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Harambee- pulling together Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by R Kahendi, Kenya Nov 20, 2007
Human Rights   Opinions
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As we strive to bring positive changes into the communities we live in, we are sometimes beset by doubts. Are our efforts really worthwhile? When we push for certain agendas, are we making a difference, or are we simply reinforcing whatever problems existed before? These are difficult questions to think about, let alone to answer. However, it is our responsibility to take them seriously. The better we understand our communities and the roots of the inequalities within them, the more effective will be our efforts to address those inequalities.

Some nations have the dubious distinction of maintaining large disparities between males and females with respect to their access to education. One would imagine that opening more educational institutions geared towards educating the girl-child would be a positive solution to this problem, especially in poverty-stricken communities where children are often withdrawn from school to engage in child labor. Arguably, pulling an 8 year old girl out of a factory where she is forced to operate a weaving loom for 12 hours a day, and giving her an education, food, and a roof over her head, would give her access to economic opportunities that she wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed of. That is indeed true. It has every indication of being a success story. However, the very same girl’s twin brother continues to work in yet another factory as a child laborer, unable to go to school because the regular ones are too expensive, and unable to get a subsidized education in the charity school because, being a boy-child, he is imagined to be an advantaged member of society. In the mad rush to focus primarily on the problems of poor women and girls, we have managed to forget that they share their daily lives with men and boys who are also subject to brutal, dehumanizing poverty. Something is wrong with this picture.

Let us look at another example, this time related to land tenure and ownership in an unspecified nation. Before the colonial era, the various ethnic communities in this nation had evolved complex land tenure and ownership systems, uniquely adapted to their lifestyles and to their family structures. In many cases, land ownership was communal rather than individual, and both male and female adult members of the communities were granted portions of land to cultivate or to leave fallow, accordingly. Along came the colonizers and they imposed their own land ownership and taxation systems on these communities and created a cash crop economy. Communities were dispossessed of large tracts of land, men were named official heads of family, with each one possessing a tiny plot that his wife (or wives) and children were supposed to make do with, and a hut tax assessed on each household. With those very precise and deliberate maneuvers, women were disenfranchised, and rendered non-entities in the new economy. Men fared a little better. Several of them were recognized as owners of newly-divided small pieces of land. Never mind that these pieces of land would eventually be recognized as too barren or too small to be of much economic significance. Little has changed in the post-colonial economy. In most cases, land passes from male family-head to son(s). With each successive generation, the land is divided further and apportioned to the various sons. Soon there is not much left to inherit. Some sons are forced to go without inheritance while the lucky one (usually the first born) inherits his father’s land. What about the daughters? What happens to them in this context? They simply don’t inherit. Would enforcing equal inheritance rights for both males and females solve their problem? From the women’s perspective, it would do so only to a very limited, fractional degree. From the men’s perspective, it would increase competition for already limited resources. So ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the inheritance is figured. Either way, several offspring will by necessity be disinherited.

My intention is not to belittle those who fight for the empowerment of women and girls in patriarchal societies or to say that these efforts are in vain. There is a definite economic and cultural bias against women and girls in several cultures worldwide, and this bias must be addressed. However, addressing this bias demands that we also pay attention to the context in which it develops. We could start by noting that biases and exclusions of this nature take root and become rigid in societies that feel threatened by traumatic events such as wars, colonization, natural disasters, and economic recessions. Fear and impoverishment never fail to follow in the wake of these events. It is in response to this fear and impoverishment that restrictive roles are given to men and to women, and some are denied resources, while the same resources are given to others. By the time we come along, these inequalities have been in existence for generations. Hence, very few of us think of these factors when prescribing solutions to the communities’ problems.

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R Kahendi

The opportunity to learn from people from different walks of life has opened my eyes to the larger problems affecting us all.

I enjoy doing creative writing, poetry, and pieces on social issues. You can read some of my writing on my weblogs: KAHENDI'S BLOG, Ouagadougou's Weblog and Kahendi's Korner
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