Lessons I’ve learnt about a woman’s place in Africa

A generalized view of Africa is one of a patriarchal society, with the husbands and fathers having authority over women, children and property. The woman is submissive in the economic, political, social and all other spheres of life with little influenceover the decision making in issues that are consideredsignificant in their social setting.

While I understand the predominantly cultural contexts that have driven this perception, I have learnt that the woman’s place in Africa is far from the one dimensional view of the struggling, voiceless victim of social circumstance.

From our cultural perspective the key aspects of the woman’s role have been that of the caregiver, nurturer and homemaker. As a wife, the woman is seen as a partner to support and influence her husband in some of the decisions he makes. As a mother, the woman is key in shaping the value systems and characters of her children and moulding their outlook on life. While the traditional views see the woman working more behind the scenes, the woman’s role within the family has developed to the point where she is able to debate more and have a greater say in family decisions. However, she needs to maintain the image that her place is secondary to that of her husband and still defer to his final authority. When she does voice her opinion, it must be in a manner that does not challenge him, but tactfully presents a point for further deliberation. A woman who speaks out of turn or is seen to emasculate her husband is considered to be operating outside of the norm that has been allocated to her position. Traditional, cultural and religious influences are such that the African woman’s place must remain below that of the man to support and influence decisions that are made by the socially accepted head.

In environments where men compete to be captains of industry, people of influence and role models the African woman has found her voice as a result of the bravery of others who stood to challenge what was considered to be the accepted norm. Barriers that existed are continually being broken by women who are showing their strength and worth as professionals, politicians, intellectuals, business leaders and entrepreneurs. This has not come without its challenges, one of which has always been maintaining the delicate balance between the culturally accepted role and the equally demanding requirements of the professional life. For the working woman, the fight to be recognized and accepted as a worthy player in her chosen field has had varied effects on her perception of her place. She may choose to be more aggressive than the men themselves, or employ a more subtle approach but in both instances remaining focused and firm, ensuring that she is heard.

This role in the work place has brought with it varying challenges. There is a dissonance that arises for the working wife and/or mother as she tries to juggle the demands of her roles at home and at work. The two will compete for her time and attention and the woman who is traditionally expected to be the support at home now finds that she needs assistance and support herself. The significance of her network in terms of her husband, partner and/or family then comes to the fore. Some women have folded under the pressure, having to curb their ambitions, while others have thrived from their support structures that have accepted the new role. The key lesson for me has been that the unit needs to evolve with the woman, so that she can fully explore her potential and find her place in her area of interest. In Africa, this is still an area of growth as we need to change some of the cultural perceptions in order to allow the evolution of the woman’splace outside of her family circle. The economic benefits of this will be infinite as more players enter the playing field in the development of Africa.

Regardless of her marital status the working woman faces challenges in proving her worth to her male counterparts. Where she is outspoken, she may be considered brash, opinionated and confrontational. If she is quiet, she is not assertive enough and thus passed over for opportunities. If she is a perceptive and strategic thinker, she is calculating and manipulative and if she is involved in support services, she is not bold enough to lead. These challenges show that the environment is not yet totally supportive for the African woman to rise to a position of success with the ease enjoyed by her male counterparts. It’s a tough but not impossible feat. The women who have paved the way and those who continue on this path have shown that with perseverance,

assertiveness and faith in your own abilities, you can indeed achieve what you set your heart on. Yes, Africa is still a man’s continent, but it’s big enough to make room for the woman too.

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