A One-sided Approach? The Importance of Broadening the Gender Empowerment Agenda

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As a young girl, a substantial portion of my grooming involved being a proper lady fit for marriage. I was taught the value of resilience, submission, and hard work.  In school, structures were programmed to provide more protections for female students from the rapacious (according to the schools) male students. The rules were stricter on female students and special classes taught them how to self-protect from unplanned pregnancies and predatory male behavior. All these attempts to keep girls safe and make them better, even before the rise of female empowerment as we know it today, could appropriately be deemed “empowerment.” In pre-colonial Africa, women held positions of leadership, prestige, and enjoyed protections that allowed them to wield considerable power. For instance, in Buganda in modern-day Uganda, the King’s mother held a position that allowed her autonomous power to check the King’s excesses. In Egypt, women were involved in commercial activities while men stayed at home to weave, and across the continent were famous chiefs and warriors who were female. In recent years, female empowerment has gone modern and women’s movements across Africa have been dedicated to empowering the girl child and equipping her to become the best version of herself. However, one question remains unanswered: who is empowering the boy child?

Argument for broadening the gender equity agenda

Feminism has blamed misogyny and patriarchal structures for women’s oppression: from the Global South’s oppressive traditional gender roles that keep women in the kitchen, only fit for marriage and childbearing, to the Global North’s “glass ceilings” and professional “boys’ clubs” that keep women out through invisibly and smartly orchestrated obstacles. In response, the movement to save the girl child from the patriarchal clutches of oppression has generated momentum to empower her academically, professionally, and personally. Although the rational foundation and resounding success of this endeavor on the continent are visible, young unempowered boys who grow up to become men are ill primed for the task of dealing with these empowered women. My point is that we need a more holistic and intentional approach to gender inequality because I am convinced that we can never truly empower the female demographic if the other half is disempowered. Most African societal norms condition women to become subservient to their male counterparts and secretive about personal and domestic trouble. This inadvertently strips away their agency and makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from the opposite gender in the form of gender-based violence and overall suppression. However, we must also recognize that these same societal norms condition boys to “man up” and inadvertently promote toxic masculinity.

From the boy’s perspective

Historically, rites of passage for boys have been riddled with pain and even bloodshed. However, the single most distinguishing attribute is that the passing grade was (and still is) predicated on one’s ability to bear all the suffering unflinchingly, even with pride. Displays of emotions like fear and vulnerability automatically equaled a failing grade. This may have made sense when life solely relied on physical strength and men with such qualities were perceived to be up to the task to hunt, gather, and protect. In today’s world, however, intellectual and emotional intelligence more than just physical strength, are the new rites of passage for men. 

Ancient physical rites of passage may have changed but African societal norms have hardly evolved and still dictate that strength and stoicism are the true marks of a man and vulnerability is weakness. This, however, has severe mental health implications for the male demographic. It is through this socio-cultural paradigm that they go through life’s pressures and challenges, all the while expected to be highly functioning and balanced human beings. Furthermore, they are also expected to cater to and appreciate an empowered female demographic. However, this is a recipe for chaos and more attention needs to be paid to the empowerment of the male demographic to maintain balance.

Gender parity as the ultimate goal

Emotional intelligence is critical to the development of an overall well-rounded human being, regardless of gender and this begins with mental and emotional literacy, even before academic literacy. That said, existing socio-cultural norms and empowerment structures do not yet efficaciously serve the boy child in that regard.  One is therefore left wondering; could the lopsided attention to female empowerment have inadvertently created toxic femininity as a manifestation of the cognitive dissonance girls face from being empowered yet still living under the shadow of detrimental socio-cultural structures? Could the lopsided attention to female empowerment be the leading cause of gender-based violence, particularly, intimate partner violence against women in Sub-Saharan Africa? Could the lopsided attention to female empowerment be one of the primary causes of sexual and emotional abuse of the boy child on the continent (which might I add is still shrouded in secrecy because abuse is still synonymous with the girl child)? When gender is mentioned, people typically think “women and girls” which could not be further from the truth. Therefore, gender parity in education is critical to understanding and challenging these deep-rooted gender inequalities on both sides. But that is just the beginning. We need enabling policy and socio-cultural structural changes for boys to recognize girls as equal partners deserving of equal opportunities and for girls to understand that boys too are vulnerable. The ripple effect going forward would create a critical paradigm shift for generations ahead. While it is true that historical structures have been unfairly pitted against the female demographic, to truly achieve women empowerment, gender parity needs to be the end goal. We cannot have the feminist discussion without the men otherwise, it is only a matter of time before the pendulum is so skewed that the lack of balance sets the two demographics on a collision course. As the old African adage goes, “the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

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