Why The Struggles Of African Women Are Not Very Different From Their Indian Counterparts

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How do social conditions for African women compare with those for Indian women? Very similar, as this writer found out, while also busting some myths.

Africa. The land of tribes, animals and safaris. Amidst the stereotypical picture portrayed of Africa by the western media, where do African women stand? Are they treated as awfully as the world believes, or can women handle themselves? Are they constantly subjected to rape, murder, and general physical abuse?

Is there another side to African women that we don’t know about?

Sibusisiwe Ndlovu, a 36-year-old journalist and mother of two from Zimbabwe answers these queries, smashing some of the stereotypes that we have about African women. She explains the similarities between Indian and African culture and how each African country has a diverse culture. She talks about body image in Africa, how the world looks down on African women and how she’s venturing to help women in her country.

It’s time to give Indians a realistic picture of Africa and bust some prevalent myths.

African women are illiterate and helpless

No. Not all women are like that. In my case, I run a startup development media institution called ‘Women’s Media for Development Foundation’ ( WMDF) which seeks to open up more media spaces for women to share their experiences in relation to socio- political, the economy and cultural issues in Zimbabwe.

The status of African women today is terrible

It’s hard to give a generic definition of the status of women in all of Africa as it is as diverse as it is big. I can say women have taken huge strides in advancement educationally, politically, and economically when compared to the last century. But as much as has changed even more remains the same. Very few women make policies in Africa, and those who can – still report to men, despite making up more than half the population in most countries. Women still earn less than men in many jobs even where they are the bosses, which is the same in India, isn’t it?

In many countries in the Northern Africa, women are still not permitted to vote, let alone run for office. Girls are still being married off as children and Female Gentile Mutilation is still a cultural norm in many of our nations. Therefore, our advancement as women is not much to celebrate when even one of our own still suffers these ills in the continent. Our status is still far from ideal or acceptable.

There are many cultural restraints on women in Africa today

Yes. Plenty. Some of which I mentioned above. In Zimbabwe, patriarchy still plays a huge role in society. Girls in many households are forced to stay at home while boys go to school. Those who are allowed to get an education still have the burden of heavy home chores when they get back from school. As a result the academic performance of girls vs. boys is very different. Despite research showing that girls display great intelligence in the elementary stages of school, as puberty sets in they start to fall back and eventually drop out of school at times. From what I’ve heard, it’s pretty much the same in India.

Issues of menstruation, burden of taking care of home and siblings and the attraction by older men and even abuse at times, take their toll and lead many young girls away from interest in education. Overcoming this will take a change in social attitudes to cultural practices.

Our society needs to understand that culture is dynamic and realise that girls in the 21st century need to be allowed to thrive, and compete with the young man equally in order to survive and contribute fully to the global economic village

There are customs that physically harm or affect African women

Yes, definitely. I’ll mention child marriage and female genital mutilation which remain very widespread. A child forced to marry at a young age to an older man is open to a lot of harm physically and emotionally. These children aren’t fully developed physically, and when they engage in sexually risky behaviour, contracting STDs and getting pregnant before their bodies are mature enough to carry a baby.

This leads to physical deformities or even death during labour. The children also do not get enough care as their mothers are too young to understand how to care for a new born. With FGM, this is a very painful exercise which continues to torture the victim for years to come. It is painful and humiliating to many who do it, as it offers nothing of pleasure to them but only done to please the men they may marry. I wish young women to be allowed to reach the age of maturity and majority before being forced into marriage.

Women are not economically independent in Africa

By law yes, but technically no. A lot still needs to be done to all women full economic independence. Indeed women can own homes, start businesses, get bank loans according to the law in Zimbabwe, but it is several times more difficult for a Zimbabwean woman to do all of the above than it is for a man. A woman will have to work twice as hard and jump higher and more hurdles than her male counterpart to gain the economic affluence.

African women face many challenges in the corporate world

By virtue of our patriarchal culture, women may not have the collateral needed by banks to get a loan to start a business, women may find in harder to gain inroads or make contacts that link them to government projects or big tenders. When a woman does start a good business fewer women have enough disposable income to spend on it to help her grow and because men support other men more than they support women, the African business woman’s competition is twice as much as her male counterpart. The ratio for women to men in the workplace is 1:3.

Women are bound by societal rules in Africa

Yes, social norms still dictate a lot on how women act or are treated in our society. Society still expects a woman to behave in a certain way. To be married by a certain age, have children after a certain number of years in marriage. All these are based on unwritten social rules. Isn’t it the same in India and around the world?

Beauty standards exist for women in Africa as well

This is hard to generalise to Africa, but in the South, the fuller figured, curvaceous, light skinned woman is considered beautiful. Yet, the media and modeling institutions still portray the slimmer figured woman as more preferable this is slowly being defied in many spheres of our society.

White and Asian women prefer to be way slimmer from my observations. But skinny women in some parts of Africa are seen as unattractive. This considered a result of starvation or coming from poor parts of the community. Light skinned women usually considered as beautiful.

Another fact people may not know, is that these beauty standards differ from one African country to another.

Interracial marriage is not accepted in Africa

It is accepted. But it gets people talking. Its seen as a privilege to be married by or be married to someone of another race if you are a black African. However, in many places a lot of stigma and stereotype can come with it, with some black women being labelled as being ‘loose’. The white men they marry are called desperate or being of inferior class of their race, hence they married a black woman.

African women aren’t allowed to marry men from other African countries

That’s wrong. It’s very normal and common. It’s been going on from the past few decades.

African women are not allowed to work after having kids

No, that’s not completely true. At least with regard to many Sub Saharan countries, women do work.

Premarital sex is frowned upon in Africa

Not as it was before. Times have indeed changed.

Children out of wedlock are ostracised

They are not treated any different from those born in wedlock now. In the past, many women would go to great lengths to hide that they had children before marriage. Nowadays, it is not a big issue although some may still make it a big deal.

African law does not favour women if crime is committed against them

There isn’t anything like African law, and African culture is diverse so this is hard to answer. In many countries, the law is still very masculine in language and application … the courts often seem like an intimidating space to women.

Mrs. Ndlovu says that the biggest misconception the world has about African women is that – due to lack of exposure African women may not be viewed as being as intelligent and competitive as African men.

I finally asked her if there are any privileges of being an African woman. Sadly, she says that its hard to think of any at this point of time. However, she hopes that it will change someday.

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Image source: By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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