Understanding Gender Relations, Culture and Development in Africa
The views expressed in this article are entirely of the author.
Gender imbalances have existed in most African cultures for a long time now. In most African countries women constitute a greater number compared to men but they remain underrepresented in many areas of socio, economic and political activities. This is mainly due to long-standing traditional beliefs concerning gender roles, which are mostly based on the premise that women are less important, or less deserving of power, than men.
These long standing cultural values have often led to domestic violence and abuse of women. According to a report produced by Musasa Project (Zimbabwe) in 2006 domestic violence accounted for 60 percent of all murder cases heard in Zimbabwean courts in 2006.
In a 2005 study on women’s health and domestic violence, the WHO found that 50 per cent of women in Tanzania and 71 per cent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas reported beatings or other forms of violence by husbands or other intimate partners.
In Mali, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa (to mention but a few) women do the bulk of the farm work, provide for the livelihood of their families, but are barred from owning the land they work. This again is a practice that is deeply rooted in culture which considers the man the head of household and therefore the rightful authority over land. I am aware of the fact that there are African countries like Mozambique where there are pieces of legislation enacted to facilitate the acquisition of land by women but most of these pieces of legislation are just ceremonial- they are not effectively implemented.
The issue of gender relations does not affect men and women only. In most African countries homosexuality is illegal. Homosexuals are seen as a minority group and regularly experience discrimination and stigmatisation. Due to that stigmatisation many struggle with defining their own gender identity and the subsequent disclosure thereof. I believe this is because in pre-colonial African traditional culture there was no homosexuality. In states like Buganga homosexuality begun with the coming of Arab traders hence most African nations still uphold the view that homosexuality is not culturally acceptable.
Whilst the situation is like this there is a lot of preaching around integrating culture into development programmes but how do we effectively integrate culture and some of its aspects like the ones mentioned above into development programmes that equally benefit all citizens of a country?
Culture is that which makes us who we are. It shapes the way we think, walk, talk and relate to each other. It affects our decision making process.
United Nations organs are some of the organisations that have come to an understanding of the pivotal role that culture plays in development. I am especially interested in an approach to integrate culture in development that is being used by UNFPA. It is called ‘culture lens’ and its purpose is to advance the goals of programming effectively and efficiently with strong community acceptance and ownership. It is an analytical and programming tool that helps policy makers and development practitioners to analyse, understand and utilise positive cultural values, assets and structures in their planning and programming processes, so as to reduce resistance to the ICPD Programme of Action, strengthen programming effectiveness and create conditions for ownership and sustainability of UNFPA programmes, especially in the areas of women's empowerment and promotion of reproductive health and rights.
This programme is very interesting but what I do not understand in this approach is the aspect of positive cultural values. Who decides on what is positive or negative about an aspect of culture? Which instrument is used to measure the positivity or negativity of cultural values? What if that which one views as positive is considered negative by the community practicing that culture?
In this age of globalisation are we not running a risk of having powerful cultures dominating and deciding on positive and negative aspects of culture? This observation is affirmed by James D. Wolfensohn, World Bank President, who says that, "In this time of globalisation, with all its advantages, the poor are the most vulnerable to having their traditions, relationships and knowledge and skills ignored and denigrated, and experiencing development with a great sense of trauma, loss and social disconnectedness."
As long as people talk of positive and negative aspects of certain cultures without clearly defining the criteria which they use to classify those aspects then the discriminatory tendency will continue to exist and that means a risk for developmental programmes.