The year is 2016 and America is about to embark on electing it’s first female president. A mere ten years ago in 2006, Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, bore this same claim to fame as they swore President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf into office. Forty-one years ago, the United Nations declared 1975 “International Women’s Year” and the following ten years were proclaimed the “Decade of the Woman”. From Mexico City to Copenhagen to Nairobi, the UN charged member countries with the elimination of institutionalized gender discrimination. These demands and stipulations were documented in CEDAW- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Beyonce proclaimed “Girls Run the World” in 2011,a few years later we heard cries of “Bring Back Our Girls” in response to the kidnappings perpetrated by the Islamist extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. On the surface, things are changing and women have gained unprecedented access to education and opportunity, yet antiquated(?) primitive currents run deep.
Cultural and social constructs which continue to reinforce male leadership, power and privilege, and thereby female subordination within the home, extend far outside of those homes with devastating consequences. Global health security would mean prioritizing and ensuring health security and access to health services for society’s most vulnerable populations— for the good of all. Those most vulnerable sectors, years later, remain women. The intersection of patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes in Africa affect real and tangible health determinants such as Domestic Violence, Mental Health, and HIV/AIDS. We must protect and nurture our mothers, our sisters and our daughters despite the painstaking, hard-fought, and often stagnant progress towards this end. A brief examination of health equity via the lens of women’s access to health services suggest the “disease of patriarchy” still rages on at detrimental speeds throughout the world and especially Africa.
“GBV is a violation of the right to identity, since it reinforces and reproduces the subordination of women to men, leading to a distortion of the human being; of the right to affection, since violence is the antithesis of any expression of that sort; of the right to peace and enriching personal relations, since it is a negative form of dispute settlement; of the right to protection, since it creates a situation of defenselessness; of the right to personal development, since its victims suffer a form of psychological paralysis which prevents them from developing their creative potential; of the right to social and political participation, because it inhibits activities outside the household (with the exception of the bare minimum of activities related to traditional roles, such as participating in organizations, groups or meetings); of the right to freedom of expression; and of the right to an optimum state of physical and mental health.”
Social expectations stipulated by a male dominated society leave no room for the true self expression of girls and women. There is often community wide acceptance of hypermasculine behaviors that may for instance support physical violence if a woman does not “obey” male figures close to her. Gender based violence can directly affect the mental health status of American women subjected to modes of patriarchy which breed misogyny. While gender based violence is not unique to Africa, reported data cites almost half of all African women report experiencing some sort of intimate partner violence with ramifications that affect them health wise as well as their babies.
The victims who are also usually young are often attacked by men they know and are found to be “twice as likely to be depressed, have alcohol related problems, and have HIV and a sexually transmitted diseases. Other health problems linked to violence were unwanted pregnancies, abortion and low birth-weight babies.” (Source)
In South Africa, the HIV/AIDS virus is said to disproportionately affect women more than men. (see image) Young women are particularly more at risk and researchers and activists are searching for ways to battle cultural norms as fiercely as efforts to find a cure and raise awareness about safe sexual practices. Challenging HIV/AIDS in South Africa requires challenging ideologies of acceptable male behavior amongst both men and women. Socio-cultural norms of what is normative male dominant behavior further exacerbate conditions that make women vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infection. The very act of forced sexual act that a male may feel entitled to increases the risk of transmitting the virus. Fear of violence or retributive acts may cause a woman to not speak up or adequately protect herself via condom usage. How do women find allies for justice when society accepts male rage, violence, and control as normal? :
“It is common for women in sub-Saharan Africa to marry at a young age or have older intimate partners who are sexually more experienced. Older men are also more likely to have been exposed to HIV/AIDS and more likely to infect their younger female partner, especially if women feel like they cannot negotiate for safe sex because of unequal power in the relationship.” (Source)
The disease of patriarchy runs rampant and men aren’t the only perpetrators. As actress Charlize Theron aptly states, “We value men more than women, straight love more than gay love, white skin more than black skin, the rich, more than the poor and adults more than adolescents,”. (Source)
Stigmatization of women who may fall victim to HIV/AIDS and/or rape prevents those women from getting adequate care. Sex workers cite nurses who laugh at them or shame them for their profession instead of simply assisting them in obtaining the care they need. (Source)
Indeed All Lives Do Not Matter as one might find when reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which explicitly states access to healthcare as a universal human right.
Amidst misogynistic cultural norms and the environment of traditional gender roles, there remains hope for a growing number women despite the immense challenges for the majority of young women. Stories of personal and organizational triumph light the way for a new epoque of gender equality and the protection of basic human rights for women. There is no better fitting example than the Liberian organization More Than Me The organization’s founder was driven by the need to provide tuition free education and a safe environment for Liberia’s most vulnerable girls. In reality, too many young girls find themselves victims to older men promising to help them with tuition and family expenses in exchange for sexual acts. This group acts as an advocate for girls’ empowerment and offers holistic services from sexual health and family planning to psychosocial support, taking young women from the threat of misogynist ideology to the next generation of well rounded leaders. Liberia’s head of state herself unabashedly discusses how she at one point herself was the victim of physical abuse at the hand of her husband. “She credits some of her strength to having survived a violently abusive husband.”(Source)
In countries like Rwanda women have been thrust into new roles directly challenging the trope of male dominance outside of the home for the benefit of the country not necessarily the woman. Rwanda is now ranked 6th in reference to the gender gap in it’s country. Post genocide: 70% woman. To be a “great woman” however you are not however absolved from the responsibility of ascribing to traditional norms of subserviency that define a woman’s role. While President Kagame of Rwanda decreed that 30% of Parliament must be women, women’s rise to prominence was initially a matter of necessity not necessarily a changing shift in ideologies. After the genocide in Rwanda the society was comprised of 70% women due to men who had either been killed, arrested, or fled the country for fear of retribution. (Source)
Enrollees at the Akilah Institute in Rwanda however, prove, that women ascending to leadership is more than just about filling spaces that men have left vacant. The school’s mission is stated as “a college for women in East Africa offering a unique model of market-relevant education that enables young women to achieve economic independence and obtain leadership roles in the workplace and in society.” (Source)
The black woman collective, it seems if not under direct attack, still suffers from the complacency of patriarchal hegemonies that render our stories essentially worthless or transient golden media bites with slow tangible progress towards gender equality. Recent events in the US have rendered the phrase “Black Lives Matter” one that will most definitely define most of the present decade so far. Amidst the outcries many have noted the oft diminutive/attenuated public response when the victim of these crimes of humanity is gendered female. Every excuse in the book is used to describe why a black woman might have fallen victim to similar police brutality. When in fact, even in the US the largest perpetrators of violence against women are men. Men they know. In America, despite higher income levels and other correlates of modernization women still fall victim to primitive misogynistic actions and perceptions. (Source)
Perhaps, it’s often easier even to empathize with women when they are 1) foreign and far and 2) children one might say. For the excuses seem null and void then. Yet even then the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign didn’t garner international sanctions and the military force that has become taken for granted in the face of today’s global landscape. As I write this, Boko Haram releases a video taunting the Nigerian government for airstrikes they say have in fact rendered some of the girls themselves victims. In Africa, our countries may already tout female heads of states, women may be majority of parliament as they are in Rwanda, and even defiant advocates yet at home, gender based violence still renders our women vulnerable to real and tangible health consequences.