movement could perhaps take a cue from successful women’s rights campaigns in this regard.

The second observation I made is there were no men in the audience, yet the emcee and over half of all speakers were male at each event.  In a room of over 100 women in support of the improvement of their own status, it is paradoxical that men were the interlocutors the majority of time. What message does this send? It may convey that men’s voices matter more than women’s, or that women should mobilize with men leading the way. It makes men the gatekeepers of the gender discussion. It furthers entrenches the idea that it is men with the confidence and education to speak to large groups of people, and women are best as the listeners. Disturbingly, all but a few of the male speakers made jokes about women’s role in the kitchen or bedroom, one even remarking that empowered women make better lovers. It is probably logical to assume that more female speakers would have meant less objectification of women’s bodies as a form of humor. When I asked an organizer of one of the events why there were so many men speaking, she essentially said that men’s presence validates the legitimacy of the event. Since she wanted powerful people as the speakers and most powerful people are male, naturally there is male dominance on stage.

Lastly and most importantly, the gender movement in Nigeria has a long way to go in respecting women’s rights simply because they are people and not because of their role as wives, mothers, or caregivers. The single most dominant message that was conveyed by speakers, well received by the audience, and then reiterated during discussion sections was that we should help women access improved political participation, education, health care because of their role in the family.  Women should go to the polls more so they can vote for policies that benefit their husband’s industry or their children’s well-being. Women should have health care so that they live long enough to raise their children and care for their husbands in the home.  Women should be educated so that they can help their children with their homework and be more responsible with the household budget.  One of the most charismatic male speakers at the NLC event conveyed the principal message that women should complete secondary school so they don’t embarrass their husbands with their ignorance, “When your wife no speak English-o when your friends are in the house, then the shame is for the husband like the wife.” I think he was trying to convey that educating women is everyone’s responsibility, but he did so in a paternal way.

Two elements of this last point are important I think.  First, women’s rights must be based on the fact that they are human beings, on their humanity, and not on their relationship to men and society at large (See MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?). Often times in a effort to protect women, and I use the word “protect” purposefully, they are granted special or distinct rights that I think further remove them from the realm of basic human rights.  Thus, human and civil rights end up being “male” while separate women’s rights are “female.” This spreads the idea that women matter only in terms of their relation to the family, and limits their importance in the outside community. Where does this rhetoric leave widowed, barren, or unmarried women? To be meaningful and enduring, women’s rights cannot depend on their relation to men in order to legitimate their status.  Such rights must be rooted simply in their status as human beings.

 Second, by further reinforcing women’s role in the home, the private sphere, they are moved even farther away from the roles of men in the public sphere.  All of the gender events I went to last month buttressed the perception of men and women’s inherent differences. One of the longstanding debates in gender studies is about the sameness-difference versus equality model (See Frug’s Postmodern Feminism).  Supporters of the sameness-difference model argue that there are clear distinctions between men and women, e.g. physical strength and childbirth, and that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging those distinctions. The problem with society is that we privilege the male condition over the female one, male qualities over female ones. They find that if we could just enhance respect for what women bring to the table, then there will be gender equality that benefits all.  However, the equality folks, one of which is me, find that by validating such differences between men and women we provide the context in which prejudice takes root; for it is only by acknowledging inherent differences that we can justify unequal treatment. Differences provide an excuse for discrimination. “Separate is inherently unequal” whether one is referencing racial segregation in American schools fifty years ago or African women’s access to public office today.  And although I realize that the equality model will probably never been culturally accepted in most places in the world, it is still a noble ideal towards which societies should strive.

 

 The head speaker at the NLC Women’s Day Event.